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Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787
Teaching as a natural cognition and its relations
to preschoolers’ developing theory of mind
Sidney Strauss∗, Margalit Ziv, Adi Stein
School of Education, Tel Aviv University, 69978 Tel Aviv, Israel
Teaching is an important aspect in people’s lives and cultures. We explore it from a
cognitive-developmental perspective. Teaching may be a natural cognition that, despite
its complexity, is learned at an early age without any apparent instruction. We propose
that theory of mind may be an important cognitive prerequisite for teaching. We brieﬂy
describe a study that tested relations between children’s developing theory of mind and
actual teaching. Children at the ages of 3- and 5-years were presented new theory of
mind tasks about teaching and then were observed teaching peers a game they had just
learned. We found corresponding age-related differences in children’s understanding of
teaching as manifested in their performance on the teaching-theory of mind tasks and in
their teaching strategies. It is suggested that theory and research on theory of mind might
need to be expanded to include on-line, interactive situations such as teaching.
© 2002 Published by Elsevier Science Inc.
Keywords: Teaching; Natural cognition; Learning
Teaching, the social transformation of knowledge from one person to another
is one of the most remarkable of human enterprises. The majority of research
concerning teaching explored its educational aspects, focusing on transmission
of knowledge from professional adults to people who are less knowledgeable in
We propose that teaching could also be seen as an essential domain of inquiry
in the ﬁeld of cognitive development. This is so because, as we attempt to show,
∗Corresponding author. Tel.: +972-3-6407-108; fax: +972-3-6407-360.
E-mail addresses: email@example.com (S. Strauss), firstname.lastname@example.org (M. Ziv),
email@example.com (A. Stein).
0885-2014/02/$ – see front matter © 2002 Published by Elsevier Science Inc.
1474 S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787
teaching may be a natural cognition and its development is fundamental to what
it means to be a human being. Furthermore, the search for the cognitive underpin-
nings of teaching may provide new insights into fundamental cognitive processes,
an important one being the development of theory of mind.
Unlike teaching, learning, its mirror image, has been a major focus of research
in cognitive development. In other words, although children’s learning has been
extensively studied, little is known about children’s construction of the concept
of teaching, as well as of the actual process of teaching. In an attempt to tell the
story of teaching as a natural cognition and its relation to children’s developing
theory of mind, we present our ideas in ﬁve sections. First, we provide different
deﬁnitions of teaching. Second, we motivate reasons why teaching may be a nat-
ural cognition. This section concludes with the point that if teaching is a natural
cognition, there is a need to determine the nature of the cognitive prerequisites
that underlie it. We then present areas that could be helpful to establish what
these cognitive building blocks might be. Next, we review research on preschool
children’s teaching and sketch a study we conducted on that topic. And, ﬁnally, we
discussthe implicationsof thestudy forthe areaof thecognition ofteaching andits
1. Deﬁnitions of teaching
Teachingisa ratherelusiveconcept and has been differently deﬁnedby scholars
and researchers from various disciplines. Caro and Hauser (1992) studied teaching
from a biological perspective. Their deﬁnition of teaching, whose origins are in
evolutionary theory and empirical data, is as follows:
An individual actor A can be said to teach if it modiﬁes its behaviors only in the pres-
ence of a na¨
ıve observer, B, at some cost or at least without obtaining an immediate
beneﬁt for itself. A’s behavior thereby encourages or punishes B’s behavior, or pro-
vides B with experience or sets an example for B. As a result, B acquires knowledge
or learns a skill earlier in life or more rapidly or efﬁciently than it might otherwise
do, or that it would not learn at all. (p. 153)
Importantly, Caro and Hauser (1992) argue that this deﬁnition of teaching re-
quires neither theory of mind nor the intentionality involved in teaching on the
part of the many animals whose teaching they described.
