When and How Children Use Explanations to Guide Generalizations

AbstractExplanations often highlight inductively rich relationships that support further generalizations: learning that the knife is sharp because it is for cutting, we correspondingly infer that other things for cutting might also be sharp. When do children appreciate that explanations are good guides to generalization? We report a study in which 108 4- to 7-year-old children evaluated mechanistic, functional, and categorical explanations for the properties of objects, and subsequently generalized those properties to novel objects on the basis of shared mechanisms, functions, or category membership. Older children, but not younger children, were significantly more likely to generalize when the explanation they had received matched the subsequent basis for generalization (e.g., generalizing on the basis of a shared mechanism after hearing a mechanistic explanation). These findings shed light on how explanation and generalization become coordinated in development, as well as the role of explanations in young children’s learning.

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