Project Detail
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Children's causal learning and developing knowledge of mechanisms  

The world is full of causal knowledge that children must discover. While there is little doubt that children learn physical, psychological, and biological knowledge at an amazing capacity, there is only a modest understanding of how children represent this causal knowledge or learn new causal relations. With support from the National Science Foundation, Dr. David Sobel examines the idea that a particular computational framework serves as a model for representing and learning causal knowledge. Preliminary investigations for this study have demonstrated that preschoolers engage in causal inferences according to the premises of this model. Dr. Sobel seeks to extend these findings to toddlers and infants. This would demonstrate that children possess sophisticated causal reasoning abilities from very early ages and would map out a description of how children represent their causal knowledge. Dr. Sobel also suggests a particular algorithm that describes how causal learning takes place. He will investigate children's use of this algorithm when learning both physical and psychological knowledge. This would demonstrate why particular developmental differences in causal learning abilities are present during the infant and preschool years. Much recent research and contemporary thinking suggests that children take an active role in constructing knowledge of their environment. Exactly how children do this is still a mystery. Understanding how children represent and learn causal knowledge should enable researchers to determine how to promote such learning. This would allow us to design better interventions for education, particularly for science education. Understanding how environmental factors contribute to causal learning would shed insight into how negative factors could be reduced. This could prevent children from becoming at-risk learners early in life. Finally, many developmental disorders have been diagnosed by citing that children lack particular causal reasoning abilities (such as psychological knowledge in the case of autism). Understanding how children acquire such causal knowledge might enable us to determine why children with autism (and other at-risk populations) do not acquire such cognitive abilities. Project Status


Funder National Science Foundation
Fiscal Year Funding $55,308.60
Current Award Period 2005-2010
Project Number 518161
Principal Investigator Sobel, David
Received ARRA Funding? No
Strategic Plan Question Question 2: How Can I Understand What Is Happening? (Biology)
Subcategory Cognitive Studies
Strategic Plan Objective 2O. Not specific to Question 2 objectives
Federal or Private? Federal
Institution Brown University
State/Country Rhode Island
Web Link 1 Children's causal learning and developing knowledge of mechanisms (External web link)
Web Link 2 Children's causal learning and developing knowledge of mechanisms (External web link)
Web Link 3 No URL available.
History/Related Projects N/A