Premack (Premack, 1991, 1993;Premack & Premack, 1994, 1996) critiqued
this position by arguing that teaching among animals other than humans is gen-
erally related to getting food to survive, which makes it very circumscribed. In
addition, Premack believes that animals other than humans are not sensitive to
their offsprings’ progress. For example, the mother cheetah does not give ex-
tra time to a cub of hers who might be slow in learning how to kill prey. And
she is unlikely to keep that same cub back and not allow it to seek prey on its
own, at the time that his siblings are on their own, so as to give him “remedial
S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787 1475
Incontrast tothis biologically-baseddeﬁnition, psychologists describeteaching
in other, non-evolutionary terms, as can be seen by the following representative
quote, from Pearson (1989):
When faced with the question of determining whether an action is a teaching action,
as opposed to some other action such as reciting, talking or acting in a play, it is the
intention of bringing about learning that is the basis for distinguishing teaching from
other activities. The intention the activity serves, then, is a part of the meaning of the
concept, and not a factual discovery one makes about the activity. (Italics added) (p.
Kruger and Tomasello (1996) postulated that deﬁning teaching in terms of
its intention — to cause learning, suggests that teaching is linked to theory of
mind, i.e., that teaching relies on the human ability to understand the other’s
mind. Olson and Bruner (1996) also identiﬁed theoretical links between theory of
mind and teaching. They suggested that teaching is possible only when a lack of
knowledge can be recognized and that the goal of teaching then is to enhance the
learner’s knowledge. Thus, a theory of mind deﬁnition of teaching should refer
to both the intentionality involved in teaching and the knowledge component, as
follows: teaching is an intentional activity that is pursued in order to increase
the knowledge (or understanding) of another who lacks knowledge, has partial
knowledge or possesses a false belief (Frye & Ziv, in press).
2. Teaching as a natural cognition
Strauss (in press) suggested that there are at least seven reasons to motivate the
notion that teaching is a natural cognition. None by itself leads inevitably to this
conclusion; however, in concert, they suggest that teaching might just be a natural
cognition. In broad terms, a natural cognition is a universal cognition that appears
early in life and does not in itself require intentional teaching for it to be learned
and young children seem to effortlessly learn the domain in question. The seven
main points of the natural cognition argument are as follows:
1. As mentioned, the cognition underlying teaching among some species of
animals and human beings has not been thoroughly examined. There is
some controversy about whether or not non-primates teach, but there is little
controversy that chimpanzees, our closest relatives, and other primates do
not teach with a theory of mind (Povinelli & Eddy, 1996, 1997;Premack,
1984, 1991;Premack & Premack, 1994, 1996;Tomasello, 1999;Tomasello
& Call, 1997). There is some convergence, then, on the idea that human
beings are the only species that teaches by using a theory of mind. Thus,
teaching with a theory of mind may be species-speciﬁc.
2. Despite the controversy among scientists concerning whether or not pri-
mates teach, it is (almost) incontrovertible that teaching is ubiquitous among
human beings, which means that, with few exceptions, every person in
1476 S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787
every society has taught and has been taught by others (Kruger & Tomasello,
1996;Tomasello, Kruger,&Ratner,1993).These areuniversalactivities that
take place in everyday life in the home, the streets, the workplace, and the
3. Teaching is an extraordinarily complex enterprise that has much to do with
mind,emotions, andmotivation-reading. The richness of the kinds of knowl-
edge needed to teach is impressive. As a miniscule sampling, consider this:
in order to teach, one needs to know when knowledge, beliefs, skills, etc.
are missing, incomplete, or distorted, as well as how people learn. One also
knows about others’ emotions and motivation.
In addition, the number and complexity of inferences that must be made
when teaching others are remarkable. This idea can be illustrated by several
of the myriad inferences necessary for teaching to occur. As teachers, we
have a representation of a problem and its potential solutions. If a student
solves the problem in another fashion, we infer that s/he has a different
representation of the same problem. Furthermore, we infer what that repre-
sentation might be, given the nature of the student’s solution. And we infer
from the student’s responses to our teaching if there have been representa-
tional, emotional, and/or motivational changes. In sum, there is remarkable
complexity to teaching.
4. One of the many remarkable aspects of teaching is that so much of it is
invisible to the eye. The visible part is the external acts of teaching. It is
what we see and hear when we are being taught. It is the teacher’s questions,
her request for her pupils to reﬂect on their learning, and much, much more.
