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Surprising Science

How Not Being Too Rational Helps Children Learn

In animals of reasonable intelligence, a cause-and-effect logic is naturally present. Children, however, lack a concrete understanding of the world which encourages them to persist and learn. 

What’s the Latest Development?

Just as in Aesop’s fable about the crow and pitcher, where a thirsty crow drops pebbles into a pitcher so the water will rise to the top, birds are able to understand cause and effect to surprisingly high degree. But when the relationship between cause and effect is hidden from the birds’ view in laboratory conditions, they are quickly confused and give up. Recently, psychologists decided to test how ingrained this cause-and-effect logic was in children, who were presumed to be smarter than birds but, given their young age, the degree of their development was an open question. 

What’s the Big Idea?

In an experiment involving a clever arrangement of tubes, in which two wide ones were positioned on either side of a narrow tube, children succeeded where birds failed. “The bottoms of the tubes were hidden, concealing the fact that one of the wide tubes was in fact connected at the bottom to the narrow center tube, whereas the other wide tube stood alone.” Because the cause and effect mechanism was hidden out of view, the operation of the tubes were mysterious to children. “Children start off with no idea of what is possible and what is not possible,” said one of the lead researchers. “If they did, they would never be able to learn. This is why children like magic…”

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