Faculty Research Spotlight: Kathleen Corriveau

By Aliya Omarkhanova (Wheelock’20)

Dr. Kathleen Corriveau is an Associate Professor at Wheelock and Program Director for Ph.D. Programs in Applied Human Development. As an award-winning researcher and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science who focuses on social cognitive development in early childhood, her research is primarily based on how young children learn from adults and how they choose whom they can trust.  

Dr. Corriveau’s work has indicated that when children are making decisions about from whom to learn, they focus on two different cues: epistemic information about the informants, i.e. whether they have been accurate in the past, or information about their social group membership, for example, if their peers come from the same cultural background or speak the same language.

Currently in her work at Boston University, Dr. Corriveau has extended her research interests further, by focusing on domains under which children cannot simply rely on first-hand information and need to turn to others to learn. Specifically, she was awarded a CAREER grant from the National Science Foundation and is currently using the grant to explore how young children learn from adult explanations in informal science learning spaces such as the Museum of Science, as well as formal learning environments such as the BU Early Childhood Learning Lab.

Some of this research includes video observation, and subsequent transcription of the language to explore the questions young children ask, the quality of the explanations they receive from adult learning partners, and the way that children use such explanations to update their scientific knowledge. Other research includes more direct instruction to modify the language young children are exposed to. Specifically, to accomplish this, Dr. Corriveau and her students have been looking at the role of short-term experimenter interventions as well as dyadic storybooks to enhance parent-child mechanistic explanations.

A second line of research focus on how young children develop a sense of religious cognition, given that religion is another domain where children cannot learn about all concepts through first-hand experimentation alone. This research, funded by the Templeton Foundation, has explored how children decide what is real and what is possible in the domains of religion and science. This research found that children’s religious environment impacts the way that they process information from adults in these domains. For example, children growing up in the US, a more pluralistic religious society, make some inferences about what is real and what is possible differently than children growing up in China and Iran: two homogenous societies. She is now extending this research further through a new grant from the Templeton Foundation to develop a network of cross-cultural researchers interested in the development and transmission of religious cognition.

What is a favorite finding or study that you have produced, and why is it your favorite? 

I’m always excited about all of my studies, but I’ll tell you one that has highlighted the important role of individual differences in children’s developing understanding of whom to trust. We did a study in collaboration with researchers in the UK who had been following children, now aged 4 and 5, since they were infants. They had information about the child’s emotional attachment relationship with their mother from when they were 1 (using a paradigm called the Strange Situation) and we asked if children’s preference for learning from Mom versus a Stranger might vary by the child’s attachment relationship now as preschoolers. We found striking differences in children’s trust in Mom, and their willingness to turn to her in a novel learning situation based on this attachment classification 4 years earlier. What this highlighted to us was that when children make learning decisions, they are not just swayed by who might know the most, but also by the affective relationship they have with them. This means that adults such as caregivers and teachers really do have to focus on presenting as both knowledgeable and warm in order to best support students.

What is an important implication of the work you do? 

Marcus Winters and I recently wrote an article exploring how my work on trust has implications on children’s trust in teachers. Quite a large body of research has tried to determine the effectiveness of teachers on student learning outcomes, but there is still quite a lot of variance around teacher effectiveness that cannot be explained through current research. An implication of my work suggests that perhaps children’s trust in their teacher is an important missing factor from teacher effectiveness models.

Where is your research headed?

I’m excited about the $10M grant I recently received in collaboration with Dr. Rebekah Richert from the University of California Riverside to develop the Developing Belief Network. The grant will start in April 2020 and will allow me to work with colleagues all around the world to get a more holistic understanding of the impact of adults in young children’s learning. I am especially interested in the extent to which these processes are universal or unique across the different fieldsites.