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Learning to Solve Problems

It may not be surprising to know that when faced with a problem, adults employ different methods to solve it. But now a tight-knit group of TDLC researchers is uncovering the emergence at young ages of the development and individual differences in problem solving.

The ongoing project is led by San Diego State's Judy Reilly, working together with collaborators Marian Bartlett and Gwen Littlewort, UC San Diego, and Zewelangi Serpell, Virginia Commonwealth University. In two years and counting, these women of science have determined that style differences stem from cognitive, social and biological differences and reflect independent developmental trajectories, In other words, just as kids grow differently in other aspects, so do their problem-solving skills develop.

Learning to solve problems

Among the initial findings was this: While thinking about the answer to a problem, gaze patterns change with development. School-age children and adults tend to avert their gaze when thinking, ostensibly to decrease external stimulation, while preschoolers are more likely to make eye contact with the experimenter. But, surprisingly, gaze aversion patterns in problem solving situations appear to become adult-like by the age of seven (Salamanca et al., 2011). Gender differences were also discovered; one to especially ponder was that in challenging situations adult females smile more than any other age group, male or female.

For the initial study, videotaping was used to capture the gaze and thinking behaviors of 3- to 10-year-olds, and the results transferred to ELAN (Language Archive, Max Planck Institute, Nijmegen). This video platform integrates multiple channels of behavior -- speech, gesture, gaze, facial expression, which were then hand coded by Linda Salamanca as a San Diego State Master's thesis. Her studies in how children solve problems stimulated her to pursue a math-science credential in elementary teaching.

Also, to better understand the broader patterns of linguistic and non-linguistic behaviors and their intersection with problem solving, Salamanca and fellow TDLC trainee, Matt Ignacio, also San Diego State, traveled to the University of Queensland lab of Dr. Janet Wiles. There they participated in a Discursis workshop that has helped to identify and quantify motifs in conversations, intersections of different behaviors and degrees of engagement in the interactions. (Article in process.)
The group's investigations into individual differences expanded to perceptual styles of typically developing children. As part of the larger battery, children 4 to 5 years of age played Evaluation in Targeting Aptitude (EVITA), a computer task to examine emergent differences in perception of objects or movement. The task requires either estimating where a moving ball will intersect a line (targeting), or accurately detecting the shade of color of the ball during its trajectory (object recognition). In adults, females are better in the object condition, whereas males are superior to females in identifying the trajectory (McGivern et al., 2010). Interestingly, with the four-year-olds, they found clear differences in the object condition with the girls' performance surpassing that of the boys. There were no differences in the targeting only condition.

Going forward, the studies are likely to become even more complex. Dr. Reilly's streamlined team of Leanne Chukoskie at UC San Diego and Janet Wiles in Australia will be concentrating on the integration of eye gaze and speech in social exchanges of both typical (TD) children and those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) using eye tracking. The plan is to observe "looking" behavior in several contexts among children of different ages, with the aim of understanding how the aberrant social gaze develops in children with ASD and how it differs from the developmental patterns seen in TD children. Also critical will be examining gaze behaviors (eye contact and shifts in gaze) and their temporal relations to speech in both social and problem solving contexts.

As Dr. Reilly recently reported, results so far highlight the importance of individual differences in problem-solving and cognitive styles and the differential timing of their emergence across development. Such results may have significant educational implications, particularly in classroom settings, where teachers must adapt their teaching strategies to maximize learning.

Carolan Gladden