Child Development Research, Insights, and Science Briefs to Your Inbox
Economic and technological changes mean that children’s learning styles, specific to industrialised societies, may spread worldwide.
Intelligent, curious toddlers are easy to spot in Western societies. Typically, they announce themselves with an endless string of “why” questions: “Why are we eating these?”; “Why are we getting in the car?”; “Why are you going to work?” But this isn’t how children’s learning operates in much of the world. We have found that “why” questions, seeking explanations, are actually rare in many places.
Our research shows that children’s learning styles vary significantly around the world. Young children who constantly demand explanations may be particular to industrialised societies. Their approach does not, therefore, represent a universal model of children’s learning.
Shifts in children’s learning
This finding has implications that go beyond rethinking how we should expect intelligent children to behave. It forces us, for example, to consider the likely impacts that globalisation is having – or may soon have – on young children’s learning styles worldwide. That’s because globalisation replicates and spreads conditions which seem to drive how young children in industrialised societies gather knowledge—for instance, as our research shows, through asking “why” questions.
“Very young children adapt their learning strategies to the social and economic systems in which they find themselves.”
Our research involved a unique study of 3- to 5-year-old children’s learning, from four small-scale, traditional communities – Garifuna in Belize, Logoli in Kenya, Newars in Nepal and among Samoans in American Samoa. The data were collected by the psychologist-anthropologist team Ruth and Robert L. (Lee) Munroe. In research I conducted with Lee Munroe and graduate student Heidi Beebe, children’s styles of questioning were compared with those of a group of children from the United States.
Children’s learning: questions in traditional communities
The data came from research projects in each of the five settings, undertaken contemporaneously in 1978-79. The research in the four traditional communities had originally focussed on observing a range of social behaviours but, in the process, the observers collected a sizeable number of questions asked by the children, which we extracted and analysed.
In each setting, we examined two types of questions. The first involved enquiries for information or facts such as “What’s her name?” The second type of questions requested explanations, that is, so-called “why” questions, such as, “Why did you keep the tail on the kite?”
We found no difference in the number of information-seeking questions asked in the four traditional communities, compared with the US sample. In this category, the numbers were similar even when information-seeking questions were broken down in several subgroups – planning questions, those about memory, and those exploring what other people think (“theory of mind” questions).
Children’s learning: fewer “why” questions in traditional communities
In contrast, the second category – explanation-seeking questions – made up fewer than 5 per cent of questions in the traditional sample, compared with 25 per cent in the US sample. That’s a five-fold difference.
Drawing on anthropological literature, we suggest possible reasons for this difference in children’s learning. First, many small-scale, traditional societies have strict hierarchical relationships across generations that give adults greater authority over children. So a child asking lots of “why” questions might be thought of as challenging authority.
Second, these societies tend to have a relatively stable, predictable socioeconomic fabric, often built around agriculture and other subsistence activities. So children’s learning may seldom need explanations as they repeatedly observe connections between adult actions and what is happening in their lives. Impressive techniques of observational learning among children around the world – requiring no questions – have been documented in research by anthropologists and psychologists, including Suzanne Gaskins, Barbara Rogoff, and David Lancy.
Anthropologist Karen Watson-Gegeo has shown how indigenous children in South America observe adults undertaking the complicated task of paddling canoes and are then able to paddle themselves the first time, without formal instruction. In contrast, children in industrial societies have fewer opportunities to observe adults at work.
Another important difference in industrialised societies is the proliferation of objects, devices and technologies, whose purpose may be obscure to the childhood eye. This also tends to prompt explanatory questions as an important part of children’s learning.
Children’s learning styles driven by surroundings
The big picture, highlighted by our findings and other research, is that even when children are very young, their learning strategies adapt to the social and economic systems in which they find themselves and to the resulting technologies that surround them. Intelligence – and its expression – is to some extent a social product. We may race to individualistic interpretations of behaviours such as question asking – seeing it as a mark of superior intelligence or curiosity – when such behaviours may simply indicate how children are trying to fit their knowledge-seeking in with their society and families.
So, for example, even young children recognise how much it is permissible to ask adults about. This is true not only in traditional societies but even in liberal Western societies where “why” questioning by children is prevalent, promoted and praised – but only up to a point. A toddler may quickly learn that asking “Why’s grandpa so fat?” or “Why doesn’t daddy love mummy anymore?” is offensive and off limits.
This cultural variation and adaptability in children’s learning styles highlights that child development is not ahistorical. Children live, develop and learn in their own time, and that is different from their parents’ early learning. So the curious child hasemployed different learning skills at different points in history. Rapidly changing cultures are likely to feature fast–changing approaches to children’s learning.
Globalisation’s hidden impacts on children’s learning
Our findings suggest that we should expect globalisation – given its considerable economic, technological and social impacts – to reach deep into patterns of behaviour in the early years. We can anticipate that it will shift processes of children’s learning and development, particularly in the non-Western world.
“Globalisation replicates conditions which seem to drive how young children in industrialised societies gather knowledge.”
My expectation is that children’s ways of gathering information that are rooted in authority relationships may be more resistant to change than are approaches that respond to new technologies, such as computers. Children’s questions that remain off limits even in Western societies show how authority can still hold sway in families, even as features of the modern, technological world swirl around them.
Child development research may miss impact
We may need to open our eyes to these likely changes in children’s behaviours worldwide, which research could easily miss. That’s because childhood research is largely focussed on industrialised countries and their relatively small populations of children whose learning styles have, in general, already been greatly transformed by post-industrial economies, technologies and liberal family cultures. It’s tempting to assume that our children’s learning strategies, shaped by these forces, are those of the rest of world. Our research suggests that they aren’t. So we might fail to spot what’s changing – or soon likely to change – in the early lives of many of the world’s children and their families.
Amid all this flux, what should parents try to hold onto and to achieve? It’s important to think about activities that used to take place and that could still occur in conjunction with, for example, new technological learning tools to provide for children’s learning. Books did not make parents’ storytelling redundant. Likewise, Mom and Dad can still claim a place in children’s learning even amid digital technologies, by sharing and talking about what can be discovered on screen. That way, children’s learning will continue to be driven by familial, social interactions and relationships and not just by the new global technology.
Gauvain M & Munroe RL (2019), Children’s experience during cultural change, Child Development Perspectives, 13.1
Gauvain M, Munroe RL & Beebe H (2013), Children’s questions in cross-cultural perspective: A four-culture study, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44.7
Gauvain M & McLaughlin H (2016), Contamination sensitivity among children and adults in rural Uganda, International Perspectives in Psychology, 5.3