Commentary on Callanan, Legare, Sobel et al. (2020). Exploration, Explanation, and Parent-Child Interaction in Museums.

About the Author
Robert B. Ricco

Department of Psychology,
California State University, San Bernardino

Dr. Ricco is Chair of Psychology at CSU, San Bernardino. He received his doctorate from Temple University in 1986 and subsequently held a postdoctoral position at the CUNY Graduate Center. His research programs concern the development of reasoning across the lifespan and parent beliefs about knowledge, learning, and motivation.

Integrating Sociocultural and Constructivist Perspectives on Young Children’s Causal Learning

Studies of young children’s causal learning in museums and other informal settings provide an important counterpoint to more laboratory-based, rational constructivist inquiries. In their monograph, Exploration, Explanation, and Parent-Child Interaction in Children’s Museums, Callanan, Legare, Sobel, et al. (2020) describe several respects in which children’s learning about gear exhibits is related to both the nature and the timing of parent guidance. Rather than approaching their research strictly from within a sociocultural or a constructivist perspective, the authors suggest that a more effective framework for their study (and for findings from prior work in this area), would be a synthesis of these two perspectives. In my commentary, I first provide a brief critique of constructivist lab research on causal learning, and then turn to the primary focus of the commentary in which I address the authors’ proposed synthesis of constructivist and sociocultural perspectives.

Research from within the rational constructivist perspective has employed experimental designs and laboratory settings to establish substantial early competence in causal learning and inductive reasoning.  It is clear from this research that young children are able to detect and represent complex patterns of dependence and independence among events, and they can make accurate causal inferences on the basis of these patterns (Gopnik, Sobel, Schulz, & Glymour, 2001; Ricco, 2015). For example, a number of studies have used the “blicket detector” paradigm in which children must determine which objects (assigned the novel label of blickets) possess the capacity to activate a machine (the blicket detector). When young children observe that object pairings AC and BC produce an outcome (e.g., activate the blicket detector) but pairing AB does not, they conclude that C is a blicket and that A and B are not blickets. Children need only two or three trials to make these determinations. Constructivist research has also demonstrated that preschoolers possess a rudimentary ability to manipulate objects and events to test hypotheses about the causal structure involved.

Although rational constructivism has been highly successful in identifying and modeling young children’s capabilities with regard to causal learning and understanding, this perspective has not provided a sufficiently comprehensive account of how these capabilities are acquired by the child. This is due, in large part, to the perspective’s rendering of both learning and development as independent of their various contexts. In their monograph, Callanan et al. (2020) highlight one important consequence of neglecting context. This is a tendency for rational constructivism to privilege the individual over the social. Rationalist accounts of children’s early causal learning center on the child’s mental representation and rule-based analysis of information. Within the rationalist perspective, the social context, if acknowledged, is reduced to a type of information or a source of input. The insufficiency of this treatment of the social context, however, is evident from findings generated by the constructivist research program itself. Some of the early competencies in causal learning revealed by rational constructivism are present in children’s interactions with peers and parents before they are manifest in the child’s independent activities (Ricco, 2015).

In comparison to research on children’s causal learning in relatively formal, experimental settings, the study of children’s informal causal learning in natural settings has generally proceeded from within a sociocultural perspective. Results from research in this tradition also show early competence, particularly with regard to children’s systematic exploration of natural environments. In addition, sociocultural research has provided important insights into the ways in which informal learning is embedded within the child’s social activity (Andre, Durksen, & Volman, 2017; Crowley, Callanan, Jipson, Galco, Topping, & Shrager, 2001; Willard, Busch, Cullum, Letourneau, Sobel, Callanan, & Legare, 2019). This body of work has revealed a complex interdependence between children’s explanations of causal relations and their hands-on exploration of the environment. It has likewise revealed the importance of the child’s participation in dynamic interactive experiences with technology (Andre et al., 2017) and, especially, with parents, peers, and other social agents (Willard et al., 2019). Consistent with previous research in museum settings, the findings reported by Callanan et al. (2020) show that children’s systematic exploration of a gear exhibit is a function of sociocultural factors such as parent-child interaction style, parent language, and the timing of parent interventions. Specifically, the authors report that parents’ causal language was related to both children’s explanations and their systematic exploration at the museum, and parents’ timing in their use of causal language was particularly critical. In this regard, parents’ language related to children’s systematic exploration only if it occurred immediately prior to the act of spinning the gears in the exhibit. The authors also found that the style of parent-child interaction (i.e., the locus of the interaction goal) was important to whether or not parents’ causal language was related to children’s exploration. In particular, parent-directed interactions showed less of a relationship than interactions governed by joint goals.

