How do children decide what other people should know?

How do children decide what other people should know? One straightforward strategy is for children to restrict their teaching to information a person does not know. When does this ability develop during early childhood?

To examine whether children’s teaching is guided by their evaluation of what a pupil does versus does not know, we taught 3- to 5-year-old children a simple game and introduced them to four puppets: one puppet who played the game perfectly, two puppets who each made one mistake, and a fourth puppet who made two mistakes (Ronfard & Corriveau, 2016). After watching the puppets play individually, children were asked to rate the puppet’s understanding of the game, and then were invited to teach the puppet. Children who were better able to judge how much each puppet knew restricted their instruction to information the puppets did not know. In contrast, children who struggled to differentiate what the puppets knew were over-informative—they taught the puppets information the puppets already knew as well as information the puppets did not know. Thus, the quality of children’s teaching is influenced by their ability to track what others know and do not know.

However, this ability cannot be the only consideration guiding children’s and adults’ teaching. The differences in knowledge between any two people are vast, and teaching to reduce or eliminate all of those differences would be inefficient and impractical. A more practical approach would be for children and adults to privilege teaching information that is difficult for someone else to acquire on their own, which would save teachers and learners time and effort. Do young children use their first-hand experiences, specifically the manner in which they acquired information on their own, to guide their decisions about what to teach someone else? To answer this question, we taught children between 4- and 6-years of age one of several methods for extracting rewards from a puzzle box (Ronfard, Was, & Harris, 2016). Half the children were also given an opportunity to discover their own method prior to receiving such instruction. Children not given this opportunity always transmitted the method they were taught. Children given an opportunity to explore the box were more selective—they were especially likely to transmit what they were taught if that method was harder to discover than the method they had discovered for themselves. Thus, children selectively transmit information that was taught to them based on their assessment of its value to someone else.

In sum, children’s transmission of information is guided both by their evaluation of what a pupil does versus does not know and by their appraisal of the nature of the knowledge that they are seeking to convey.