Teaching, autism and the cognitive foundations of human culture. Self funded Biosciences PhD Ref: 3197

About the Research Project


Primary supervisor: Dr Alex Thornton, University of Exeter 

Secondary supervisors: 
Prof Francesca Happé, Kings College London
Prof Christine Caldwell, University of Stirling

Location: University of Exeter, Penryn Campus

Project description:
Teaching plays a vital role in the transmission and accumulation of knowledge in human societies, and is thought to have facilitated our species’ ecological success. However, the evolutionary roots of teaching and its cognitive basis are poorly understood. To understand the basic cognitive pre-requisites and evolutionary foundations of teaching, it is necessary to determine how relatively simple, low-level mechanisms may enable individuals to help others learn. One common, but untested assumption is that teachers require Theory of Mind (ToM) to recognise that pupils lack knowledge or skills. However, recent comparative research calls this assumption into question, suggesting that instead of reasoning about pupils’ knowledge, teachers may use visible indicators of pupils’ age and competence to deliver effective teaching.

This project will use behavioural experiments comparing children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and neurotypical (NT) children to examine the cognitive requirements of human teaching. In particular, it will test whether children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), who typically show impairments in ToM, are nevertheless able to use cues of pupil age and competence to deliver appropriately targeted lessons. The project will also use experiments to examine autistic children’s use of a specialised form of human teaching, motherese: the simplified and exaggerated baby-talk used by parents across cultures that appears to help babies learn to speak. If motherese does not rely on ToM, but is rather elicited as an automatic response to baby-like features, we may predict that autistic children, despite their ToM deficits, will show similar patterns to typically developing children when addressing infants, adults or pets.

Together, this research will provide critical insights into the cognitive foundations of human culture. It will also have important implications for the development of schemes to improve collaborative and communicative skills of autistic people and help these often strikingly talented people to make major contributions to society.

The project would be suited to a student with strong quantitative skills and a background in biology, psychology or anthropology. Experience in cultural evolution research, behavioural research and/or working with children would be an advantage.

The student would be based within the Human Biological and Cultural Evolution Group at University of Exeter's beautiful Penryn campus in Cornwall.

Project costs:
Please note, there are costs associated with the project. Estimated research costs, to cover equipment and transport to schools to run experiments: £1000 per year

Things to consider:
Information about current fees : https://www.exeter.ac.uk/pg-research/money/fees/
Information about possible funding sources: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/pg-research/money/alternativefunding/
Information about Doctoral Loans: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/pg-research/money/phdfunding/postgraduatedoctoralloans/

For more information about the project and informal enquiries, please contact the primary supervisor, Dr Alex Thornton

Entry requirements

You should have or expect to achieve at least a 2:1 Honours degree from a UK university, or equivalent, in biology, psychology, anthropology or related subjects. Experience in cultural evolution research, behavioural research and/or working with children is desirable.

If English is not your first language you will need to meet the English language requirements and provide proof of proficiency. Click here for more information and a list of acceptable alternative tests.

How to apply

You will be asked to submit some personal details and upload a full CV, covering letter and two academic references. Your covering letter should outline your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to undertake this project. You may also be asked to upload verified transcripts of your most academic qualification.

Please quote reference 3197 on your application and in any correspondence about this project


Application deadline:24th September 2018
Value:This project is self-funded
Duration of award:Not applicable
Contact: PGR Enquiries pgrenquiries@exeter.ac.uk