These findings make it clear that children’s exploration and explanation are sensitive to the social context within which learning takes place. At the same time, not all aspects of the social context were relevant to children’s systematic exploration, and some aspects of their exploration were more clearly related to the child’s cognitive activity (e.g., self-talk, causal thinking) than to the social context. Thus, parent characteristics such as SES and experience with STEM disciplines did not mediate the key relations between parents’ use of causal language and children’s language or exploration. Indeed, parents’ educational level and science background were associated with their use of causal language after children’s engagement in systematic exploration, rather than before – an association which seems to support neither the child’slearning nor development. In addition, children’s resoluteness and persistence in engaging in exploration were dependent upon their own verbalizations regarding their actions when encountering difficulties in producing desired effects. Resoluteness was not sensitive to variations in the social environment, such as parents’ use of causal language or parent-child interactive style. Also, children’s exploration was related to an independent assessment of their causal thinking, whereas sociocultural factors generally were not related.

Within the sociocultural perspective, some of these findings appear as anomalies and are difficult to explain. A core assumption for this sociocultural perspective is that meaning originates ‘outside’ the child in the course of social interaction, rather than through the child’s cognitive activity per se. If so, then why are some aspects of the social context (e.g., parents’ timely use of causal language) related to children’s exploration, whereas other aspects (e.g., parents’ educational level) are not? And why do some aspects of children’s cognitive activity (e.g., their causal thinking and their verbalizations about their own actions) relate directly to their exploration, without mediation or moderation from sociocultural factors?  In the authors’ estimation, these anomalies are potentially resolved by adopting the standpoint of a single framework that integrates sociocultural and constructivist perspectives on children’s causal learning. I would agree. But is their explanatory framework an actual synthesis of perspectives? Before addressing this question, I discuss what a synthesis would involve. 

A synthesis acknowledges, and then resolves, seeming incompatibilities between contrasting elements of a dichotomy. One such dichotomy is that between the individual and the social. Dichotomies like this exist from within an approach to explanation that stresses reductionism, splitting, and foundationalism (Overton, 2015). In any reduction, a split is imposed between a thing’s appearance and its underlying reality, such that each becomes mutually exclusive of the other. The perspective from which the reduction is carried out is treated as foundational and is privileged over the other perspective. Viewed from this reductionist enterprise, constructivism privileges the individual while the sociocultural perspective privileges the social. As such, the perspectives are incompatible (Overton, 2015). They represent alternative, competing explanations. Relational developmental systems (RDS) meta-theory rejects reductionism and represent a paradigm that offers a basis for overcoming dichotomies and anomalies. Within RDS, the individual and the social are construed as dynamic, co-active and co-present systems and contexts of development (Lerner & Castellino, 2002). Because a synthesis does not reduce or privilege one perspective relative to the other, each system represents a necessary point of analysis in explaining a phenomenon.

To achieve a synthesis or rapprochement between the individual and the social as points of analysis, it must be assumed that every act of knowing by the child is simultaneously individual and social.  Meaning, insofar as it affects development, is always mediated by the child’s cognitive activity and is never independent of that activity. The meaning of a sociocultural practice, symbol, or value for the child depends, in part, on what the child makes of it. But it must also be assumed that meaning is at all times social. Children’s cognitive activity draws upon a network of potential meanings that constitutes an ever-present sociocultural context for children’s understanding and action. From the standpoint of a synthesis, effective explanations of the extant data on children’s causal learning would identify how the individual and the social are co-active and transactional in each of the aspects of causal learning under study, rather than establishing which of the two elements of the dichotomy is primary in explaining an aspect. The latter approach implies that one perspective is more important, accurate, or parsimonious than the other. Even though the determination of which perspective is more central may vary depending on which aspect of causal learning is being explained, it remains the case that this approach maintains a split between the individual and the social and, therefore, continues to uphold a program of reductionism.

