How does a child's mind work?

By Sonia B. Glover

Memorial Education professor Dr. Julia O'Sullivan loves working with children - but what she loves even more is studying their beliefs about how their own minds work.

We often hear that if you are interested in something you will find it easier to learn and actually learn it faster. Is this true? No. At least not according to studies conducted by Dr. O'Sullivan and other researchers.

"All of the studies involving young children demonstrate that interest has a negative effect on young children, completely the opposite to what they believe and to what most people believe," explained Dr. O'Sullivan, adding that even three-year-olds in her research tell her this.

With funding from NSERC and the National Literary Secretariat, Dr. O'Sullivan is doing basic research on cognitive development. Her research titles are: Development in Children's Beliefs about Long-Term Memory, and Overcoming Poverty - Promoting Literacy in Children from Low Income Families.

Her research focuses on three questions: What do children believe about how their own minds work? How valid are those beliefs? How do their beliefs influence their learning?

"We hear a lot about the importance of having technology in the school," said Dr. O'Sullivan. "Part of the stated rationale for bringing technology into the schools is that children are interested in computers and because they are interested they will learn better and learn more. But the fact of the matter is that we don't even know if that is true at all. Certainly the effects of interest on young children's learning are not as straightforward as that."

Although her research is theoretically driven and not an attempt to come up with solutions to everyday problems, Dr. O'Sullivan stressed that, "It happens to be the type of work where, although it is theoretically driven, the findings are relevant to children's everyday lives, particularly in school."

So, how is her research conducted?

"I go to the schools and preschools around the province; most of the children involved in my work are between three-and-a-half and nine years old, and it is there where we do the testing," she said. "A typical experiment would have two parts to it. F irst we would actually test what children believe about the impact of certain variables on cognition. For example, do they believe the harder you work the more you'll remember? Once I've established their beliefs, then I go back a second time and look at the actual effect that their own effort has on their memory."

Dr. O'Sullivan, who came to Memorial in 1987, said one of her biggest challenges is to find ways to get young children to communicate to her what they believe about how their minds work.

"I have to find ways that don't rely heavily on the use of language," she said. "Most of the testing that I do, especially with young children, involves toys and pictures and other non-verbal measures. I love children and working with them. I really enjoy trying to develop methods that they can understand, hands-on nonverbal methods for measuring their beliefs about how their minds work."

The developmental psychologist said her interest in children's minds began when she was a graduate student at the University of Western Ontario in the early 1980s.

"This area of inquiry was relatively new when I began my research in graduate school," said Dr. O'Sullivan. "Since then, however, work in this area has greatly matured, and I'm glad that I stuck with it. I am simply fascinated by the fact that everyone, even three-year-olds, has elaborate beliefs about how their minds work and that these beliefs influence how we think, remember and learn."

She said her research is important because it gives us a better understanding of the learning process.

"For a complete picture about learning, we have to ask what it is that people believe about learning, how they act on that belief and under what conditions they act on it."

Dr. O'Sullivan said her research is already benefiting the community.

"I am called upon often to consult for a number of government and community agencies here in St. John's and elsewhere. These groups are usually trying to put some program in place for children, something to help with learning or reading development. I find these groups will call upon people like me because they want to be familiar with what literature has to say about learning or reading development for either children who come from middle or upper income homes or children who live in poverty."

According to Dr. O'Sullivan, government and society are increasingly using findings that come from basic research like hers to improve social, educational and medical conditions and services in the country.

"The work on children from low- income families, for example, is also designed to add to theory. As you can imagine, most of the theory on reading development and on children's beliefs about reading has come from upper and middle-class children, so it hasn't been well established whether or not these theoretical models also apply to children who live in poverty."

Considering her feelings on the importance of basic research, it isn't surprising that Dr. O'Sullivan is excited about the recent establishment of the Centre for the Application of Developmental Science.

"The goal for this centre is to bring together basic researchers from around the university, all of whom do research with children that is theoretically-oriented, but whose findings can be used for the betterment of children in the community both here in Newfoundland and across the country," she said enthusiastically.

Dr. O'Sullivan, who is co-directing the new centre with psychology professor Dr. Mark Howe, said the centre can greatly benefit community programs and services for children.

"This is very important because there are a number of people in the university who are producing findings which, even though they result from basic research, can be put together to really help structure a lot of the programs and services for children, not just in education but also in health and in the legal system. This is something that the country really needs."

A lot of support from many people has been an important component in Dr. O'Sullivan's research. Without it, she said, the work would not get done.

"I have had tremendous support from the provincial government," she said. "The grant for the children on child poverty, for example; I consider that government was instrumental in helping me there. I've had a lot of support from the school boards and preschools. Everywhere I've gone, I've had support, especially from all the parents. You are not able to do work like mine unless you have that sort of cooperation."

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