Studying young minds

Research lab explores conceptual development, how children perceive the world

The U of M’s Young Minds Research Lab explores how an individual’s perception of the world changes as they age.

Shaylene Nancekivell, director of the lab and assistant professor of psychology at the U of M, studies conceptual development.

“There’s lots of things in our world that we can’t see or touch,” said Nancekivell. “I can’t see or touch my rights. I can’t hold them in my hands and look at them. I find the problem of how kids learn about things, like belief systems, values, rights, those kinds of things, really interesting.”

She explained that while a child can learn to hold a cup through observation, learning about intangible aspects of life, such as rights, lack the same visual parallels. Understanding how children learn and represent these intangible aspects drives her research.

“The thing I spend the most time studying […] is children’s digital thinking,” she said. Nacekivell expressed interest in exploring at what age children begin to “think that they have rights,” when “they should be entitled to make decisions about their images, their data,” and “what kind of individual differences might exist in their thinking about those types of things.”

A study Nancekivell co-authored examined children’s perspectives on ownership of information they share with apps. As children spend increasing amounts of time on the internet, they often use apps that access personal information about them, including their images, location and name.

Older studies have found that, by six years old, children can appreciate that the first person to come up with an idea owns it. Nancekivell’s study determined that children as young as eight understand that non-physical properties like personal information can also be owned.

Nancekivell emphasized the value of initiating meaningful conversations with young children about consent, data sharing and image sharing.

“If you have kids in your life, don’t underestimate what they can think about and what they learn about digital context,” she said. “My research shows that by seven or eight, kids are really sophisticated thinkers about these things.”

Another focus of Nancekivell’s work aims to help both the general public and students learn about the research process, the scientific method and what it means to test hypotheses.

She highlighted the importance of science, not just as an academic discipline, but as a valuable life skill. Whether allowing an individual to navigate misinformation or making a recipe, an understanding of science is an asset.

“We do science all the time and don’t know it,” she said. “We’re evaluating science all the time and maybe don’t know it.”

In a recent study, Nancekivell and two co-authors explored the widely endorsed myth of learning styles. It is commonly believed that every child has a dominant way of learning, such as visual, auditory or kinesthetic or tactile “hands on” learning. Studies show this myth is unfounded.

Nancekivell found that, despite there being no evidence to support distinct dominant styles of learning, belief in this myth may influence how parents, children and teachers view a child’s academic potential.

In a series of experiments, researchers found that parents, children and teachers view students who learn visually as more intelligent. Visual learners are also seen as more capable in “core” school subjects like math, English and social sciences, and hands-on learners are viewed as more skilled in non-core subjects like gym, music and art.

According to the report, individuals are adviced to exercise caution when characterizing children as hands-on or visual learners. Like other social categories, these classifications are prone to inducing misconceptions about children’s abilities among parents, educators and peers.

Nancekivell encouraged everyone, even those who are not working toward a career in research, to involve themselves in science. Whether it’s volunteering in a lab for a semester, job shadowing or having a conversation with a professor to learn more about their role, engaging in the research community can offer valuable perspective.

“I think that learning about science and how it works is really important,” she said. “There’s a lot of hidden barriers that may make you think that science isn’t for you. If you try it, you might realize it is, and you might find a sense of belonging where you thought you might not.”