It is also the Kung hunter’s demonstration and explanations to a youngster
of how to string a bow and the ways he checks to see if it was learned. And it
is the ways carpet weavers in Mexico serve as masters who teach apprentice
youngsters to fashion carpets for local use.
Theseare slight examples of what people do when theyteach. Thisis what
is visible to the eyes of the learner, the person to whom the teaching is
directed. And, as shown, it is very complex. But the visible part of teaching
isquite impoverishedin comparison tothe depthof whatunderlies it,the part
that is not revealed to the eye. What is invisible are the teacher’s intention,
the inferences teachers make, and the mental processes that lead to these
inferences. In addition, it is possible that the visible part of teaching does
not reveal what gives rise to it. In other words, it might be the case that one
cannot infer the invisible (what underlies teaching) from the visible (actual
teaching acts). This has been termed “the poverty of the stimulus” in the
linguistics and language acquisition literature.
5. Teaching may be a specialized kind of social interaction, unlike others.
For example, people have conversations and arguments; they collaborate
to achieve common goals, and they engage in deception to achieve private
aspirations. The critical difference between these social interactions and
teaching is in the intention underlying the activity. As mentioned earlier,
S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787 1477
the teacher directs her activities towards the learner in order to enhance
the learner’s knowledge, or understanding. This may be a unique intentio-
6. Although teaching is universal among human beings, it seems to be learned
without formal, or even informal teaching. It is unschooled cognition.A
sliver of the 6 billion inhabitants of planet earth has been taught how to
teach; yet all know how to teach. All have been exposed to pedagogy; they
have been taught. But, with few exceptions, they have had no instruction
about how to teach.
7. The premise here is that if very young children engage in teaching and they
have not been taught to teach, we might have another case for the claim
that teaching is a natural cognition. Little research has been conducted on
the topic of preschoolers’ teaching, but what exists suggests that children as
young as age 3.5 years of age teach, as discussed below.
3. Cognitive prerequisites of teaching: mind the gap
The seven features listed suggest that it is reasonable to propose that teaching
is a natural cognition. As recognized by several researchers, theory of mind may
play an important role in the construction of the notion of teaching. First, rec-
ognizing the need for teaching requires appreciating the knowledge gap between
a knowledgeable person and a person with less knowledge. In addition, under-
standing the intent of teaching relies on appreciating its goal — causing learning,
or enhancing the learner’s knowledge (Frye & Ziv, in press;Strauss, 1993). Fur-
thermore, a more complete understanding of teaching involves understanding how
teaching affects others’ minds, or, in other words, how teaching leads to learning
and how teaching helps knowledge become acquired (Strauss, 1993, 1996, 1997,
2000, 2001;Strauss, Ravid, Magen, & Berliner, 1998;Strauss, Ravid, Zelcer, &
Strauss (in press) proposed that in order to fully understand the relations be-
tween ToM and teaching, an expanded notion of ToM might be needed. Whereas
classical ToM deals with declarative knowledge about the state of others’ beliefs,
desires, etc., teaching is dynamic and interactive. An expanded ToM should allow
for on-line and interactive conditions, the kind that occurs when children (and
adults) teach others.
Let us elaborate on the nature of relations between ToM and teaching and
reasons for an expanded ToM. In standard false belief tasks employed to tap ToM,
a child who has a ToM understands that someone can behave incorrectly because
he has a false belief or incomplete knowledge. In a teaching situation, a child who
has a ToM can recognize an error on the part of the learner and can attribute it
to a false belief or incomplete knowledge. Here ToM and teaching are similar.
The on-line aspect of teaching with a ToM is that the child acts on his (implicit)
understanding about how false beliefs and partial knowledge can be changed, i.e.,
1478 S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787
the child teacher teaches in a way that indicates her understanding of how learning
takes place in others’ minds.
This on-line aspect of ToM includes the teacher’s ability to monitor the knowl-
edge, emotional, and motivational states of the learner. Furthermore, teaching may
require coordinating teaching strategies and this monitoring. In other words, mon-
itoring, say, the learner’s knowledge state can lead to certain teaching strategies
whose results are the learner’s behaviors that indicate what and how much was
learned which is again monitored and may lead to further teaching strategies, etc.
