Creating Impact Science Program (CRISP) Fellow, Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Jan Engelmann

University of California, Berkeley

Research Focus

Jan Engelmann is a developmental and comparative psychologist. He explores the origins of uniquely human cognition and behavior, with a focus on how individuals learn to reason cooperatively. Using behavioral experiments with children and chimpanzees, he asks three interrelated research questions: How are human skills and motivations for cooperation similar to and different from those of our closest living relatives, chimpanzees? How do human children, over the course of ontogeny, reliably develop species-specific cooperative skills and motivations and how does this process differ across populations? How can we foster cooperative abilities in young children?

My plans for the fellowship period

During the fellowship period, I plan to study how children learn skills of citizenship. In particular, I will focus on a key citizenship skill: how children learn to be proficient and rational contributors to public discourse. That is, I am interested in studying how children develop ‘communicative rationality’. This will include a focus on how children acquire a key set of social critical thinking skills – involving the ability to distinguish strong from poor arguments, to determine which arguments carry greater weight than others, to produce evidence-based arguments themselves, and to critically evaluate the relevant evidence – by engaging in argumentative discourse with peers. In addition, I seek to uncover the developmental mechanisms underlying individual differences in critical thinking. Vast differences exist in individual children’s cognitive and emotional skill-levels concerning abilities crucial to competence in discourse, e.g. the ability to distinguish weak from strong arguments and to confidently voice counter-arguments. My proposal aims to elucidate how children learn these skills and how individual trajectories influence them. Answering these questions requires the integration of a variety of methodological tools, from naturalistic observations of children’s argumentation and carefully controlled experiments, to human-computer interactions and cross-cultural approaches.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?

In today’s world, children are exposed to much public discourse involving poor argumentative skills, such as ignoring or dismissing opposing perspectives and restricting one’s exchanges to the echo chamber of one’s favored ideas. At the same time, children and adolescents growing up today have access to information on a historically unprecedented scale. This is thus a time which simultaneously holds great promise for learning (digital technologies can tailor education to individual needs) but also presents learners with novel challenges (think of fake news).

In a first step, the current project seeks to understand how children become responsible members of their social group by partaking in the production and evaluation of arguments that make up social discourse. From a young age onwards, children have to acquire relevant epistemic norms and to rationally evaluate different sources of evidence. In a second step, the project will develop interventions that will include dense practice in dialogic argumentation with the goal of supporting argumentative skills. The goal of this project is thus to help children develop critical thinking abilities that allow them to navigate a complex social web of claims and counter-claims, and to evaluate which claims are supported by evidence and which are not.