Development · Education

Cultural Differences in Young Children’s Learning and Teaching

This is an invited research digest contributed by Dr. Sunae Kim at Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary.

Much of what we know—for instance, science, history, and language—is learned through the experience of others. Children particularly have to rely upon others for most of their learning.  In the field of Developmental Psychology, researchers have asked whether young children are selective of their teachers.  Children as young as 3–4 years old appreciate epistemic qualities of others and selectively learn, for example, from a knowledgeable rather than an ignorant person [1].

In order to become a full-fledged member of a culture, one has to be a good teacher to others as well as a good learner.  Any parents and teachers will tell us that children naturally teach others when they explain game rules or stories to their friends, siblings, and adults. But, do young children show selectivity in their recipients of teaching as in their learning?  One line of research suggests that young children selectively teach others based on others’ knowledge level (e.g., [2]).  That is, if you tell children that one person knows how to do something and the other does not, they would answer that teaching should be directed toward the person who does not know.

One cognitive mechanism that might support children’s selective learning and teaching is the so-called “theory of mind” – the ability to understand one’s own and others’ minds including beliefs and thoughts.  In particular, the understanding of knowledge difference present in others in comparison to oneself is a necessary quality for one to be able to selectively learn from others and teach others.  We already know from prior studies that children by 3 years of age understand the knowledge gap present in others due to differences in perceptual access (e.g., [3]).  That is, if one person looks inside a container, children attribute knowledge of the hidden contents of the container to that person.

My colleagues and I asked whether children’s selective learning and teaching vary by culture [4]. We also sought to examine whether the same cognitive mechanisms guide selective learning and teaching.  In the study, we tested 4- and 6-year-old Japanese and German children.  Children randomly took either a selective learning task or a selective teaching task.  In both tasks, children saw the same pairs of puppets on a video (speaking their native language) but the puppets differed in their knowledge states concerning the hidden contents of a container: only one puppet saw what’s inside the container. A critical difference between the two tasks pertained to the nature of selective learning and teaching.  In the learning task, the two puppets provided conflicting pieces of information about the hidden contents and children were asked to endorse one of the conflicting information.  In the teaching task, children themselves saw what’s inside the container (while the puppets remained silent) and were asked to choose one of the puppets to inform about the hidden contents. 

Japanese children were better in selective teaching (choosing the ignorant puppet to inform) than German children whereas German children were better in selective learning (choosing the information supplied by the knowledgeable puppet).  Japanese children were better in selective teaching than selective learning; German children were better in selective learning than selective teaching. We did not find an overall performance difference between the two age groups.

The findings are interesting at least in two aspects.  First, the findings suggest that selective learning and selective teaching may rely on distinct cognitive mechanisms. Note that in both learning and teaching tasks we used exactly the same design concerning the knowledge gap present in puppets.  One puppet knew what’s inside the box whereas the other did not.  However, children responded differently to the two tasks.  This finding is not due to the fact that children were confused about the puppets’ knowledge gap because as mentioned above children by 3 years of age already appreciate that the presence or absence of perceptual access results in knowledge vs. ignorance respectively.  What cognitive and/or motivation mechanisms underlie selective learning and teaching should be investigated in the future.

Second, children’s learning and teaching are modulated by culture in which they grow up. Studies suggest that Japanese mothers and U.S. mothers display different child-caring styles. Japanese mothers tend to provide caring even before apparent needs arise on the part of their infants. By contrast, U.S. mothers, emphasizing their children’s independence, tend to wait until the infants explicitly request for help [5].  Japan compared to the U.S. and Germany is more closely aligned as a collectivist than an individualist culture.  Other-oriented behaviors are emphasized in collectivist cultures like Japan. Japanese children then may experience and observe adults being keen on attending to others’ needs (here informational needs) and model these behaviors. 

Lack of selectivity in learning among Japanese children may be surprising given that selective learning is important for children to obtain accurate knowledge.  Because as mentioned earlier Japanese children may be used to their needs readily met without expressing them—their adults readily offer relevant and necessary information—they may not adopt selective learning. However, it is also possible that Japanese children are just as selective as German children but when they are in a position to learn from others, they are less likely to challenge teachers’ authority and outwardly show selectivity.  More future studies should disambiguate these explanations but we know the following for sure: a different pattern of learning and teaching across cultures appears early in human development.


[1] Harris, P. L (2012). Trusting what you’re told: How children learn from others. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press.

[2] Ziv, M., & Frye, D. (2004). Children’s understanding of teaching: The role of knowledge and belief. Cognitive Development, 19, 457–477.

[3] Pillow, B. H. (1989). Early understanding of perception as a source of knowledge. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 47, 116-129.

[4] Kim, S., Paulus, M., Sodian, B., Itakura, S., Ueno, M., Senju, A., & Proust, J. (2018). Selective learning and teaching among Japanese and German children. Developmental psychology, 54(3), 536.

[5] Rothbaum, F., Weisz, J., Pott, M., Miyake, K., & Morelli, G. (2000). Attachment and culture: Security in the United States and Japan. American Psychologist, 55, 1093-1104.


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