Preschool children can learn to transfer: Learning to learn and learning from example

Ann L. Brown, Mary Jo Kane

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

254 Scopus citations


In a series of seven experiments we examined preschool children's ability to learn and transfer across problems that shared a common underlying structure but differed in surface manifestations. The problems involved novel uses of familiar tools or simple biological themes such as mimicry as a method of defense. In the first three studies, we examined children's ability to learn to transfer after being exposed to a variety of transfer situations. Three-year-olds benefit from conditions that encourage them to reflect upon relational similarity; four-year-olds show a learning to learn effect without prompts to look for similarity. Both ages rapidly form a mind set to look for analogous solutions across problems. In Studies 4 to 7, we looked at preschoolers' learning from examples. When required to explain why an example is an illustration of a general theme, transfer to other instances of that theme is rapid, often occurring on the basis of only one example. Explanations and elaborations provided by the children, either spontaneously or in response to prompts, are much more effective at promoting transfer than those provided by an experimenter. The data are discussed in terms of explanation or analysis-based models of both machine and human learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)493-523
Number of pages31
JournalCognitive Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1988

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research presented in this paper was supported by NICHHD Grants HD 06864 and HD 05951. The authors thank Joseph Campione, John Flavell, Dedre Gentner, Usha Gos-wami, and Robert Reeve for thoughtful discussions on the progress of this research. We thank Susan Hills for making the three-dimensional scenarios or stage sets for the tool use problems, Anne Slattery for finding and drawing the examples of animal defense mechanisms and natural pest control, and Rita Gaskill for her patient text editing of the many versions of this manuscript. Reprints may be obtained by writing to Dr. Ann L. Brown at her current address at the School of Education, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720.


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