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Cognitive Development, Culture, and Conversation: Comments on Harris

and Koenigs Truth in Testimony: How Children Learn about Science

and Religion
Maureen A. Callanan
University of California, Santa Cruz
Harris and Koenig make a compelling case for the importance of adult testimony and its influence on chil-
drens developing conceptions of topics in science and religion. This commentary considers how their analysis
relates to constructivist and sociocultural theories and discusses several ways in which Harris and Koenigs
arguments help to debunk some prevalent assumptions about research on the social context of cognitive de-
velopment. Finally, a number of additional issues are raised for debate and discussion, and some critiques and
suggestions for future research are discussed. The issues discussed by Harris and Koenig are crucial if we are to
take seriously the importance of culture in cognitive development.
Harris and Koenig have provided a thought-pro-
voking and compelling analysis regarding the role of
adult testimony in childrens developing concep-
tions of the world around them. This paper makes
the important point that cognitive development does
not happen in isolation, that childrens thoughts are
connected in crucial ways to the language they hear
around them. The focus on science and spirituali-
tyFclearly contrasting categories in Western aca-
demic thoughtFsets the stage for an interesting
debate about the importance of culture, community,
and activity in cognitive development.
In this commentary I will first discuss the reasons
why this argument about the role of testimony is a
timely and relevant one, and I will then focus on
three key points made by Harris and Koenig that I
see as debunking erroneous assumptions about re-
search on the social contexts of cognitive develop-
ment. Finally, I will discuss four points about how
this approach can be expanded further, perhaps in an
even more radical direction.
Why Is There a Need to Argue for the Importance
of Testimony?
An initial reaction one might have to this paper is
that it is surprising that the thesisFthat children
learn from what adults tell themFis at all contro-
versial in our field of developmental psychology. It is
less controversial, I believe, in the neighboring field
of education. And certainly it is an idea that seems
self-evident to many people outside the academic
study of development. The need for this carefully
argued and persuasive paper perhaps illuminates
how seriously our field has taken Piagets con-
structivist notion of development happening in the
individual mind of the child.
Harris and Koenig begin with Piagets construc-
tive process but deviate from his emphasis on first-
hand observation in focusing on how children use
evidence from testimony. Indeed in some do-
mains, as they point out, the relevant types of ob-
servation are impossible.
In mainstream cognitive developmental psychol-
ogy, claims about the social contexts of childrens
development are sometimes rejected as outside of
the scope of what can account for development. Be-
cause some scholars believe that mechanisms must
be located in the childs mind, input and other
extraneous information are seen only as peripheral
to the true nuts and bolts of development. When
childrens involvement in conversation and activity
are emphasized, in fact, this is sometimes wrongly
interpreted as a view that children are passive in the
process, as if the mechanism for cognitive develop-
ment must be either internal development or exter-
nal transmission.
Harris and Koenig do a persuasive job of showing
why this rigid divide between individualist and
social context theories is neither necessary nor
r 2006 by the Society for Research in Child Development, Inc.
All rights reserved. 0009-3920/2006/7703-0002
My thanks to Nameera Akhtar, Jennifer Dyer-Seymour, Megan
Luce, Jennifer Rigney, Barbara Rogoff, Mark Sabbagh, Deborah
Siegel, Katie Silva, Lara Triona, and Araceli Valle for insightful
comments on a previous draft, and to my lab groupFpast and
presentFfor discussions of the ideas in this commentary.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Maureen A. Callanan, Department of Psychology, Social Sciences
2, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA 95064. Electronic mail
may be sent to callanan@ucsc.edu.
Child Development, May/June 2006, Volume 77, Number 3, Pages 525 530
productive. In doing so, they provide compelling
arguments against three pervasive and erroneous
assumptions about research on the social contexts of
development. These three assumptions are that (1)
focusing on the social context implies a passive child,
(2) focusing on the social context implies a didactic
adult, and (3) conversational explanations are not
useful because they tend to be piecemeal rather
than fully developed.
