Spontaneous discovery of novel task solutions in children

Children often perform worse than adults on tasks that require focused attention. While this is commonly regarded as a sign of incomplete cognitive development, a broader attentional focus could also endow children with the ability to find novel solutions to a given task. To test this idea, we investigated children’s ability to discover and use novel aspects of the environment that allowed them to improve their decision-making strategy. Participants were given a simple choice task in which the possibility of strategy improvement was neither mentioned by instructions nor encouraged by explicit error feedback. Among 47 children (8—10 years of age) who were instructed to perform the choice task across two experiments, 27.5% showed a full strategy change. This closely matched the proportion of adults who had the same insight (28.2% of n = 39). The amount of erroneous choices, working memory capacity and inhibitory control, in contrast, indicated substantial disadvantages of children in task execution and cognitive control. A task difficulty manipulation did not affect the results. The stark contrast between age-differences in different aspects of cognitive performance might offer a unique opportunity for educators in fostering learning in children.