Researcher in Profile: Allison Master
By Chia-wa Yeh, Head Teacher and Research Coordinator
Many children at Bing Nursery School have met Allison Master, a 3rd year graduate student in psychology at Stanford University. Gentle and attentive, Master and her research assistants have spent hours in the classrooms getting to know the children at Bing and inviting children to participate in her studies. Typically researchers spend a few mornings or afternoons each week in the classrooms. They often partake in activities such as reading books to children, supporting children’s work and play, or passing plates of fruit around the table at snack time.
Master grew up in a log cabin up a dirt road in the mountains, about 15 minutes away from the city of Asheville in western North Carolina. Master traces her interest in working with young children to her family. Her mother has been a preschool teacher for many years and now works one-on-one with children with special needs. In fact, Master’s mother was her preschool teacher! While in high school, Master spent a lot of time volunteering in her mother’s class. Master’s older sister, who works for a union for Broadway actors in New York City, had previously taught children with autism for two years.
Master is passionate about reading, a trait evident in an anecdote she shared. Her father, a lawyer and an avid Yankees fan, once took Master and her sister to a Yankees game. Both girls had a great time as they spent the entire time on the bleachers, fully immersed in their books. Her father eventually resigned himself to the fact that his children much prefer books to baseball.
Master attended Yale University and majored in psychology with a minor in philosophy. While at Yale, Master continued her work with young children. For her work-study program, Master worked for two years with at-risk children on a one-on-one basis and taught at a preschool attached to the Connecticut Children’s Museum in her senior year.
After graduation, Master worked as a research assistant for two years for professor Geoffrey Cohen, PhD, at Yale, now at University of Colorado. She conducted surveys with minority middle school students for a project that aimed to provide intervention to reduce the minority achievement gap in middle school. This work shaped her decision to pursue a doctorate in psychology.
At Stanford, Master studies under the guidance of renowned psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD. (For more information on Dweck’s work, see page 3.) Her research interests are motivation and the development of motivation and how it relates to resilience and academic achievement in children. In the long run, Master would like to conduct applied research with older children.
Master is interested in finding out how beliefs children form now might affect their development later on. Why do some children form beliefs that intelligence or goodness and badness are fixed entities and that making a mistake means one’s bad? Furthermore, she is interested in studying whether these fixed beliefs affect children’s motivation. For example, are children with these views more likely to behave as if helpless after making a mistake? And are they less likely to be motivated to take on challenges? Master and Dweck are investigating where these beliefs come from and how to help children be less fearful of making mistakes. They are also exploring whether listening to storybooks with different messages might change how children respond to challenges and lead them to see mistakes as part of the learning process.
The two researchers are also looking at whether a child’s temperament affects beliefs. For example, might shy children be more likely to develop fixed beliefs and become discouraged when facing setbacks, and as a result avoid taking on challenges? Preliminary findings suggest that very shy children also shy away from too much challenge, for example, difficult puzzles, as do children who hold certain beliefs about goodness and badness.
Why is this research important to Master? “Because it captures my interest in helping children to achieve their potential,” she said. In addition to her work on how children form their beliefs, Master is also working with Dweck and psychology professor Ellen Markman, PhD, on a study on the effects of placing concepts along a continuum versus placing them in various distinct categories.
In this study, researchers sit with children in the research game room and show them simple line drawings of smiling and sad faces in progression from a very big smile, to smaller smiles, to mildly sad, to very sad. They describe the expressions to the children. While talking with some children, the researchers describe the faces as either happy or sad—no in between. With other children, they describe the series of images as a continuum: really happy, a little happy, less happy, a little sad, more sad, really sad. The researchers want to find out what, if any, impact this has. Among their questions: Would children who hear descriptions that fall into discrete categories tend to view these faces in the same way—as either happy/nice or sad/mean? Would their counterparts who hear descriptions that reflect the presence of a continuum tend to be less likely to view these faces in an “either/or” fashion?
For example, will those who’ve heard researchers describe concepts along a continuum consider a small smile as more similar to a small sad face than to a really big smile? Researchers then ask follow-up questions regarding how these people, as represented by the faces, might act in different situations. The results so far suggest that the way children think about items does affect their descriptions and judgments. Next, Dweck, Markman, and Master are interested to see how this affects children’s judgments about social categories such as nice versus mean and good versus bad.
Participating at Bing in the past two years has meant a great deal to Master, she said. Aside from being able to work on her studies, Master enjoys taking a break from graduate school to ride on rocket ships built with blocks and eat dinosaur pancakes made out of play-dough. “I love that Bing values learning in all its forms. It’s not just about children learning, but also about teachers and college students and researchers together learning more about how children learn.”