I Know (That) Therefore I Think: Preschoolers' Understanding of Knowing That, Knowing How and False BeliefSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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Children are often in the position of "not knowing that" or not knowing how something works, of seeing others who know more and are more accomplished than they are, of having others show and tell them new as-yet-unknown things. Children's understanding of states of knowing is part and parcel of their theory of mind (their understanding of people's mental states) and of their metacognition-their cognition about cognition.
Consider, for example, what happens when you show someone a package with a bright and familiar wrapper such as M&Ms or Skittles. When asked what's inside, even three-year-olds answer, "candy," demonstrating that they know what such packages usually contain. So, when shown a candy bag that contains pencils instead of candy, three-year-olds are just as surprised as you and I. Nonetheless, when asked what they had thought before they looked inside or what another person, who had never looked inside the bag, would think, three-year-olds almost universally answer "pencils." It is almost as if three-year-olds assume that what they now know is what they have always known and that whatever knowledge they have is also what other people have. Four- and five-year-olds, however, begin to realize that this is not necessarily true and that other people would make mistaken assumptions about the contents of the bag if exposed only to its outer appearance and not to the actual contents.
Young children's failures on such tasks are often explained in terms of their lack of a representational theory of mind. This task, in particular, is difficult for young children because of "false belief"-realizing that the reality of a situation may be different from one's own or another's (initially false) belief. During the toddler and early preschool years, children are said to understand themselves and others in terms of their desires-who wants and likes what- but not in terms of their thinking, beliefs and knowledge states-who knows and thinks what.
In spite of voluminous research on false belief tasks and children's early theory of mind, much is still unknown about children's understanding of knowing and thinking. In addition, research in this area has suffered from two important limitations. First, almost all studies of children's understanding of knowing have focused on their knowledge of facts-often called knowing-that. "Knowing that" (or thinking that) the candy package contains pencils, knowing where your car is parked, knowing who is president of China, are examples of knowing-that broadly construed. However, knowing-that, or declarative knowledge, contrasts with knowing-how, or the procedural knowledge that underlies skilled action. Knowing how to tie one's shoes or how to use a cell phone are examples of knowing-how. A second limitation of present research on children's theory of mind is that most research on children's understanding of knowledge and belief has been conducted with Anglo-European children, and most often with English-speaking children.
For these reasons, the cultural impact upon children's understanding of knowledge was the focus of several studies conducted together with colleagues in the Department of Psychology and Center for Human Growth and Development at the U-M as well as at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Beijing. We examined children's understanding of several different aspects of knowledge and the relationships between such understandings and the cultural and linguistic factors involved.
Mandarin, or Putonghua, is the native language of over 800 million people in mainland China, four million in Taiwan and another million in Singapore; Cantonese is the common spoken language of roughly six million people in Hong Kong (HKSAR Census and Statistics Department, 2001) and another 52 million people in Guangdong province in China. Certain aspects of these languages as well as Chinese cultural values, may impact when children begin to develop their early understandings of knowing and thinking.
Cultural and Linguistic Aspects to Knowing
Both English- and Chinese-speaking toddlers acquire the word for "know" as one of their earliest mental state verbs for talking about beliefs, and they talk about "knowing" more than "thinking" or other belief terms until at least the age of four. There are differences, however, in how different types of knowing are referred to in these languages. In English, the verb "to know" can be used to refer to a variety of different kinds of knowledge in everyday speech. For example, it is possible to say that one "knows that" a particular article exists, that one "knows" the person who wrote it, and that one "knows how" to read it. Chinese languages, by contrast, use different verbs for different types of knowing, with one verb used primarily for "knowing that" (zhi1dao4 in Mandarin, zi1 in Cantonese) and another for "knowing how" (neng2/hui4 in Mandarin, sik1 in Cantonese). Moreover, both Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking children start talking about both types of knowing at roughly the same age, using the verbs appropriately to refer to the different types of knowing with roughly equal numbers of references to each type.