A related notion is of psychological causality that has, at its core, the notion that
I, the teacher, can stand outside others’ minds and can inﬂuence what is happening
in their minds by talking, demonstrating, etc. These behaviors, external to others’
minds, are thought to cause learning in others’ minds. So the ways teachers teach
indicatetheir understandingof themind andhow learning takesplace init (Strauss,
1993, 1996, 1997, 2001).
4. Preschoolers’ teaching
Researching young children’s teaching may be a window into ascertaining the
cognitive prerequisites needed for teaching. Studying the ontogenetic emergence
of teaching may contribute to our understanding of some of the fundamental cog-
nitive building blocks that underlie it. Speciﬁcally, acknowledging the possibility
that theory of mind may be critical for teaching, highlights the importance of
empirically testing the relation between the development of theory of mind and
teaching in preschoolers.
However, searching for the earliest signs for the appreciation of teaching leads
usﬁrst torecent studiesconcerning word learningin toddlersthat raisethe question
of whether toddlers already have some appreciation of teaching.
4.1. Toddlers may request teaching
Long before children themselves engage in teaching, they are exposed to it
and may already start developing an early sensitivity to teaching. The domain of
word learning may serve as an illustration. Recent studies suggest that learning
words may involve direct teaching acts on the adult’s part as well as understanding
the adult’s referential intention on toddler’s part (Bloom, 2000). Furthermore,
toddlers at the age of 2 years often ask what the name of an object is and, by so
doing, initiate teaching on the adult’s part. In these instances, toddlers request an
object’s name, and their requests are then met with intentional teaching. These
instances may be important for the early construction of teaching. Cautiously
interpreting toddlers’ behaviors as reﬂecting an early grasp of some aspects of
teaching, although debatable, may be intriguing (Strauss & Ziv, in press).
Toddlers may know that objects have names, or words associated with them. In
addition, they identify objects whose names they don’t know and show a desire to
S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787 1479
know that name. In doing so, they may show some understanding of their own lack
of knowledge. Toddlers then direct their request to an adult whom they know from
previous experience can provide them with the desired word. This may indicate
that they also assume knowledge on the adult’s part. Finally, they probably expect
their request to result in an adult’s production of a word, directed to them, in an act
known to adults as teaching. Although children’s actions can also be interpreted in
behavioral terms that do not assume understanding of their knowledge state, that
of adults’, and the gap between them, the possibility that already at the age of 2
years children begin to understand the mental state aspects of teaching should be
4.2. Preschoolers’ teaching
Only a few studies have been conducted on young children’s teaching as related
to ToM. These studies found age-related changes in children’s teaching and inter-
preted the differences referring to children’s developing theory of mind. However,
none of the previous experiments actually tested theory of mind.
Wood, Wood, Ainsworth, and O’Malley (1995) conducted a study on 3-, 5-,
and 7-year-olds with the purpose of studying the ontogenesis of skills for what
they termed “contingent instruction.” This kind of instruction involves offering
help when a learner experiences difﬁculty and providing less help as the learner
increasingly succeeds on a task. The experimenters taught children how to as-
semble a ﬁve-layered pyramid of wood blocks, where each layer had two pairs of
same-size wooden blocks that had to be ﬁt together in such a way that pegs from
one block of each pair ﬁt into a hole in the second block of the pair. The children
were then asked to teach a friend how to assemble the pyramid. For the purposes
of our exposition, the ﬁndings from this study were that the 7-year-olds were more
effective contingent instruction teachers than the 3- and 5-year-olds.
Astington and Pelletier (1996) observed kindergarten and ﬁrst grade children
in three situations — spontaneous pretend play of school, pretend play of school
prompted by the experimenter’s questions about learning and teaching, and mod-
eled teaching followed by children teaching their peers. They found a change in
children’s conception of teaching with age. The youngest children talked about
teaching as showing, whereas older children tended to describe teaching as telling
and ﬁnally as helping or collaboration. The authors interpreted the change in
children’s conception of teaching in terms of their level of understanding the mind,
as tested in separate studies about preschooler’s theory of mind.
