Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

The Roots of Critical Thinking: Selective Learning Strategies in Childhood and Their Implications

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

The Roots of Critical Thinking: Selective Learning Strategies in Childhood and Their Implications

Article excerpt

To many individuals, including professionals and the general public, the word "learning" conjures the mental image of a classroom or other formal educational setting. Yet, learning is a lifelong phenomenon that, far from being restricted to the classroom, is a constant process in the life of any human being. On a daily basis, we learn about changes in our physical surroundings ("Oh look, I didn't know they were building a new high rise here!"); our social worlds ("Is Jessica dating Jordan now?"); about how various things and systems function ("This is an interesting article about the merits and drawbacks of various electoral systems.") and about events both near and far away ("Has there been a terrorist attack again?"). The capacity for learning and adaptation to a wide variety of circumstances has been hypothesised to be one of the greatest strengths of the human species.

Individuals can learn through direct interaction with the world around them, however a lot of information is instead acquired second-hand, via the claims of other people, printed sources such as books and websites, and various other media. Of course, not all sources of information are equally valid. For instance, a person may communicate with others fully intending to convey accurate information, but instead spread erroneous information because they are themselves mistaken or possess outdated knowledge. A person could also intentionally mislead others for various purposes: personal gain, mischief, or plain disregard for accuracy, among numerous potential motives. Sources of information with wildly diverse degrees of reliability have always existed; yet, concern about unreliable sources and their negative impacts on knowledge has increased manifold recently along with the sheer volume of inaccurate information that is available, especially on unregulated platforms such as the Internet (e.g., Hunt, 2016). Thus, in today's world, people are constantly risking being misinformed rather than informed. Arguably, being able to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of information is as essential to the learning process as is the ability to acquire information in the first place.

Critical evaluation of sources can appear complex, and yet some early abilities in this domain are present very early in life. Indeed, as will be reviewed in this article, infants and children have the capacity to discriminate between different sources of information and show clear preferences for learning from some sources rather than others long before formal education begins. These early abilities are of course not as sophisticated as those of adults, but they nevertheless form an impressive foundation on which more advanced critical evaluation strategies could potentially be built with input from parents and educators alike.

This paper summarises existing research on the topic of selective learning in early childhood. The past two decades have seen an explosion of research on this topic, showing that children, particularly during the preschool years, can take into account a variety of attributes when deciding from whom to learn. Some of these attributes can be seen as reliability indicators, such as a source's past accuracy (i.e., all else being equal, it is likely preferable to accept information from a person-or a media source- that has been accurate in the past rather than from one with a history of dubious claims). Other attributes, such as familiarity or ingroup status of individuals, are used by children to discriminate between sources and may sometimes risk playing against any critical evaluation skills that children possess. To date, the knowledge that has been accumulating on this topic has mostly circulated between researchers working on the basics of early socialcognitive development. However, understanding the evaluative biases that young children hold before they even begin formal education can be informative for researchers in a variety of fields. …

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