Researcher in Profile: Lucas Butler

By Chia-wa Yeh, Head Teacher and Research Coordinator

How do demonstrations of how something works influence young children’s expectations about how things will work in the future? Does giving children cues about what to pay attention to help them more readily discern the importance of the information? These are some of the research questions Stanford psychology graduate student Lucas Butler and his advisor, psychology professor Ellen Markman, PhD, have been investigating at Bing Nursery School over the past three years.

Research is an integral part of Bing, which serves as a research laboratory for the university and its psychology department. It was the site of 19 studies in the past year.

Butler is a frequent presence in the classrooms interacting with children, often reading books to them or respectfully listening and talking to children about their work. Hundreds of children have participated in his studies.

Butler grew up in Lexington, Mass., a suburb of Boston. He graduated from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in developmental psychology. While at Harvard, Butler worked for three-and-a-half years as a research assistant with professor Susan Carey, PhD, studying the cognitive development of one- and one-and-a-half-year-olds.

Wearing wire-rimmed glasses and with manners that seem ready to strike up a conversation at any time, Butler is congenial and articulate. (He had an eight-month stint working as a barista at Peet’s Coffee and thoroughly enjoyed talking to hundreds of customers each day.) Recently married in May, Butler and his wife Dora, whom he met as a fellow research assistant back at Harvard, enjoy cooking and experimenting with different recipes. Bing staff often spot them shopping for ingredients at local farmers’ markets.

The research question Butler is investigating with Markman is how children make inferences about information and, more important, how the social context in which such information is presented influences how children think about the information. In addition, Butler looks at the effect of social connection on motivation in young children with psychology professor Gregory Walton, PhD.

Butler acknowledges that the type of basic cognitive development studies he conducts are unlikely to have direct applications to raising or teaching children. But they do inform parents and teachers about how children learn and what influences how children think. “I really care about the potential impact of our research, but in the end parents and teachers are the ones who know their children well enough to see how they might be able to apply our findings in the home or classroom,” he said.

Guiding by Asking Questions

In these studies, Butler and Markman investigated children’s abilities to learn about cause and effect (e.g., certain animals make a puppet laugh). Specifically, they looked at how adults might facilitate this kind of reasoning by simply asking a causal question (e.g., “Can you help me figure out what makes Lion [a hand puppet] laugh?”) The researchers found that when they presented children with a simple scenario with only two kinds of animals that they could quite readily figure out which of two animals made the puppet laugh, regardless of whether the researchers had primed the children with a causal question at the start. To make the scenario more similar to what real-life situations might be like, the researchers made the context slightly more complex: They had the puppet clean up his room by picking up a larger number of items and a greater variety of different kinds of animals and objects. With this set-up, the researchers found that children were only able to make the correct causal inference when the researchers had previously asked them whether they could help the researchers figure out the causal problem.

These results suggest that parents and teachers may play an important role in children’s causal learning, and that something as simple as asking children to help figure out a problem may greatly facilitate their causal reasoning abilities.

“There are opportunities in children’s everyday lives to just ask questions to pique their curiosity about certain things. And that may be enough,” said Butler. For example, imagine something unusual happens while an adult and a child walk down the street together. The child may notice it but may not wonder about what’s going on. But he/she would take more of an interest if the adult says, “I wonder why that happened?” or “Why do you think that happened?”

Pedagogical Cues and Children’s Exploration: The Power of Demonstration

The second series of studies Butler conducted at Bing is about pedagogical cues and children’s exploration. The researchers investigate how the act of explicitly demonstrating information for children impacts the inferences they make about that information. Butler and Markman hypothesized children might infer that information that is explicitly demonstrated is more important and more generalizable than that produced accidentally.

To test this, Butler and his research assistants first taught children a novel label (“blicket”) for a novel object, shaped like a small rectangular block in this case. In the teaching condition, researchers got children’s attention by saying, “Look, watch this” while explicitly demonstrating that the blicket was magnetic by picking up paperclips. In the non-teaching condition, researchers acted out an accidental dropping of the blicket on the paperclips and picked up the blicket with paperclips attached to it. Finally, researchers presented children with an additional set of 10 non-magnetic blickets to play with.

Butler and Markman used the intensity of children’s exploration as a measure of their implicit reasoning. They asked: When the researchers intentionally teach children property information about an object (for instance, that a blicket is magnetic), do they raise children’s expectations that other objects of the same kind will have the same property? Butler and Markman hypothesized that if children were surprised that the other blickets were not magnetic, they would spend more time exploring them and trying to get them to work.

Butler and Markman found that children are highly attuned to whether something is taught explicitly, and that this perception guides their assessment of how generalizable the information is. When researchers had explicitly demonstrated that the blickets were magnetic, children were quite surprised that the other blickets were not magnetic, and spent a great deal of time and effort trying to get the other blickets to work. However, when children witnessed the magnetic action only when the researcher “accidentally” dropped the blicket on the paperclips, they were much more accepting of the fact that the other blickets were not magnetic, spending less time exploring them. A follow-up study showed that even when children saw a researcher intentionally use the blicket to pick up paperclips, if the researcher did not appear to be explicitly teaching them, they formed less of an expectation that other blickets should share the property.

“Children are really sensitive to the cues adults give them about the importance or relevance of information that’s out there in the world.” Butler said. “I think that children learn a lot through exploration, but having something demonstrated in a particular way and letting children explore may be an interesting combination of strategies for facilitating children’s learning and guiding their exploration in particular ways.”

Social Connection and Motivation in Young Children

Butler’s third series of studies are with professor Gregory Walton on social connection and motivation. Research shows that sharing intention and sharing a goal is motivating. What Butler and Walton are interested in examining is if it is true for young children as well when the situation is presented in a minimal way. [See page 7 for more information on Walton’s work.]

In the studies, Butler and Walton investigated whether giving children the sense that they are working together with another child on a difficult task would increase their motivation and persistence. In the game room, researchers showed children a one-minute video of another child working on a puzzle. In the non-social condition, researchers told children that this was from a different day, when the other child worked on the puzzle. In the social condition, researchers told children that this was a video of a child who was in another game room right now, working on the puzzle, and that they were working on it together. After seeing the child put in one piece, children were then presented with the identical difficult puzzle, and invited to work on it as long as they liked, up to 10 minutes.

Butler and Walton found that when children had the sense that they were working together with the other child—even when they were not actively engaged in the activity together—they were more persistent, spending over a minute longer trying to finish the puzzle. This suggests children are motivated by the sense that they are engaged in a joint activity.

Inspirations from Bing

Bing provides ample examples and food for thought for Butler. “The kind of questions I’m interested in echoes the approach at Bing” he said. Over the past three years, Butler has spent a great deal of time in the Bing classrooms. He observed closely how teachers ask children questions, demonstrate for children, provide scaffolding/support for children and then let children take the lead and figure things out.

“What the teachers do is really subtle. They are not directing the children but guiding them in a way. Even children who are initially tentative become more comfortable and creative once they realize they have the teachers’ support to help them figure things out, but they also have the freedom to explore and play.” He acknowledges that the approach at Bing often inspires what he does. “It makes me think, ‘That’s such a cool approach. What is it about that approach that seems to work with children?’ It’s interesting to think about why that works and how that works.”