Ashleyand Tomasello(1998) studiedteaching andcooperativeproblem solving
among younger children — 2-, 2.5-, 3-, and 3.5-year-olds. In the teaching part of
their study, they found that the 2-year-olds could not teach; the 2.5-year-olds may
not have been aware of the learner’s lack of knowledge, as measured by their
language-use; the 3-year-olds showed that they were somewhat more sensitive to
thelearners whenteaching themthan the2.5- and3.5-year-olds weremore adapted
to the learner than the children in the other age groups.
1480 S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787
In conclusion, previous studies have found initial attempts of teaching around
the age of 3.5 years. Young children’s teaching seems to be not as adaptive to the
learner as the teaching of preschoolers aged 5.5, and they demonstrate more and
speakless whileteaching, ascompared tothe 5.5-year-olds.Interpreting children’s
teaching suggested that these age-related differences in teaching strategies might
be related to changes in mental state understanding. We conducted a study to
directly test this possibility.
4.3. Understandings of teaching and children’s teaching
Guidedby the theoretical notion of teaching asa naturalcognition thatis related
to children’s developing ToM, the goal of the study was to explore preschoolers’
understanding of teaching, as well as the actual strategies they use while teaching.
Consequently, the study included presenting children with new theory of mind
tasks about teaching (Frye & Ziv, in press), observing children teaching peers, and
ﬁnally, interviewing children about their own teaching. Fifty dyads participated in
the study: 25 with a mean age of 3.5 and 25 with a mean age of 5.5.
Testing children’s understanding of teaching was guided by the theory of
mind-based deﬁnition of teaching, an intentional act to enhance the learner’s
knowledge or understanding. The study focused on the knowledge component
and tested whether children understand that a prerequisite for teaching is a dif-
ference in knowledge, or a knowledge gap between the teacher and the learner,
and whether they realize that teachers may have mistaken beliefs about learners’
knowledge that determine whether they will teach or not.
All the teachers were given six tasks, two each for testing children’s theory of
mind via classic false belief (FB) tasks; understanding the knowledge gap; and
testing children’s theory of mind via FB tasks about teaching.
4.3.1. Theory of mind via classic false belief tasks
All the children were given two classical FB tasks, where a doll knew where an
object was, and its location was changed unbeknownst to the doll, and the child
was asked where the doll would look for the object.
4.3.2. Understanding the knowledge gap
Children were given two tasks to tap their understandings of the necessity of
gaps in knowledge for teaching; e.g., a teacher who knows how to read has two
pupils, one who knows and one who does not know how to read. The children
were asked which pupil the teacher would teach.
4.3.3. Theory of mind via false belief tasks about teaching
Children were given two tasks: an overestimation and an underestimation task.
For example, the overestimation task had a teacher who thought that a child knew
how to read, but the child really did not know how to. The teacher, as a result, had
a false belief about the child’s knowledge. The children in the study were asked if
S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787 1481
they thought that the teacher would teach the child who didn’t know how to read
(but whom the teacher thought did know how to read).
Children’s actual teaching was explored by observing children teach a board
game to a peer. The game is a commercial board game that, according to the com-
mercial guidelines, is appropriate for children aged 2.5–6 years. The goal of the
game is to collect a complete set of four cubes, each of a different color. The
game involves taking turns and following a set of rules regarding the moves that
are allowed in each turn. For example, a player can only take a cube that matches
the color depicted on the upper face of the dice, and is only allowed to have one
cube of each color.
Children were ﬁrst taught how to play the game. The teaching included two
phases: (1) explaining the rules of the game, integrating verbal explanations and
demonstrations, for example: “You move the train along the track and stop next to
one of the stations.” (2) Playing the game. This was accompanied by explanations
repeating the important game rules and responses to children’s questions, errors,
hesitations, etc. (i.e., responsiveness, or contingent teaching). During this phase
the experimenter also determined whether the child learned how to play the game
and was ready for the teaching phase.
