The Education University of Hong Kong has collaborated with University of Cambridge to study the difference in the ability to understand others (Theory of Mind) between children in Hong Kong and those in the UK. The results showed that the children in Hong Kong had lagged behind their UK counterparts, implying that their social and academic development might be hindered. Dr Wang Zhe-lin, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, pointed out that changing the traditional teaching model and enhancing parental mind-mindedness could help address the problem.

Theory of Mind Influences Social and Academic Development

Theory of Mind refers to a person’s ability to understand other people’s behaviour and mental state. Children with higher ability would have better social skills and tend to be more popular among their peers. These children are also expected to have stronger cognitive skills and better academic development. The learning process would also be smoother for children who could understand their teachers’ teaching intention, according to Dr Wang.

‘For example, when teachers introduce game-based learning in class, students with higher ability would understand that the game itself was a means to facilitate teaching. They would not only focus on the game, but also what they have to learn,’ said Dr Wang.

Inquiry-based Learning Encourages Multiple-perspective Thinking

In the first phase of the study, Dr Wang and the scholars from the University of Cambridge tested 336 children from Hong Kong and the UK, comparing how well students in British primary schools, and Hong Kong local or international schools, grasp Theory of Mind.

Dr Wang Zhe-lin, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, The Education University of Hong Kong

The results showed that the performance of students from local primary schools in Hong Kong was less impressive than the British students, while the international school students in Hong Kong were almost as capable as their peers in the UK.

Dr Wang said different teaching models adopted by the schools might have led to such a discrepancy.

Most local schools in Hong Kong have adopted a traditional way of teaching, and teacher-student interaction is lacking. Under this model, teachers transfer knowledge to students, and students often learn by memorising or drilling.

On the other hand, international schools in Hong Kong have introduced inquiry-based and self-directed learning, emphasising problem solving and collaboration among students. Students are also encouraged to discuss and debate with each other in the learning process, thus developing effective multi-perspective thinking and analytical skills.

Dr Wang said students with stronger multi-perspective thinking and analytical skills were more capable to stand in other people’s shoes, adding that if schools would like to enhance students’ development of Theory of Mind, they could consider changing their teaching model by introducing inquiry-based learning to improve students’ multi-perspective thinking and comprehension abilities.

Testing Theory of Mind through False Belief Understanding

Based on the results of the study in the first phase, the research team further recruited 120 families with children aged 3 to 5 to take part in various tests on the children’s False Belief Understanding. The tests aimed to find out to what extent the children could understand others, and realise that they had false belief failing to reflect the reality.

False Belief Understanding

  1. Prepare a red box, a green box and a doll and show them to the children
  2. Put one coin in the red box in front of the children
  3. Tell the children that the doll knows that there is a coin in the red box
  4. Put away the doll and tell the children that the doll has to leave for a while
  5. Tell the children that they are going to play a trick on the doll and move the coin from the red box to the green box
  6. Take out the doll and tell the children that the doll has come back
  7. Ask the children to choose the box that they think the doll would go to and find the coin
  • If the children choose the red box, it means that they can think in the doll’s perspective since the doll would not know that the coin has been moved to the green box
  • If the children choose the green box, it means that they predict the doll’s decision based on their own experience

Dr Wang described the cultivation of children’s False Belief Understanding as a milestone of their mental abilities development. From the results, we see ⅔ of the UK children passed the tests, but only ½ of the Hong Kong children achieved the same.

Parents Helps Children Develop Mental Abilities

The research team also tested the parents’ mind-mindedness by asking them to describe their children’s behaviour, and how they got along with one another. The more the parents mentioned their children’s mental state in the test, the higher mind-mindedness they had.

The test results showed that the parents in Hong Kong had lower mind-mindedness compared with those in the UK, explaining why children in the UK grasp Theory of Mind better than children in Hong Kong.

Dr Wang said if parental mind-mindedness was excluded in the study, the difference between the children in Hong Kong and the UK was indeed minimal. She added that cultural difference was the main reason leading to the gap between the mind-mindedness of parents in Hong Kong and the UK .

‘Parents in the eastern part of the world are more concerned about their children’s academic development and skill acquisition, and less so about their mental state,’ said Dr Wang.

She added that parents could help their children grasp Theory of Mind by adjusting the way they get along with their children. For example, they could show more care to their children, respect their thoughts, thus encouraging them to stand in other people’s shoes. Parents could also read storybooks with their children, and guide them to understand the stories by thinking from different characters’ perspectives.