Debunking Assumptions
Importance of Testimony Does Not Preclude the Active
Role of the Child
One of the key pieces of Harris and Koenigs ar-
gument is the evidence suggesting that the influence
of testimony on children does not preclude the active
constructivist thinking of the child. With each of the
case studies they present, Harris and Koenig em-
phasize how children take the information that par-
ents provide and construct a new understanding of
the relevant concept. For example, in their discussion
of childrens developing understanding of the brain,
Harris and Koenig state:
Their conceptualization is dependent on adult
testimony but it is also evident that children do
not assimilate such testimony in either a piece-
meal or passive fashion. They re-work what they
are told so as to arrive at a coherent conceptual-
ization that permits them to go beyond the explicit
claims or directives that they hear. (p. 9)
Harris and Koenigs view about testimony is re-
lated to a broad set of theoretical traditions that also
contrast with Piagets focus on the individual. Soci-
ocultural theories and cultural historical theories
(Cole, 1996; Rogoff, 2003), inspired by Vygotsky
(1978), take it as given that childrens cognitive de-
velopment occurs within the context of meaningful
everyday activity; related work situates language
development in activity and conversation (Akhtar &
Tomasello, 2000). Research findings in these tradi-
tions support the view that interactions involving
important other people are an essential piece of the
developmental puzzle. These views differ from Har-
ris and Koenigs arguments in important ways that I
will discuss later, but they are consistent with the
general notion that children are both active in their
development and influenced by important people
around them.
Why is it that people so often assume that a re-
search focus on interactions with parents implies a
passive child? Perhaps Vygotskys notion of inter-
nalization inadvertently invites the interpretation that
an emphasis on the social context implies a de-
emphasis on the active child. The term does seem to
imply a one-sided process that calls for little in the
way of interpretation on the part of the child. Indeed,
more recent incarnations of these sociocultural ap-
proaches clarify that childrens interactions with
parents involve the activity of both parent and child.
Rogoffs (2003) notion of guided participation, for ex-
ample, explicitly names two actions in the interac-
tionFthe guidance provided by parents is directly
linked with the active participation of the child. They
are argued to be two inseparable components of the
same situation.
In recent years, perhaps because they start with
such different assumptions about development,
constructivist and sociocultural theories of cognitive
development have appeared to be at a standoff, with
very little opportunity to consider whether there are
testable claims that distinguish the two views and
that can be evaluated with evidence. While Harris
and Koenig do not explicitly address these theoreti-
cal issues, their analysis presented in this paper has
the potential to open up productive discussion re-
garding the role of social interactions in cognitive
development. The assumption that children whose
thinking is influenced by their parents must there-
fore be passive in their own learning begins to break
down in the arguments presented by Harris and
Koenig, as it has in the writings of many sociocul-
tural theorists. In particular, Rogoff (2003) argues
that seeing individual and environment as different
sides of an equation is a fundamentally flawed
perspective. This also fits in with some recent re-
search in the theorytheory tradition. For example,
Woolley, Boerger, and Markmans (2004) recent
study showed that parent child conversations about
a novel fantasy being (the Candy Witch) were an
important component in childrens construction of
their beliefs. Further explication of the ways in which
childrens conversations and experiences influence
their thinking is likely to have important implica-
tions for future developmental theory.
Testimony Involves Subtle Cues in Conversation, NOT
Didactic Teaching
Another very important point made in this paper
involves the argument that much of the impact from
adult conversation is likely to come from subtle cues
rather than from explicit teaching. In other words,
526 Callanan
the assumption that parents are only influential
when they are being didactic is also debunked. Har-
ris and Koenig suggest that parents are less likely to
expound on a topic with their child than they are to
use subtle wording giving implications that may
influence childrens thinking. For example, they
suggest that parents use of matter of fact language
regarding germs, wherein the existence of germs is
assumed, will give children a certain set of expecta-
tions about the nature of germs as an entity. Again,
this important point is consistent with a theme in
sociocultural theory (Rogoff, 2003) and is supported
by a number of important research findings. Carey
and Bartletts (1978) chromium study was one of
the early findings showing that children are able to
learn a new word through a single casual mention in
conversation. More recently, Sabbagh and Baldwin
(2001) found that children are less likely to learn a
new word if the speaker gives a meaning for the
word while also expressing uncertainty. Further-
more, Gelmans (2003) research found that parents
rarely gave detailed explanations about the nonob-
vious properties of objects, but that they did use
many generic phrases (e.g., otters eat fish) and that
these phrases may have an impact on the inferences
that children make. Indeed, Keil (1998) and others
have suggested that perhaps if parents do attempt to
teach their child in a more didactic way, it may not be
as effective.