After demonstrating proﬁciency in playing the game, the experimenter asked
the child who now knew how to play the game whether she would like to teach a
peer who was not familiar with how to play the game. All the children responded
positively. The new dyad received no further encouragement or instructions from
the experimenter. The children were given all the time they needed in order to
teach and play the game until they said that one of them won the game or that they
The children’s teaching sessions were divided into two stages. The ﬁrst was
the explanation stage in which the rules of the game were made explicit to the
learner. The child-teachers explained, demonstrated or combined both to indicate
how to play the game to the learner. The second stage was the play stage. Here the
children played, and the teacher intervened if and when the learner erred.
All intentional demonstration gestures and utterances were categorized into
seven categories that are summarized in Table 1. The percentage of children’s use
of each of the above teaching strategies was determined by calculating the mean
frequency of occurrences of each of the strategies.
At the end of the teaching session, the experimenter asked each child-teacher
two questions to explore their reﬂections on the teaching process and the learner’s
1. How did you teach (name of learner) how to play?
2. How do you know that (name of learner) learned/did not learn how to play?
Children’s descriptions of teaching (question 1) tapped their reﬂections about
their teaching strategies, and were classiﬁed as focusing on demonstration, verbal
explanations, and a combination of demonstration and verbal explanations. Anal-
ysis of children’s answers about the learner’s learning (question 2) were intended
1482 S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787
Demonstration — teacher actively shows learner what to do, e.g., moves the train on the track and
stops at a station
Speciﬁc directive — teacher tells the learner what to do right now, e.g., “Take this”
Verbal explanation — teacher explains to the learner a rule or what he/she should be doing, e.g.,
“You got green. You can take the cube”
Demonstration accompanied by a verbal explanation
Questions aimed at checking learner’s understanding — “Do you understand”? “Remember”?
Teacher talk about own teaching — teacher shares with the learner his/her teaching strategies,
e.g., “I will now explain to you how to play”
Responsiveness — teacher responds to utterances or actions of the learner, e.g., answers questions
when a learner errs and demonstrates or verbally repeats a rule
to tap their reﬂections about others’ learning, and indicated the learner’s behaviors
that the teachers referred to as evidence for their learning.
The main ﬁndings of the study were signiﬁcant age differences in each of the
measures of children’s understanding of and engaging in teaching and signiﬁcant
correlations among children’s performance on the different measures. We now
ﬂesh this out.
It will be recalled that two kinds of tasks were added to the standard false belief
tasks to test children’s understandings of teaching: understanding the knowledge
gap,and tasks speciﬁc to teaching.In linewith twodecades ofresearch on false be-
lief tasks and theory of mind, we found that signiﬁcantly more older than younger
children solved the classic false belief tasks. No signiﬁcant difference was found
between 3- and 5-year-olds’ performance on the knowledge difference tasks. Vir-
tually all the children in both age groups realized that a knowledgeable teacher
would teach a certain skill to a child who lacks knowledge and not to the child
who has the speciﬁc knowledge.
There was a signiﬁcant difference, however, in 3- versus 5-year-olds’ under-
standing of teachers’ false beliefs. Three-year-olds, who performed poorly on
classic FB tasks, performed at chance level in the tasks about teachers’ false be-
liefs. For example, when a child was said not to know how to sing a particular
song, but the teacher thought that the child could sing it, 3-year-olds said that the
teacher would try to teach the child to sing, indicating their reliance on the child’s
actual knowledge rather than the teacher’s belief. In contrast, 5-year-olds, similar
to their better performance on traditional false belief tasks, said that a teacher who
thought that a child did not know how to read would teach the child to read, even
though in reality the child knows how to read, indicating understanding of the
implications of teacher’s false beliefs on their decision whether to teach or not.
The teaching strategies of 3-year-olds differed from those of the 5-year-olds in
both the stage of explaining the game and in playing the game. In the explanation
stage, the most frequent strategy in both groups was a combination of demonstra-
tion and verbal explanation. In contrast, the groups differed in the frequency of
demonstration and verbal explanations. Three-year-olds used demonstration more
S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787 1483
frequently than 5-year-olds, whereas 5-year-olds used verbal explanations more
frequently than 3-year-olds.
