GUEST POST: Trusting Teacher: Children’s Evaluation of the Reliability of Informants
By April Schweinhart
Dr. April Schweinhart is a Post-Doctoral Associate in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science at the University of Rutgers - Newark. Her research focuses on understanding early visual processes in the human brain. She previously contributed a guest post on homework.
One of the most frustrating things that I experience in my day to day life is coming across people who have been exposed to misleading information and chose to take it at face value. As human beings, we are very trusting when it comes to receiving information from outside sources, so much, in fact, that to be not-trusting has been given a specific label — skepticism. I think it’s clear that I would call myself a skeptic and I am attempting to raise a child who knows the difference between when to trust and when not to trust the information he gets from a specific source. However, this is a VERY complicated problem for most adults (hence my nearly daily frustration), and it becomes especially complicated for children — beings whose entire life-mission from birth is to learn from ‘teachers’ (formal or informal) in their environment. Research in the field of Epistemic Trust, particularly as it applies to children, is thus really worthwhile.
First, let’s break down what this term refers to.
epistemic (adj): of or relating to knowledge or to the degree of its validation.
trust (noun): firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.
While it is not something that I have studied myself, I’m tangentially involved in the field through my post-doctoral adviser, Dr. Pat Shafto, who has published multiple articles relating to children’s understanding of the trustworthiness of sources of information in their environment. Of particular interest, he recently published an article with my friend and colleague Dr. Kelly Durkin describing how children’s perception of an informant (aka teacher’s) trustworthiness impacts their learning of decimals (1).
The article starts out by giving a nice overview of the Epistemic Trust literature and its relationship to early-childhood education. The basic set-up for studying children’s ability to evaluate an informant’s trustworthiness goes something like this:
- Children are introduced to informants who give either correct or incorrect answers to questions children can already answer by themselves.
- In the next stage, the informant gives the children the answer to a new problem/question, and the children give responses as to whether they believe that is the correct answer or not.
By manipulating the correct/incorrect responses in the first stage, researchers can control whether the children have access to what they think are reliable or unreliable informants, and see how this affects the children's decision to trust or not trust the informant’s answer to the new problem. The research using this set-up seems hopeful for sure: it seems that as early as age 3, children can figure out information trustworthiness based on a variety of factors, and learn more from the informants that they deem to be trustworthy.
The problem, as the article points out, is that these types of studies are not typically performed in relevant settings— i.e., in a classroom where children are trying to actively learn. The key difference is that typical epistemic trust studies are using concepts that children already know in order to teach the children about the reliability of their informant. However, in traditional educational settings, children are learning about something new and cannot yet be expected to have ‘mastered’ the topic.
In order to study epistemic trust in a real-life academic setting, Durkin and Shafto combined theories on consistency (correct and incorrect examples) with trustworthiness and studied students learning decimals in both 4th (novice) and 5th (experts) grades. Although all testing and training was completed outside of the standard curriculum, the topic and methods used were educationally relevant.
The most interesting finding of the study was that the results differed significantly according to grade level: fourth graders – the consistent condition, in which informants were either always right or always wrong – showed greater increases in knowledge AND fewer misconceptions after training. The reverse was true for the 5th graders, making the overall conclusion of the study sound a little wishy-washy:
“Consequently, manipulating epistemic trust via informant reliability may facilitate or impede learning, depending on prior instruction.” (p. 9)
While this conclusion may not sound helpful at the outset, once you delve a little deeper it is easy to see why a difference may have emerged across grade levels. The 4th graders were complete novices to decimals, while the 5th graders had had some previous instruction before completing the training session (indeed, baseline knowledge scores were different between grade levels). When one takes into account the idea of cognitive load, or the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory, these results start to make sense:
- The 4th graders, who have little to no previous experience with decimals, experience a higher cognitive load with the task in general and therefore benefit from increased consistency across the training.
- The 5th graders, who had at least some experience with decimals, actually benefited from the inconsistent examples because it forced them to engage with each example and determine which informant was accurate (since this information was inconsistent across examples). According to Durkin and Shafto,
“this may help these learners strengthen conceptual knowledge and modify their previous misconceptions.” (p. 9).
While the field of Psychology has been studying epistemic trust, and research in education has looked into the importance of both correct and incorrect examples for learning, the authors suggest that educators need to take both trustworthiness and student experience into account when studying how children learn:
“The results from the current study indicate that given the exact same examples, children’s learning varies depending on whether the pair of informants is consistent or inconsistent.” (p. 9)
I think the take-home message of this study is this: children have a hard enough time learning new concepts as it is, there’s no reason to burden them with the extra problem of trying to suss out the difference between reliable and false information. However, a healthy amount of reasoning about the source of information can help more advanced learners to engage more deeply in the subject at hand. Frankly, I think this lesson applies outside of childhood education to the broader population, as well; I know there are certainly some adults in my life that could benefit from a healthy dose of skepticism!
(1) Durkin, K., & Shafto, P. (2016). Epistemic trust and education: Effects of informant reliability on student learning of decimal concepts. Child Development, 87, 154-164.