Interestingly, much of this work seems to suggest
that when parents and other adults are having the
most influence on childrens thinking, they are not
necessarily consciously attempting to teach their
children. Rather, they are going about their daily
activities, using language to communicate about
those activities, and at the same time providing
subtle cues to children about a myriad of topics and
fine-tuning their language to the childs age and
developmental abilities (Bruner, 1983). Harris and
Koenig point out that these subtle uses of language
to communicate goals are apparent in childrens
contributions to conversation as well. They argue,
for example, that when children ask questions of
parents, the act of questioning in itself is an indi-
cation that children look to parents as sources of
Piecemeal Testimony May Not Imply Piecemeal
Avery common criticism of research exploring the
social contexts of cognitive development is the view
that children may learn from conversations with
parents, but that they are just parroting back words
or phrases and do not have a full understanding of
their meaning. Harris and Koenig, again, provide
evidence that this assumption may not be true. They
provide good arguments, in a number of domains,
that children take fragments from adult testimony as
a starting point and go on to create a coherent un-
These arguments are compelling, although I also
believe that it is an open question whether fragments
of explanations are inferior to fully formed expla-
nations. Consistent with Rozenblit and Keils (2002)
notions of explanatory depth (and shallowness), as
well as with the work of DiSessa (1993) and others,
I would argue that cognitive processes may be less a
matter of fully formed and coherent representations
than we tend to suspect. Instead, many explanations
of everyday phenomena may be constructed in
pieces, on the fly, and in the context of ongoing ac-
tivity (see Crowley & Galco, 2001).
Critiques and Comments for the Future
Despite my generally positive reaction to the argu-
ments presented in this paper, I offer four additional
pointsFcritiques of the approach or comments re-
garding ways in which the approach could be ex-
panded in different directions. These include (1) a
comment about the use of the term testimony, (2)
an urging for more attention to the actual conversa-
tions that children participate in, (3) an urging for
further elaboration on the ways in which variation
in cultural practices may have important implica-
tions for this approach, and (4) a discussion about
possible alternative interpretations regarding Harris
and Koenigs distinction between science and reli-
Problems With the Term Testimony
Sociocultural approaches to cognitive develop-
ment suggest that childrens involvement in every-
day activities constitutes development. In other
words, rather than seeing testimony (much like
input) as a variable that enters into an internal
process of development, these views would charac-
terize development as happening in the ongoing
negotiation between children and the important
people in their lives. A possible connotation of the
word testimony is that it is one sided, coming from
the adult to the child. In the work going on in my lab,
we are exploring a somewhat different approach that
is perhaps even further removed from the main-
stream constructivist view. Consistent with socio-
cultural views, we see childrens active dialogue and
Culture and Conversation 527
negotiation with parents as a dynamic process con-
tributed to by both, and as the site where conceptual
change occurs (Callanan, Jipson, & Soennichsen,
2002; Callanan & Sabbagh, 2004). Perhaps the nego-
tiation of meaning that goes on in conversation may
even serve as an important mechanism of cognitive
developmental change. In this approach a word like
testimony would not do justice to the ways in
which parents and children mutually influence one
anothers understanding in conversation.
