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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 16-Jul-09


Friday 16-July-09

Models, learning and the child inside

Models, learning and the child inside

We understand the world through mental models or 'schema' whereby we simplify our experiences into models that can be used to explain and predict, and so help us decide what to do next.

This 'model thinking' also helps explain how we learn. A number of descriptions about how we learn use 'stage theories', where the idea is that we go through periods of relative stability then learn in sudden jumps rather than a smooth sequence. What seems to be happening is that we cannot accept new ideas or explain experiences unless we can either fit then into our existing models or entirely revise our model set. Stage transition would seem to be of the latter variety when we realize that a whole bunch of linked models are no longer valid, for example when the penny drops for teenagers that the world is not there solely there for their benefit and that they have to provide for themselves by their own hard work.

Dreaming has been implicated in this process as we integrate learning into existing models. So 'sleeping on it' can be a useful and important strategy for mulling over new ideas.

Famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget developed learning stage theory and believed that you could assess a child's current stage by the mistakes they make on carefully designed tasks. This has been duplicated for adults by researcher Gaelle Leroux and colleagues who scanned the brains of adults performing one of these tasks.

The 'conservation of number' test puts two rows of counters in front of the subject and asks 'Which contains more counters?' Of course you can have a longer row with less counters by spacing them out more. Children less than about seven will use the heuristic 'length = size = number and so easily get it wrong.

Leroux found adults took longer when the longer row might have less counters. When the task was more difficult, more areas of the brain lit up as the subject thought harder about the problem, notably frontal regions such as the middle frontal gyrus and anterior cingulate cortex, which are involved in inhibitory control. This inhibition may well be suppression of impulses to use the 'length=size' heuristic, left over from childhood.

It is also interesting to note that these inhibitory areas develop later in a child's life and serve as 'maturity controls' suppressing rather than eliminating earlier ways of thinking. It is also maybe scary to think that there is a child locked up in each of us, though for creative potential it is also quite exciting.

Ga?le Leroux, Jeanne Spiess, Laure Zago, Sandrine Rossi, Am?ie Lubin, Marie-Ren? Turbelin, Bernard Mazoyer, Nathalie Tzourio-Mazoyer, Olivier Houd? Marc Joliot (2009). Adult brains don't fully overcome biases that lead to incorrect performance during cognitive development: an fMRI study in young adults completing a Piaget-like task. Developmental Science, 12 (2), 326-338


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