'(Re)Inventing the wheel': Sarah Beck, Ian Apperly and Jackie Chappell awarded three year ESRC grant to investigate children's and adults' making of tools.

Sarah Beck

An ESRC collaborative project brings together developmental psychologists Sarah Beck and Ian Apperly (pictured right) and bioscientist Jackie Chappell to explore human tool making. The project develops work funded by a College of Life and Environmental Sciences Cutting Edge grant and Nicola Cutting's PhD work. Nicola will be the postdoctoral researcher on the project and a new PhD student will also join our team. The project is worth £450k (FEC) over three years, starting 1st October.
Humans use tools in all aspects of our lives, from spoons to bridges to the internet. A wealth of research charts the emergence of tools in human evolution, tool use in non-human animals, and human children's readiness to learn from others how to use tools. Most tools that humans use are not found in the environment. They have been made by people. We ask what makes humans such prolific innovators of tools?


Our goal is to understand the cognitive processes involved in tool-innovation. We look at a group whose cognitive processes are still in development and who find it remarkably difficult to innovate tools: human children. In our pioneering work on children's tool-innovation [http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2011.01.003] we gave children a simple physical problem: a bucket containing a sticker needed to be retrieved from the bottom of a tall, transparent, vertical tube. Crows have solved variants of this task by bending wire in to a hook to retrieve the bucket. We expected children to easily fashion a hook from a straight pipe cleaner to solve the task, given their expertise using pre-made tools in everyday life. To our surprise 3- to 5-year-olds rarely innovated a hook, and it was only at 8 years that the majority of children succeeded. We confirmed the generalisability of our finding and now ask: Why is tool-innovation so difficult for human children?

Examples of children completing our tasks can be seen on our Youtube channel - http://www.youtube.com/cogdevbirmingham.