Young children's mental models determine analogical transfer across problems with a common goal structure

Ann L. Brown, Mary J. Kane, Catharine H. Echols

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163 Scopus citations


Analogical transfer in 3- to 5-year-olds was examined in three studies where the children were required to notice the common underlying goal structure of a set of problems. The children were either required to recall the prototype story before tackling the transfer problem, or were explicitly prompted to attend to the common goal structure. Subjects who spontaneously focused on the goal structure in their recall, or who were prompted to do so, transferred efficiently regardless of age. Children who did not represent the problems at the level of underlying goal paths, but instead attended to interesting surface features of particular stories, failed to transfer. Children as young as 3 years of age have the underlying competence to transfer a common problem solution; level of representation rather than age determines transfer efficiency. Transfer flexibility is not a simple function of age but depends on the level of analysis afforded the base analogy. The results are discussed in terms of emergent theories of mental models for learning via analogy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)103-121
Number of pages19
JournalCognitive Development
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1986

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by Grants HD-06864 and HD-05951 from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Preparation of the manuscript was supported by Spencer Foundation funding to the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, where the first author was a fellow in the 1984-85 academic year. Thanks are due to Joseph Campione and Rachel Gelman for helpful comments on the manuscript. The teachers, parents, and children of Kinder Care, Kinder Cassel, and the Child Center day care centers are gratefully acknowledged for their willing cooperation in these studies.


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