Testimony also seems to connote deliberateness
and belief in the truth of particular claims. This
seems somewhat inconsistent with Harris and Ko-
enigs point about the subtle cues that children pick
up from parents speech. It may be useful to think of
testimony as one of a number of different ways (both
verbal and nonverbal) that parents language and
activity guide childrens learning.
More Evidence Needed Regarding How Parents Talk to
Perhaps one of the biggest gaps in the current
argument, in my view, is that relatively little atten-
tion is given to naturalistic parent child speech.
Given the goals of this paper, it seems important to
turn to evidence regarding what parents actually say
to children regarding the topics under discussion.
One example is that it would be very interesting to
know whether parents talk about bodily organs in
ways that they were talked about in the Slaughter
and Lyons (2003) training study.
Looking at parents speech may also lead to
framing the research questions differently. For ex-
ample, Valle (2005) found that middle-class U.S.
parents differed from one another in the ways that
they talk with children about evidence, and that
these variations were related to the parents educa-
tional background. For example, Valle gave children
and parents magazine-like articles pointing out some
conflicting claims about food additives and about the
origins of the pyramids. She found that parents with
engineering backgrounds were likely to focus almost
exclusively on scientific methods for obtaining evi-
dence to decide on the value of these claims. How-
ever, parents with science backgrounds focused on
both scientific strategies and alternative strategies
(e.g., intuition, religion) for evaluating claims. And
parents with humanities and other nonscience de-
grees the favored alternative methods (in other
words, focused less on testability).
These findings suggest that there may in fact be a
great deal of variability in how parents talk to chil-
dren about both science and religion content and
about scientific and religious ways of thinking. Im-
portantly, the existence of patterns in these conver-
sations is an empirical question that must be further
More Elaboration Needed Regarding Culture and
Cultural Variation
I would also recommend expanding the explora-
tion of cultural aspects of cognitive development in
the future, as well as focusing more attention on how
we might want to define terms such as culture and
cultural community. Harris and Koenig make
several insightful points about how cultural varia-
tion in the experiences of children around the world
is likely to have profound effects on their notion of
the distinction between scientific and spiritual do-
mains. For example, they describe a hypothetical
study comparing children in a traditional small-scale
town (where children are not likely to hear talk that
questions the existence of God) versus in a more
urban multicultural area. Studies such as this one
would indeed be informative in the quest to uncover
links between how children distinguish science from
spirituality, and how these domains are talked about
in conversation. In Harris and Koenigs analysis,
however, there seems to be an assumption that there
is a clear and objective distinction between the sci-
ence and religion domains, and that it is based in a
distinction between empirical testability and non-
testability. In different cultures, however, the
boundary regarding which content can be thought
about as testable might be drawn quite differently.
Indeed, Valles (2005) research described earlier in-
dicates that, even within middle-class U.S. popula-
tions, there may be important differences in whether
or not families think about and talk about certain
topics in terms of testability.
Valles research also raises a more fundamental
question about what we mean by culture, and
whether cultural variation might exist along di-
mensions other than ethnicity, race, and country of
origin. Sociocultural theories place great emphasis
on shared cultural activities and practices in their
definitions of culture (Cole, 1996; Rogoff, 2003). It is
likely that the conventional ways of talking about
topics such as science and religion vary a great deal
across different communities of practice. A more
comprehensive analysis of culture will need to con-
sider the ways in which these practices vary, and
research that explores these differences will need to
take seriously the implicit assumptions that are often
carried in our methods and measures.
528 Callanan
Is Testability the Key Distinction?
The particular argument that Harris and Koenig
make about how adults language may guide chil-
dren in making the distinction between scientific and
spiritual domains is an intriguing one. This key point
hinges on the idea that children hear a certain type of
talk about scientific unobservables and a different
kind of talk about spiritual unobservables. Harris
and Koenig posit that children hear matter-of-fact
talk about germs, where the existence of germs is
assumed. In contrast, they argue that children are
likely to hear statements regarding belief in or ex-
istence of other entities, such as God or the Tooth
Fairy. The argument, then, is that children are led to
construct a distinction between claims that are open
to empirical check or verification and claims that
cannot in principle be verified. But, somewhat
paradoxically, it is the set of claims that people state
in matter-of-fact ways that are argued to lead chil-
dren to expect empirical testability. In contrast, the
extent to which children encounter people express-
ing doubt about the existence of an entity is argued
to lead children to see that entity or event as one that
is not empirically testable. This intriguing prediction
seems somewhat counterintuitive to me. Further
analysis of both this prediction and the underlying
assumption about how parents speak to children
about such claims will be important next steps in the
elaboration of these ideas.
