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MIT Baby Lab: What Stifles Curiosity?

  • Nancy DuVergne Smith

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Gabriella, 5, plays with the researchers' toy in the PlayLab at Boston's Children's Museum. Photos: Patrick Gillooly

Curiosity is a curious thing, according to Laura Schulz, class of 1943 career development associate professor of cognitive sciences. In MIT's Early Childhood Cognition Lab, she and her colleagues have gone beyond the obvious (yes, all babies are curious) to explore the conditions that turn off—or turn on—curiosity and, thus, creativity. Several of her findings can be applied to education at many levels.

In a Huffington Post article, Schulz explains:

"I think there are two different things that can provoke curiosity. The simplest one is a violation of your prior beliefs. You go [into an experience] with a certain expectation that 'this is the way the world is,' and then you see some evidence that's inconsistent with that."

…. The other time you might be curious is if you see evidence that fails to distinguish [among] competing beliefs. There are many things that might be true, and the evidence just doesn't determine which one is the case."

This second example, which she calls confounded information, is a clear curiosity driver. In one experiment, a child and a researcher each pulled down a lever on a toy jack-in-the-box, which produced two 'jacks' emerging from the top. Because the child could not tell if she caused the action or the researcher did, the information was confounded. If a new toy was introduced, the child would return to the familiar toy to keep working on the problem. In contrast, if a child was the only one to pull down the lever to produce the double jacks, the cause and response was clear. When a new toy was introduced, this child would go for the novel new toy. The first child, who persisted with the first toy, was more likely to find new features on the original toy and develop a deeper understanding of its functions.

The impact on education is clear: Explicit instruction makes children less likely to engage in spontaneous exploration and discovery. At experiments at the Children's Museum and the Museum of Science, both in Boston, Schultz and her team introduced a novel toy in four different ways. Children introduced to the toy in the most explicit way failed to discover any new functions; children who received less instruction or supervision tended to find one or two new functions on their own.

In another study, Schultz and her team showed that 16-month-old infants can, based on very little information, make accurate judgments of whether a failed action is due their own mistake or to circumstances beyond their control.

Want to know more about Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences' Baby Lab work?

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