Virtual 7-year-old helping researchers learn how real kids' thinking develops

June 29, 2000

To test theories about the specific ways in which children's thinking develops as they mature, researchers are using a cyberkid -- a computer simulation -- that strategizes and makes choices when building a pyramid from blocks about as well as a real 7-year-old child.

Dr. Frank E. Ritter, Penn State associate professor of information sciences and technology and associate professor of psychology, explains that the cyberkid consists of a simulated eye that can see and a simulated hand that can manipulate 21-interlocking blocks on a computer screen. A computer model, software in which knowledge is represented as facts and rules, controls the behavior of the hand and eye in building a pyramid from blocks. The simulation is similar to a real task, with real blocks, with which real children's learning has been studied.

In a recent journal article, the researchers explain that building a pyramid is an ideal task for studying development because it illustrates how children's problem-solving behavior changes across ages.

"Older children accomplish more correct construction, produce fewer incorrect constructions and take less time than their younger counterparts. The physical nature of the task enables detailed timing data to be recorded and allows many strategies to be readily visible, reducing the need for the experimenter to infer mental structures and strategies," they write.

The researchers began their study by developing a computer model that built pyramids at the performance level of adults. They then modified the model in several ways based on different theories of development. This allowed them to see which theory best matched the behavior of real 7-year-old children.

Changing the way the adult computer model chooses its construction strategies most closely matched the actual behavior of real 7-year-old children. The finding suggests that 7-year-old thinking improves more in strategy selection as the child grows toward adulthood rather than in the number of facts that can be processed simultaneously or how many facts can be recalled at one time -- which the researchers also tested with their computer model.

Ritter says the study shows "We can test theories of development in ways we could not before. Using cyberkids can assist in understanding what develops in real children and will have implications for education and parenting."

In their journal article, the researchers add, "With additional work, models of other ages and other tasks can be created. These models will be able to explain individual differences within age groups, as well as the progression between ages (in terms of differences between the models rather than transition mechanism, for the moment). In both cases the models should be able to highlight the knowledge differences or architectural changes that lead to the differences in behavior."

They add," The next step is to carry out further independent modifications of the model, and then examine interactions by including two or more modifications within the same model. The effects of interacting modifications are expected to be stronger than the effects of individual modifications, as they may combine truths from several theories, enabling the model to match the 7-year-old children's behavior better than the individual modifications. This type of work will help to more directly answer the question,'What develops?' "

The study was detailed recently in the paper, "Using A Cognitive Architecture to Examine What Develops" in the March issue of the journal Psychological Science. Ritter's co-authors are Dr. Gary Jones, lecturer at the University of Derby, England, and Professor David J. Wood, Directory of the ESRC Centre for Research in Development, Instruction and Training, School of Psychology, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, England, where Ritter was a faculty member when the study was conducted.

Penn State

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