English-speaking children also talk about both types of knowing in the preschool years, but talk about "knowing that" much more than they talk about "knowing how." There also appear to be cultural differences in parents' and educators' focus on different types of knowing such that Chinese children may receive more emphasis on "knowing how" than their American counterparts. As just one example, all over China, including both Hong Kong and Beijing, music and book stores are filled with amusing and colorfully illustrated tapes, CDs and books of Tang dynasty poems to teach to young children. Even very young toddlers are judged on their intelligence and verbal skills by the number of Tang dynasty poems that they can recite and how well they recite them. It is not enough for a child to know that a poem exists (zhi1dao4 or zi1) or even to know its title and words, rather he/she must "know how" (hui4 or sik1) to actually perform it in order to claim such knowledge. Precise recitation and the ability to perform with feeling and actions for both songs and poems is highly emphasized in preschool curricula and in children's homes, as are a variety of other "know-how" skills such as folding one's blanket after a nap, tying one's shoes, and, in Hong Kong, learning to write both Chinese characters and English letters at the age of three.
There are also differences across the three languages in how "knowing" is referred to. In Mandarin, the concept of "knowing how" is composed of two separate verbs, "hui" and "neng," whereas "knowing that" is referred to only by "zhidao." In Cantonese, the verb for "knowing how" is "sik," which can mean both to "know how" and to "recognize" or to know a person, and the verb for "knowing that," "zi," shares the same character as the first part of the Mandarin verb.
In English, however, "knowing" is polysemous and conflates all three types of knowing (knowing that, knowing how and knowing someone or some place) into one verb for "know."
What does "Knowing" Entail?
In our examination of children's understanding of knowing-that and knowing-how, we consider several important aspects of an understanding of knowing, including children's understanding of the influence of exposure on knowledge states, children's ability to monitor the accuracy or completeness of their knowledge, and children's understanding of the influence of exposure to different knowledge sources and being able to remember the sources from which their knowledge was obtained.
Thinking versus Knowing
In conversational interactions, Chinese parents and children talk about knowing as frequently as US children, but both parents and children talk much less about thinking. In contrast, English-speaking mothers use the term "think" more often than the term "know" when talking to their preschool-aged children. US parents also spontaneously report that even young infants think, but Chinese parents say the advent of thinking comes much later, signaling a potentially important difference in cultural ethno-theories of children and children's cognition. Thus we were also interested in comparing children's developing conceptions of knowledge and thinking.
An Experimental Study of Children's Knowing and Thinking in Beijing, Hong Kong and the US
A rigorous test of the hypothesis that Chinese and American children's developing understandings of knowing may differ requires strict empirical validation. To that end, we conducted a study of children's understandings of knowing-that, knowing-how, and thinking with 72 three-, four- and five-year-old preschoolers in each of three locations: Ann Arbor, Beijing and Hong Kong.
In order to test the children's understanding of knowing-that, they were first shown a set of drawers and were asked, "Do you know what's inside?" If the children claimed that they "did not know" at this pre-exposure phase they were then either shown or told the contents of the drawer. However, if they claimed to "know" the contents of the drawer, they were asked to name what was in the drawer. If the children answered incorrectly, they were told, "No, there isn't [X] inside," and were either shown or told the contents of the drawer. After they were either shown or told the contents of the drawer, children were again asked if they "know" (zhi1dao4/zi1) what was in the drawer they were just exposed to. If children stated the contents of the drawer correctly, they were then asked how they learned what was in the drawer, whether they were "shown" or "told" what was in it.
To test children's understanding of knowing-how, we created a task that was structured in the same way as the knowing-that tasks. The knowing-how tasks consisted of two simple but seemingly impossible tricks that the children were presumed not to know how to do before being taught by the experimenter, but were able to learn easily once the trick had been demonstrated or explained. One such trick involved turning a green line into a purple line (color-changing task). The other trick involved cutting a straw in half width-wise while not cutting a string that ran through the entire length of the straw.
Finally, to test children's understanding of "thinking," two different false-belief tasks were used: an unexpected contents and a change of locations task (see story board pictures, inset). For the change of locations task, children were shown an eight-page picture book with simple line drawings that show one child (Sally) hiding a ball and another child (Ann) moving the ball to a different location unbeknownst to the first child. Then, when the first child comes back, the children were asked, "Where does Sally think her ball is?"
Overall, children's performance increased steadily, across all samples, with age. That is, the five-year-olds were much better on all tasks than the three-year-olds. However, the three groups of children did not improve on all tasks at the same rate. Specifically, the performance on both knowing-that and knowing-how were comparable across all three samples at all ages, whereas their performance on false belief was not. In particular, relative to their performance on the other tasks and to the Chinese children, US children appeared to be particularly good at false belief.
