A new study has found that preschoolers can sometimes outsmart grownups when it comes to figuring out how gadgets work because they are more flexible and less biased in their ideas about cause and effect.
According to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley, and the University of Edinburgh, the study’s findings suggest that technology and innovation can benefit from “the exploratory learning and probabilistic reasoning skills that come naturally to young children, many of whom are learning to use smartphones even before they can tie their shoelaces.”
Using a game they call “Blickets,” the researchers looked at how 106 preschoolers, who were four and five, and 170 college students figured out a gizmo that works in an unusual way.
They did this by placing clay shapes, such as cubes, pyramids, and cylinders, on a red-topped box to see which of the widgets — individually or in combination — could light up the box and play music. The shapes that activated the machine were called “blickets.”
What separated the youngsters from the adults was their response to changing evidence in the blicket demonstrations, according to the researchers. For example, unusual combinations could make the machine go, and the children caught on to that rule, while the adults tended to focus on which individual blocks activated the machine, even in the face of changing evidence, the researchers noted.
“The kids got it,” said UC Berkeley developmental psychologist Dr. Alison Gopnik.
“They figured out that the machine might work in this unusual way and so you should put both blocks on together. But the best and brightest students acted as if the machine would always follow the common and obvious rule, even when we showed them that it might work differently.”
“Overall, the youngsters were more likely to entertain unlikely possibilities,” she added.
She noted that this confirmed the researchers’ hypothesis that preschoolers and kindergartners instinctively follow Bayesian logic, a statistical model that draws inferences by calculating the probability of possible outcomes.
“One big question, looking forward, is what makes children more flexible learners — are they just free from the preconceptions that adults have, or are they fundamentally more flexible or exploratory in how they see the world?” added Christopher Lucas, Ph.D., lead author of the paper and a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.
“Regardless, children have a lot to teach us about learning.”
The study was published in the journal Cognition.