Recently, Nicole Betz, Ph.D., a former doctorate student candidate in CORE Lab and current postdoctoral researcher at Yale University, and Dr. John Coley, the principal investigator of CORE Lab published a study in Frontiers in Psychology, examining how developmental and experiential exposure to the environment could shape children’s conceptual flexibility in intuitively inducting biological relations.

Conceptual flexibility is our cognitive ability to shift between different ways of thinking about the same things. In this paper, it involves investigating the ability to understand both relating living taxonomic or ecological relations among living things. Betz and Coley were interested in quantifying the change of conceptual flexibility in children from different environments and different engagement with nature by studying how they sorted pictures of local plants and animals. 

This study derives its data from 452 six to ten-year-olds from New England communities in urban, suburban, and rural environments. The participants were given detailed color drawings of plants and animals and asked to “put together the things that go together,” and to explain their groupings. They were then asked if they could put the cards together in a new way. This allowed Betz and Coley to examine which grouping was initially most salient to children and whether they could flexibly produce different groupings when asked.  

The study’s result shows that children overall tend to use taxonomic relations (e.g., forming groups of plants, insects, and birds). Ecological groupings (e.g., meadow, forest, and wetland animals) were more common among children from rural areas and those with more extensive informal experience with nature. As they age, children also better understand that taxonomical and ecological groupings of organisms aren’t mutually exclusive. The findings highlight children’s cognitive flexibility actually benefits from their informal experiences with the environment. In other words, those experiences affect children’s ability to flexibly relate organisms in different ways. 

When asked about the implications of this work for science education, Betz stressed the importance of increasing opportunities for informal experience interwoven into more formal science curricula. Coley conjectured that the ideal science education might be to allow children to freely explore and learn about the environment based on their own interests and then pursue these interests in formal science education with appropriate experts’ guidance.

Betz N and Coley JD (2020) Development of Conceptual Flexibility in Intuitive Biology: Effects of Environment and Experience. Front. Psychol. 11:537672. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.537672