Caren Walker

2018 Hellman Fellow

Assistant Professor, Psycology
UC San Diego


Project Title:

Diversity in Learning Contexts & the Emergence of Abstract Reasoning

Caren Walker is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of California San Diego, and director of the Early Learning & Cognition Laboratory. She received her Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley in 2015. Dr. Walker’s research is in the area of cognitive development, which examines the various learning mechanisms underlying knowledge acquisition and change. Her work addresses basic questions about the nature of mental representations in human cognition, and she is particularly interested in the early development of abstract thought.

Project Summary: Children’s ability to acquire and apply relational same-different concepts is often cited as a defining feature of human cognition, providing the foundation for abstract thought. Yet, young learners often struggle to ignore irrelevant surface properties to attend to structural similarity instead. This has led to the widespread belief that the ability to engage in abstract reasoning may be late-developing. In contrast, growing evidence suggests that even very young children have—and retain—relational competence, but tend to neglect abstract, similarity due to a learned bias to attend to objects and their properties. That is, although children have access to both abstract and concrete concepts, they may fail to prioritize relational information. If so, consistent differences in the focus on objects or relations in a child’s learning environment could create distinct patterns of abstract reasoning.

This project aims to identify those conditions under which relational information becomes privileged, relevant, and available for transfer in early learning. In particular, planned studies will examine the role of systematic differences in linguistic and cultural contexts (specifically, between the U.S., China, South Korea, and Mexico) on the developmental trajectory of relational reasoning, and explore the mechanisms underlying these differences. This research tests the hypothesis that early deficiencies in relational reasoning result from a difference in tendency, rather than a lack of ability, and that the development of abstract thought may be far more malleable and context-sensitive than previously thought.

This research takes the potentially transformative approach of exploring how diversity in learning contexts impacts the emergence of abstract thought, challenging the prevailing view that children’s reasoning progresses in a fixed, universal manner. This work also responds to an increasing need for cross-cultural examinations of the development of representational capacities, which is heavily skewed towards Western cultural contexts. Findings will contribute to our understanding how regularities in the environment may set the developing system on different learning trajectories. This research also has clear applications for informing educational practices. In particular, establishing early competence in relational reasoning will provide an incentive and a starting point for re-imagining learning experiences designed for young children.