One aspect of my research focuses on the development of imaginative cognition, which includes fictional stories, pretend games, and counterfactual and hypothetical scenarios. Although even very young children can distinguish reality from fiction, little else is known about the nature of their imaginative abilities. How do children think about these non-real representations? When children play pretend games or listen to stories, what principles govern their interactions with these imaginary worlds? And what role does children’s imaginative cognition play in their development? There seem to be close links among the playful uses of imaginative cognition in pretend games and stories and the serious uses of imaginative cognition in future planning and scientific reasoning. Far from being a frivolous childhood activity, then, imaginative play can help to bolster children’s developing reasoning skills.
Current studies on these topics primarily investigate the interplay between imagined representations and reality, particularly how children and adults can learn from non-real sources. Under what circumstances will they take information presented in stories or pretend games and apply it to real life? How is this learning affected by aspects of the story or game itself, or by aspects of the target educational content, or by characteristics of the individual? Discovering more about how children interpret and learn from stories can help to shape more effective early childhood curricula and educational media.
Another research interest deals with the nature of children’s abilities to reason scientifically. This line of work focuses on documenting what children know about science, particularly the practice of science, and what is the nature of their nascent scientific reasoning skills.
This project has important connections to my work on the development of imagination, since both rely on the capacity to make suppositions and to represent possibilities that may not reflect how things really work. Future projects will use stories to teach scientific concepts, taking advantage of the underlying commonalities between imagination and science in order to start children on the path of scientific literacy.
Public Understanding of Science
I have also investigated adults’ knowledge of science and the ways in which a lack of scientific understanding can lead to poor judgments. One major project in this area asked whether adults find certain types of scientific explanations easier to understand or more intuitive than others, finding that people indeed judged certain kinds of explanations (e.g., those that contained reference to neuroscience) more satisfying than others, even when there was no difference in quality. Follow-up studies found that the same effect occurs across scientific disciplines, and even for science experts outside of their domain of expertise.
A second project on this topic investigated adults’ acceptance of publicly controversial scientific topics, particularly evolutionary theory. Because many people resist accepting evolutionary theory as the correct explanation for the origins and diversity of life on Earth, these studies aimed to discover what people understand about this theory, the reasons why they fail to accept it, and the connections between (lack of) understanding and (lack of) acceptance.
As co-director of the Galápagos Education and Research Alliance (GERA), I work with community members in the Galápagos Islands on issues at the intersection education and environmental conservation. Please visit the GERA website to learn more about those projects.