In keeping with their integrated approach, the authors draw from both perspectives in accounting for their findings and this provides a richer account than might result from adopting either the sociocultural or the constructivist perspective alone. I would argue, however, that their account is not always consistent with the goals of a synthesis. At times, the authors depict a particular aspect of children’s causal learning (e.g., the child’s resoluteness or persistence in exploration) as mediated primarily by the child’s internal, cognitive activity, while other aspects (e.g.,  the child’s choices about what parts of the exhibit to explore and the timing of those choices) are claimed to be mediated primarily by the social context.  Similarly, in discussing the association between children’s exploration and the independent assessment of their causal thinking, the focus is almost exclusively on the individual, that is, the child’s cognitive activity. At other points, the authors’ explanations seem more in keeping with a synthesis of perspectives. This characterization is particularly applicable to the authors’ discussions of parents’ and children’s contributions to meaning-making during children’s exploration of the exhibit. Parent interventions are described as directing their child’s attention to causally relevant features of the exhibit and scaffolding the child’s progression from gear arrangement to gear spinning, thereby informing the child’s hands-on activity. The child’s contributions include negotiating goals for the parent-child interaction, making decisions about what and how to explore, and interpreting and reflecting upon the outcomes of the child’s actions. Further, the authors make clear that the child’s choices in exploring and their interpretation of outcomes are informed both by the parent’s verbalizations and by the child’s level of causal thinking. In such accounts, the distinct, but co-present and transactional roles of the individual and the social become apparent.   

In concluding, I want to consider an issue that is related to the main thrust of my commentary. Future research on causal learning would be well-served by increasing the diversity of the samples involved. Greater diversity is critical for determining why some aspects of the social context were not predictive of children’s exploration. The irrelevance of SES and other aspects of parent or family background, for example, could be due to the relatively select nature of the samples recruited in research on museum settings. In the authors’ study, 64% of participants reported a family income of $71,000 or above, and 70% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. In addition, 66% of the children had visited a museum before. Parents and children from higher SES groups or with a history of museum experience are more museum literate and, therefore, more facile in interacting with the exhibits and more likely to learn from them (Weiland, 2015). Research with more diverse samples might find that parent and family background are significant predictors of children’s exploration and explanation.Of course, the use of convenience samples is not limited to museum studies. Within the rational-constructivist research program, it has also been the case that the samples employed and the social psychology of the research setting have tended to reflect the culture and experiences of higher SES groups. Within rational constructivism, the lack of broader sampling derives, in part, from the privileging of the individual and the universal in this perspective’s accounts of cognition and cognitive development. By contrast, restricted sampling within the sociocultural perspective, when present, often reflects a privileging of the social and of diversity in development. This perspective urges caution in making direct comparisons across social strata, cultures, and historical periods because there is no value-neutral standard of comparison (Overton, 2015). From within Callanan et al.’s (2020) proposed synthesis of perspectives, however, as best realized in RDS meta-theory, neither universality nor diversity is privileged. The importance of sampling from diverse populations follows directly from the RDS assumption that development occurs within multiple, ever-present and co-active contexts, and that universal laws support multiple pathways to positive developmental outcomes.


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Ricco, R. B. (2015). Development of Reasoning. In L.S. Liben and U. M. Müller (Eds.), Cognitive processes. Volume 2 of the Handbook of child psychology and developmental science (7th ed., pp. 519-570), Editor-in-Chief: R.M. Lerner. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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Willard, A. K., Busch, J. T., Cullum, K. A., Letourneau, S. M., Sobel, D. M., Callanan, M., & Legare, C. H. (2019). Explain this, explore that: A study of parent–child interaction in a children’s museum. Child Development, 90(5), 598-617.

Ricco, R. B. (2020). Integrating Sociocultural and Constructivist Perspectives on Young Children’s Causal Learning. [Peer commentary on the article “Exploration, Explanation, and Parent-Child Interaction in Museums” by M. A. Callanan, C. H. Legare, D. M. Sobel, G. Jaeger, S. Letourneau, S. R. McHugh, A. Willard, et al.]. Monograph Matters. Retrieved from