Harris and Koenig argue that claims about God
and the afterlife cannot easily be construed as
straightforward, empirical data gathered by others
as a proxy for childrens own first-hand observa-
tion. But isnt it possible that some parents might
talk with children in exactly this way about spiritual
claims? In fact, the notion that expressions of doubt
are linked with notions of lack of testability could be
specific to communities (such as the scientific com-
munity) where empirical ways of knowing are
privileged. In some very religious communities,
however, it could be that certainty would be linked
to support from sacred texts, and that everything else
would be discussed with expressions of doubt. In
other words, while parents may express doubt or
certainty in many cultures around the world, the
kinds of entities that are linked with these expres-
sions may vary a great deal. Again, we need to know
more about how such issues are actually talked
about with young children in different cultural
Even if parents do distinguish between the do-
mains in the ways that Harris and Koenig suggest,
there are good reasons to question whether the evi-
dence will support the claim that the scientific and
the spiritual are seen as empirical versus nonem-
pirical domains. On the one hand, there are numer-
ous anecdotal examples of children looking for
empirical tests with regard to fantastical beings, such
as trying to stay awake to see if Santa or the Tooth
Fairy really do arrive. I knew a child whose only
request on a Christmas list was an actual photograph
of Santa taken at the North Pole! Sometimes, it
seems, childrens reaction to hearing differences of
opinion about the existence of beings might be to
become more focused on proof, rather than less so.
On the other hand, in the discussion of the re-
search findings related to childrens understanding
of the brain, researchers ask children questions such
as whether a rabbits brain transplanted into a skunk
would have memories of being a rabbit. Childrens
answers to these questions are taken to indicate
whether they understand the scientific view about
the brain, but are these truly questions that are in the
realm of empirical claims? Similarly (as Harris and
Koenig discuss), talk about death as removing any
capacity for independent movement and agency
seems to potentially be part of the spiritual beliefs in
some cultural communities. Further, I would argue
that it is at least possible that even in Western society,
some parents may express no more certainty about
the existence of such entities as quarks and electrons
than they do of religious entities. These are, of course,
empirical questions, and it will be very interesting to
see which predictions are supported once more data
are available on the actual language children hear
from others and the views that they construct.
One other thought about the centrality of testa-
bility in this approach is that there are a number of
other possible reasons why parents might talk dif-
ferently about spiritual versus scientific matters.
Harking back to the earlier discussion of cultural
practices, for example, conventionality may be a very
important element in determining how different
topics (such as germs vs. God) are discussed. If the
existence of an entity is conventionally accepted in a
cultural community, one might expect very little
discussion about its existence, whereas an entity that
is not conventionally accepted may be discussed in
more depth (Clark, 1995). It could turn out to have
very little to do with expectations about which
entities are verifiable or not.
In sum, there are a great number of provocative
claims made by Harris and Koenig in this paper,
as well as a rich set of ideas that will no doubt be
Culture and Conversation 529
followed up with research. These ideas connect with
themes that have been pursued for some years
within a theoretical perspective outside of main-
stream constructivist approaches. Harris and Ko-
enigs work may encourage fruitful discussion of
these themes across theoretical perspectives, a move
that is likely to be very productive for the field of
cognitive development. Childrens developing un-
derstanding of the scientific and the spiritual world
is a topic that is worthy of our close attention, and it
is a topic that challenges us to take seriously the
ways in which children with widely varying expe-
riences develop into knowledgeable members of
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