Collaborative Research: The Role of Culture and Experience in Children’s Understandings of the Biological World

Principal Investigator: 
Project Overview
Background & Purpose: 

This project is designed to discover how fundamental concepts of the biological world unfold in different learning contexts and across cultural groups. It seeks to document universal patterns in the acquisition of peoples’ most fundamental notions of the natural world, and at the same time to uncover differences which may illuminate the intimate connections among cultural practices and the organization of knowledge.


This study takes place in Chicago, IL and rural Wisconsin – in preschools, elementary schools and middle schools, community centers (e.g. American Indian Center of Chicago) and in participants’ homes.

Research Design: 

The research design for this project is comparative, and is designed to generate evidence which is descriptive (ethnography, observation) and casual (experimental and quasi-experimental). This project collects original data using personal and videography observation, paper and pencil self completion questionnaires, and semi-structured and structured face-to-face interviews. Basic cognitive developmental tasks are used for experiments, and coding systems are utilized for more open-ended data.. This project analyzes CHILDES corpora database as a secondary data source. Standards statistical tests are used for analysis in most cases. For qualitative data, the project develops a coding scheme and then later on performs analyses of the frequency if different codes.


This will be clear in the papers in various stages of publication. We have found that language affects children’s biological reasoning, especially in younger children. For example, in the Indonesian language there is no sense in which humans can be considered animals. We find that 6-year-old Indonesian children are less likely to generalize a novel fact taught about humans to animals than are English-speaking children (Angorro, et al, submitted). We also have found that children have particular difficult with the concept “alive” and that they understand “living thing” much earlier than they understand “alive” (Leddon et al, in press).

In another line of work we have examined spontaneous name generation by children and adults from an urban community, a rural majority culture community and a rural Native-American community. Urban children and adults primarily generate exotic mammals, especially compared with their rural counter-parts. Rural majority culture children and adults generate more native animals and the tendency to generate native animals increases with age. This trend is more pronounced with our Native American sample and their generation reflects the salience of clan animals. Strikingly, urban children and adults rarely generate native animals that one might see in a city (e.g. pigeons, squirrels). Instead their name generation may reflect the salience of exotic animals in children’s book and other media (Winkler-Rhoads, et al, submitted).

Publications & Presentations: 

Anggoro, F., Medin, D. & Waxman, S. (submitted). Naming Practices Influence Children’s Biological Induction. /Developmental Psychology/.

Leddon, E. M., Waxman, S.R. & Medin, D.L. (in press) Unmasking “alive:” Children’s appreciation of a concept linking all living things. Journal of Cognition and Development.

Winkler-Rhoades, N., Medin, D. L., Waxman, S. R., & Woodring, J. (submitted). Shaping the semantic structure of the animal category: A role for culture? /Memory and Cognition/.


Research Design: 


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