Relative to knowing-that, children in all three locations are also significantly poorer at understanding knowing-how. For Chinese children, understanding thinking (in the form of false belief judgments and tasks) is also clearly poorer than understanding knowing-that. Indeed, it is poorer than understanding knowing-how, because Chinese children's knowing-how scores are above chance whereas their false-belief scores are at-chance. For US four- and five-year-olds, the pattern is different-false-belief understanding is above chance, and indeed their false-belief scores are significantly greater than those of Chinese children in either Hong Kong or Beijing. Interestingly, this differential performance on false belief stands out against a background of very comparable performance across all three groups for understanding knowing and especially knowing-that.
This result shows important differences in the sequencing of fundamental concepts relevant to a theory of mind across children from different cultures and provides insight into how culture, language and other environmental factors may impact children's developing theory of mind. In particular, the US children develop false-belief concepts earlier than the Chinese children, but all children develop concepts of knowing-that and knowing-how at about the same age. This outcome resulted in an apparent reversal of the sequencing of the different types of tasks across the Chinese and American samples in the overall analysis. The findings thus suggest that there is a fundamental difference in when different concepts emerge, relative to each other, in different cultures.
Thinking, in America, is a central construct for an understanding of mind, even for young children. In contrast, in China, knowing is much more emphasized and thinking appears later developmentally.
These differences in emphases on "thinking" versus "knowing" may well stem from related differences in adults' theories of mind in these two cultures. Hansen (1983, 1989) for example contrasts the Greek traditions of emphasis on beliefs and representations (on which contemporary Western folk and academic psychologies are based) with the "philosophical psychology" of ancient China, which was concerned more with guiding action and coordinating social interaction. Specifically, Munro (1969, 1977/2000, 1996) emphasizes that both classic, Confucian concepts, as well as more modern, Maoist and contemporary concepts, see knowledge as that which allows for correct actions in accordance with one's place in society, rather than abstract notions of truth and falsity. Nisbett and colleagues (Nisbett, Peng, Choi, & Norenzayan, 2001) further highlight differences between "thinking" and "knowing" in their review of everyday epistemological concerns and present empirical data to support such distinctions from a number of recent studies. Thus, the issue of cultural preferences for ways of mind based on knowing versus thinking is a hypothesis in need of further testing, but it is in accord with extant conversational data and with the current findings.
In summary, this type of "interaction" effect of culture and task, rather than a "main effect" difference is complex and requires that our reasoning about cultural differences in theory of mind (as well as other developmental topics) take on a new subtlety and complexity as well. Furthermore, it is important also to consider that the differences are likely to be multiply determined-the products of linguistic differences, daily patterns of living and cultural beliefs and practices.
Some Suggested Readings
Bartsch, K., & Wellman, H.M. (1995). Children Talk about the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hansen, C. (1983). Language and Logic in Ancient China. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Hansen, C. (1989). "Language in the Heart-Mind." In R.E. Allison (Ed.), Understanding the Chinese Mind: The Philosophical Roots (pp. 75-124). London:Oxford University Press.
Lillard, A. (1998). "Ethnopsychologies: Cultural Variations In Theories Of Mind." Psychological Bulletin, 123, 3-32.
Munro, D.J. (1969). The Concept Of Man In Early China. Stanford, CA:Stanford University Press.
Munro, D.J. (1977/2000). The Concept Of Man In Contemporary China. Ann Arbor, MI: Center for Chinese Studies and University of Michigan Press.
Nisbett, R.E., Peng, K., Choi, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2001). "Culture And Systems Of Thought: Holistic Versus Analytic Cognition." Psychologial Review, 108, 291-310.
Tardif, T., & Wellman, H.M. (2000). "Acquisition Of Mental State Language in Mandarin- And Cantonese-Speaking Children." Developmental Psychology, 36, 25-43.
Twila Tardif received her PhD from Yale University in 1993 and was a postdoctoral fellow in the Michigan Society of Fellows and visiting assistant professor in Michigan's Department of Psychology from 1993-1996. She is now director of the Culture and Development Program at the Center for Human Growth and Development and associate professor in the Department of Psychology after having spent the past five and a half years as a faculty member in the Department of Psychology, Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is the founding editor of the Journal of Psychology in Chinese Societies and an International Institute Sponsored Appointment.