In the play stage, there was again a signiﬁcant difference in the frequency
of demonstration versus verbal explanations. Younger children’s most frequent
strategy was demonstration, whereas the most frequently employed strategy by
the 5-year-olds was verbal explanations. In addition, two new strategies appeared
among5-year-olds during the play stage.First, 5-year-oldsshowed responsiveness
to the learner’s actions, mainly by verbally repeating, or reminding the learner
about some of the rules they had already previously explained, usually in a short-
ened version, or as a behavioral directive. They also employed a new strategy of
asking children whether they understood or remembered what to do.
In describing their own teaching, children in both age groups recognized that
the learner who initially did not know how to play learned how to play. However,
younger and older children differed in their answers regarding both the teaching
process and the evidence for the learning that took place.
When asked how they taught, 3-year-olds tended to say that they showed the
learner, and/or they described or demonstrated their acts, e.g., “I took the game out
of the box and showed her”; “I moved the train and stopped it at a station.” Older
children tended to say that they taught, told, or explained, e.g., “I told him what to
do,how toplay thegame,” and“I explainedthe rules.I hadto explainall therules.”
Althoughmany olderand someyounger childrenboth demonstratedand explained
the rules, the older children spoke about their explanations when describing what
theydidwhen theytaught,suggesting thattheolder childrenbelievethatexplaining
is at the heart of teaching, unlike the younger children who spoke mostly in terms
When asked how they knew that the peer had learned how to play, younger
children tended to refer to their own act of teaching: “I taught him.” In contrast,
older children referred to the learner’s behavior that could indicate that he/she had
learnedhowto play. The mostfrequentanswers referredtothe learner’sproﬁciency
in playing the game or winning “I saw that she played well,” and “Because she
won the game.”
In also attempted to determine how children’s understandings of all three as-
pects of teaching that were tested (understanding the knowledge difference, actual
teaching, and children’s description of their own teaching), were related. Signif-
icant correlations were found among all three aspects. Higher scores on the new
false belief tasks correlated with teaching by employing verbal explanations, as
wellas withdescribingteaching byreferring to verbalexplanationand thelearner’s
proﬁciency in playing the game.
The ﬁndings support and expand previous ﬁndings regarding the relation be-
tween children’s level of ToM understanding and teaching (Ashley & Tomasello,
1998;Astington & Pelletier, 1996;Wood et al., 1995). Our study showed that
children’s understanding of teaching as well as the actual teaching strategies they
employ change during the preschool years and that these changes correspond to
changes in children’s ToM.
1484 S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787
Three-year-olds have some understanding of teaching. They understand that
in order to determine the need for teaching as well as the target learner, there
is a need to recognize a difference in knowledge between (at least) two people.
However, they do not appear to realize that it is the teacher’s belief about the
learner’s knowledge that will determine whether they will teach or not.
Recognition of the learner’s lack of knowledge seems to be a necessary pre-
requisite for any attempt to teach. Thus, 3-year-olds who identify a peer who
doesn’t know to play a game will attempt to teach the peer. However, they will
differ from 5-year-olds in their teaching strategies, reﬂecting the further change
in ToM and understanding of teaching that occurs between the ages of 3- and
5-years. The strong reliance of 3-year-olds on demonstrations in their actual teach-
ing as well as in their description of their own teaching may suggest interpreting
knowledge — their own and the learner’s, as well as teaching in behavioral —
rather than mental terms.
Furthermore,if teachingis consideredprimarily as a means forchanging behav-
ior, demonstration that produces imitation is naturally the means to accomplish the
goal. In Olson and Bruner’s (1996) terms, 3-year-olds may consider themselves
and their peers as doers and teaching as showing how to do something.
Five-year-old children have a more advanced understanding of teaching. In ac-
cord with their better understanding of standard false belief tasks, 5-year-olds also
understood teachers’ false beliefs and could correctly predict that a misinformed
teacher would or would not teach, depending on the whether they over-estimated
or under-estimated the learner’s knowledge. When actually teaching, these same
children’s teaching strategies relied more than younger children’s on verbal expla-
nationsand includedresponsivenessto thelearner andquestions aimedat checking
the learner’s understanding.
