Publication 6400

Sarnecka B. W. & Negen J. (2012) A number of options: Rationalist, constructivist, and Bayesian insights into the development of exact-number concepts. In: Xu F. & Kushnir T. (eds.) Advances in child development and behavior. Volume 43. Academic Press, Waltham MA: 237–268.
The question of how human beings acquire exact-number concepts has interested cognitive developmentalists since the time of Piaget. The answer will owe something to both the rationalist and constructivist traditions. On the one hand, some aspects ofnumerical cognition (e.g. approximate number estimation and the ability to track small sets of one to four individuals) are innate or early-developing and are shared widely among species. On the other hand, only humans create representations of exact, large numbers such as 42, as distinct from both 41 and 43. These representations seem to be constructed slowly, over a period of months or years during early childhood. The task for researchers is to distinguish the innate representational resources from those that are constructed, and to characterize the construction process. Bayesian approaches can be useful to this project in at least three ways: (1) As a way to analyze data, which may have distinct advantages over more traditional methods (e.g. making it possible to find support for a null hypothesis); (2) as a way of modeling children’s performance on specific tasks: Peculiarities of the task are captured as a prior; the child’s knowledge is captured in the way the prior is updated; and behavior is captured as a posterior distribution; and (3) as a way of modeling learning itself, by providing a formal account of how learners might choose among alternative hypotheses.
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