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Caren Walker

University of California San Diego

Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
United States

PhD, Psychology, University of California Berkeley, 2015
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Research Focus

Caren Walker’s research is in the area of cognitive development, which examines the various mechanisms underlying knowledge acquisition and change. Her work explores the emergence of scientific thinking, emphasizing how children learn and reason about causal systems. She is particularly interested in how even very young learners are able to acquire abstract concepts that go beyond their direct observations. This work addresses basic questions about the nature of mental representations in human cognition and considers how environmental cues impose constraints on learning and inference. Caren Walker takes an interdisciplinary approach, combining perspectives in psychology, philosophy, education, and computational theory.

My plans for the fellowship period

Learning requires more than acquiring new knowledge; it depends on the application of that knowledge to new contexts. However, in order for a learner to apply what they know, they must first recognize when transfer is relevant and appropriate. This depends upon relational reasoning: the capacity to go beyond surface cues to identify abstract, structural similarity between events. However, young children often struggle to prioritize abstract similarity over salient, but less informative aspects of the world. This leads to fewer early opportunities to strengthen reasoning, impacting later learning.

As a Jacobs Research Fellow, I will examine how input from the learning environment imposes unique constraints on children’s inferences and identify the conditions under which children privilege abstract relationships. My planned studies will (1) examine the role of systematic differences across cultural contexts on the developmental trajectory of relational reasoning, (2) explore the cognitive biases underlying these naturally-occurring differences, and (3) apply these insights to design educational experiences that capitalize on individual learners’ existing strengths. This research tests the hypothesis that children’s early “deficiencies” result from a difference in tendency, rather than a lack of ability, and that the development of abstract thought is far more malleable and context-sensitive than previously thought.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

My planned research has clear applications for informing educational practice and will help build learning environments that better support learning and transfer. First, this approach challenges the traditional and widely held view that children’s learning progresses linearly from the concrete to the abstract. By establishing early competence in abstract reasoning, these findings will provide an incentive and a starting point for reimagining learning experiences to support children’s recognition of these concepts from an early age. Second, my work is rooted in the hypothesis that learning contexts can facilitate (or suppress) children’s abstract thinking ‒ a critical component of learning in any domain. In fact, relational reasoning abilities in grade school are the strongest predictor of high school STEM achievement. By capitalizing on existing diversity in the expression of abstract thinking across cultures, findings will provide new insight for designing better learning environments to constrain reasoning, support innovation, and guide discovery for the youngest learners.

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