Explanation Constrains Learning, and Prior Knowledge Constrains Explanation


A great deal of research has demonstrated that learning is influenced by the learner’s prior background knowledge (e.g. Murphy, 2002; Keil, 1990), but little is known about the processes by which prior knowledge is deployed. We explore the role of explanation in deploying prior knowledge by examining the joint effects of eliciting explanations and providing prior knowledge in a task where each should aid learning. Three hypotheses are considered: that explanation and prior knowledge have independent and additive effects on learning, that their joint effects on learning are subadditive, and that their effects are superadditive. A category learning experiment finds evidence for a superadditive effect: explaining drives the discovery of regularities, while prior knowledge constrains which regularities learners discover. This is consistent with an account of explanation’s effects on learning proposed in Williams & Lombrozo (in press).

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