(Re)Inventing the wheel: the development of tool innovation.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Birmingham
Department Name: School of Psychology


Humans use tools in all aspects of our lives. Reading this you are benefitting from a printer or electronic display, perhaps you are using glasses to see, and a mug to hold your coffee. 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? Tool-innovation has received limited attention in the comparative literature, but ours is the first study of human tool-innovation.

Our goal is to understand the psychological 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 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 pipecleaner 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?
Two strands of research address this. In one we test if children lack competence in the domain of physical cognition. Perhaps children lack understanding of causation (e.g. how tools interact with the world), materials (that pipecleaners are pliable, although our results are not limited to tasks involving pipecleaners!), or transformation (that actions can reshape objects). In the other strand we consider whether children who possess the requisite causal knowledge are prevented from using it by performance demands, either immature executive function (e.g. they may respond impulsively or be unable to switch strategies once begun) or an adaptation to learn from others.
We will conduct one large individual differences study where we test many participants on a wide range of measures, followed by 9 experimental studies where we manipulate the tasks to understand the cognitive processes more precisely. The former takes fine grained measures of behaviour and looks for relationships with executive function, general intelligence, and language ability. Our experiments explore whether children lack causal information about the solution or the transformation needed (competence) and we manipulate the opportunities for impulsivity and strategy switching, and the social context (performance). While our main focus is development, we also explore adults' innovation and the nature of innovation itself. Adults' innovation is addressed experimentally e.g. do adults prefer to adapt pre-made tools rather than innovate new ones, are they impulsive in their strategy choices? The nature of innovation is the topic of an associated PhD examining the relationship between tool- and other types of innovation.
Our research will have substantial interdisciplinary impact (we have already published in general journals: Cognition, Behavioral & Brain Sciences) as well as in developmental, comparative and cognitive psychology. Furthermore, the research has great potential for bidirectional public engagement - through our partnership with the Birmingham Thinktank museum we will promote our findings to the public and discuss plans with parents and children: we expect to benefit from their suggestions for experimental tasks and everyday evidence of innovation. Furthermore, understanding innovation as a cognitive process should improve the efficiency with which society innovates and how we encourage young people's innovation.

Planned Impact

Our research will have impact in two ways:
1) Public engagement - promoting science and gaining input from the public to our studies
2) Capacity building - advanced training of our Research Fellow in scientific and transferable skills, resulting in an independent scientist, research training of our PhD student resulting in a competent and experienced scientist. Both members of our team will be employable in academic, public sector or industrial environments.

Our main partner in developing our impact is the Thinktank science museum in Birmingham (see letter of support). In collaboration with colleagues at Thinktank we will engage in 'meet the scientist' events and produce information and interactive displays. We will work with Thinktank to facilitate public input in to our research: through discussion with visitors and where appropriate more structured events. Thus, our research will have immediate cultural impact contributing to educational opportunities at the Thinktank museum.

We will participate in the University of Birmingham Community Day, where local stakeholders can visit the University and learn about research. Developmental Psychology activities have been well received by adults and children in the past.

We will seek opportunities for all members of the team to engage with the media through the University Press Office and the Ideas Lab.

We will discuss our studies with and feedback results to parents and teachers in nurseries and schools.

Our public engagement activities will contribute to the scientific understanding of the general public. Our research topic is very new and the opportunity to discuss our research and findings with teachers and nursery workers may impact educational environments by highlighting children's physical cognition and observational learning in the classroom.

We elaborate on these plans in the Pathways to Impact document.


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Beck S (2017) Interaction between comparative psychology and cognitive development in Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences

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Beck SR (2016) Individual differences in children's innovative problem-solving are not predicted by divergent thinking or executive functions. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

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Beck SR (2014) Is tool-making knowledge robust over time and across problems? in Frontiers in psychology

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Chappell J (2013) The development of tool manufacture in humans: what helps young children make innovative tools? in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

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Cutting N (2014) The puzzling difficulty of tool innovation: why can't children piece their knowledge together? in Journal of experimental child psychology

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Cutting N (2019) Is tool modification more difficult than innovation? in Cognitive Development

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Reindl E (2016) Young children spontaneously invent wild great apes' tool-use behaviours. in Proceedings. Biological sciences

Description We have shown that tool making makes significant demands on children's abilities. These difficulties are not easily described in terms of executive function, but tool making may represent an ill-structured problem. We have shown that tool-making difficulties extend to a variety of tool types. We have investigated individual differences in children's problem solving, finding that neither divergent thinking nor executive ability predicted tool innovation.
In later phases of work we have shown that children are influenced by the context in which they encounter a problem, particularly whether premade tools are provided to them. Provision of premade tools can hinder children's individual innovation. Furthermore, we found that although older children behaved more innovatively when they were left alone to explore a problem, the social context did not impact younger children's success.
In the affiliated PhD studentship we showed that children are influenced by the context in which they encounter innovation problems and explored links to analogical reasoning and construal level theory.
Exploitation Route Our research is likely to inform our ideas of how to support children's problem solving in everyday life.
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Our findings have been used to inform research on children's problem solving and innovation in applied settings. We have worked with an educational tv company and a science museum to conduct research, and have developed new public engagement activities. With our museum collaborators (Thinktank Science Museum, Birmingham) we are contributing to the development of a new preschooler gallery using our research to identify opportunities for children to learn about science and problem solving. We have been awarded a collaborative ESRC studentship to conduct basic and applied research on how children solve problems in informal learning settings. We will also contribute to the development of activities and exhibits in the new gallery. Beck is an external partner on a successful Wellcome Trust Inspiring Science project that will support the new gallery. Based on experience conducting this research on children's problem solving, Beck received funding to work with an educational tv company (US based) to evaluate one of their programmes that has the goal of supporting problem solving. This project was Beck's first engagement with industry to conduct research. We have continued to provide 'Meet the Expert' events for our local science museum, and have also developed new public engagement activity: Beck (2015) and Cutting (2017) have both spoken at Pint of Science events. Beck has since spoken at six pub-based public engagement events (Skeptics in the Pub) and Chappell has presented our work to broad audiences at Brain Awareness Week 2017. Beck recorded a University of Birmingham podcast on problem solving in 2018.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Thinktank Science Museum, Birmingham 
Organisation Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution During the grant we conducted research at Thinktank Science Museum, Birmingham. This led to increased interaction with the museum team and has resulted in Beck becoming an external partner on a successful Wellcome Trust Inspiring Science award to develop a new preschooler gallery and a collaborative ESRC studentship supervised by Beck, Apperly, and Arcus (Thinktank) to research children's problem solving in the museum. We have contributed scientific expertise and knowledge of research methodology to the collaboration.
Collaborator Contribution Thinktank have provided access to research participants and facilities for testing, including entry to the museum. They have provided extensive knowledge of children's behaviour in museum settings and expertise in informal education.
Impact Successful Wellcome Trust Inspiring Science award.
Start Year 2015
Description Meet the Expert: Thinktank Science Museum 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Members of the research team have visited Thinktank Museum to conduct demonstrations and discussion with the general public, including young children.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013,2014,2015,2016
Description Podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Beck recorded an episode of the podcast Watercooler Science in 2018. The podcast is University of Birmingham project. The episode will be broadcast in 2019.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018