The strategies employed by 5-year-olds as well as their descriptions of their
own teaching may suggest a shift in children’s understanding of teaching — from
focusing on behavioral aspects to appreciating the mental states involved, speciﬁ-
cally knowledge and understanding. In order to teach an ignorant peer, 5-year-olds
provided verbal explanations of the rules of the game, indicating an underlying
assumptionthat proceduralknowledge, or knowinghow,willfollow from knowing
the facts, or rules. Olson and Bruner (1996) suggested that this approach, which
sees teaching as providing propositional knowledge is the most common in educa-
tional practice today. Teachers do not speak directly to the behaviors; they speak
to the learner’s mind, which leads to changed behaviors.
A particularly interesting ﬁnding was that when the learners erred, some of the
5-year-old teachers corrected their mistakes by repeating a previously mentioned
rule, usually in a shortened version. Already at the age of 5-years, children showed
attempts at contingent teaching, or adjusting their teaching to the learner’s present
knowledge state. Thus, in addition to understanding other’s false belief as revealed
in stories about static situations, the current study shows that preschoolers also
come to understand the process by which partial knowledge or false beliefs can be
changed, i.e., teaching.
S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787 1485
When asked how they knew that the peer had learned, 5-year-olds referred to
the learner’s behavior, saying that the learner can now play the game, win etc.
These responses suggest that they understand the causal relation between teach-
ing and learning and realize that learners’ behaviors that indicate newly acquired
knowledge are the outcomes of teaching.
5. The cognition of teaching and its development
We have seen that there are differences between 3- and 5-year-olds’ under-
standings of theory of mind when their false beliefs are tapped by classic false
belief tasks and by tasks designed to measure false beliefs about teaching sit-
uations. We also found age differences when children were asked how they
taught the game, and how they knew that the learner had learned to play. All
of these tasks tapped children’s declarative knowledge when they were inter-
viewed, and they were motivated by ideas consistent with classic theory of mind
We also found differences in the teaching strategies employed by 3- and 5-year-
old children. In contrast to the interview tasks, actual teaching involves procedural
knowledge,and itis interactiveand on-line. Being process-oriented, it may involve
monitoring the responses of the learner and adjusting the next teaching strategy
to the interpretation of that monitoring. We suggested that the two main teach-
ing strategies children employed (demonstration and explanation) may involve an
understanding of how knowledge changes, which is a form of theory of mind. In
short, we may be dealing here with a way to think about an expanded notion of
theory of mind.
Of course, these age differences may not necessarily be developmental differ-
ences. To determine that for an expanded theory of mind, we need an analysis of
thecognitive entities that underlie thechildren’s declarativeand procedural knowl-
edge about others’ minds. A more complete understanding of an expanded theory
of mind also requires a search for teaching’s origins. Here we could look at its phy-
logenetic beginnings, as well as study the emergence of young children’s teaching
in ontogenesis. And, in addition, one would want to describe the mechanisms that
underlie this cognitive development.
But young children are not the only group for determining the cognitive prereq-
uisites for teaching. Strauss (in press) suggested that other groups could shed light
on this area; e.g., Asperger autistic children, those with brain damage in certain
areas, individuals with semantic-pragmatic deﬁcits, unusually gifted adult teach-
ers, unusually non-gifted teachers (what Strauss, in press, coined teachers with
teaching disabilities), and primates. In addition, work in artiﬁcial intelligence can
be done to attempt to simulate teaching. Work being done at Tel Aviv University
is testing some of the above. The work we are describing has yet to be completed.
But its aim is to come up with ways to elucidate the theoretical framework, in
which our work is embedded, i.e., teaching as a natural cognition.
1486 S. Strauss et al./ Cognitive Development 17 (2002) 1473–1787
The empirical part of the present article is based on an MA thesis conducted
by Adi Stein and submitted to the Department of Developmental Perspectives in
Educationat Tel AvivUniversityinpartial requirementforher MAdegree.Authors
Strauss and Ziv were her thesis guides.
We would like to thank Anna Gavrilov for help in some of the data collection.
This study was conducted in the framework of the Lieselotte Adler Fund for
Child Development at Tel Aviv University’s School of Education.
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