Janellen Huttenlocher, pioneering scholar in childhood development, 1932–2016

Janellen Huttenlocher, a pioneer in the field of childhood development whose research explored how children acquire language, understand space and learn math, died Nov. 20 in Chicago. She was 84.

The William S. Gray Professor Emeritus in Psychology, Huttenlocher was a researcher, teacher and mentor at the University of Chicago for four decades. Her research delved into a broad range of topics such as categorization, spatial coding and memory—themes scholars continue to explore. It was marked by groundbreaking work on the role of environment in the development of language skills, including the importance of parents talking to their young children often and in complex sentences.

“Janellen was a big ideas person and had a lot of influence because of that,” said Susan Levine, the Rebecca Anne Boylan Professor of Education and Society, who worked closely with Huttenlocher. “She was a pioneer in early childhood research, including her work on language development and the effects of parents.”

Huttenlocher’s impact in the field of psychology included co-authoring the books Making Space: The Development of Spatial Representation and Reasoning and Quantitative Development in Infancy and Early Childhood, as well as publishing hundreds of research articles. Her scholarship spanned 60 years from her first publication in 1956 to her last in 2015.

Her work on the role of environment in the development of language skills carry on through a multi-year project at UChicago on children and language funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The group of researchers includes Levine, Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor; Stephen Raudenbush, the Lewis-Sebring Distinguished Service Professor; and Assoc. Prof. Lindsey Richland.

Kelly Mix, AM’93, PhD’95, a former student of Huttenlocher’s who is chair of the Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology at the University of Maryland, said Huttenlocher’s research explored a broad range of topics, but was always marked by a common-sense elegance that provided simple explanations about how children develop.

“I learned so much from watching how she thought about things, how she tackled problems,” Mix said. “Janellen would always say, ‘We came for the truth.’ She didn’t want the data to support what she already was thinking, but rather, reveal what was actually happening.”

‘An eye on both adult and kid’

Huttenlocher was born in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1932. She received her undergraduate education at the University of Buffalo and married Peter Huttenlocher shortly after graduating. The couple, which their family described as best friends, collaborated on research at UChicago, where Peter was a renowned neuroscientist, pediatric neurologist and professor.

Janellen Huttenlocher came to UChicago in 1974 after earnings a master’s and doctorate at Harvard University and serving as a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University.

Over the next four decades, her research explored many topics, including early mathematical thinking in children from different socioeconomic groups and the relationship between exposure and vocabulary and syntactic growth. Her work on mathematical development showed that children form mental models of sets and set transformations, and that learning of number words propelled their understanding. She also found that nonverbal mathematical thinking was much more similar across socioeconomic groups than verbal mathematical thinking. 

With respect to language, Huttenlocher found that the more a parent spoke to a child, the more the child’s vocabulary grew. Her research also found that speaking in complex sentences rather than simple ones is important for the development of children’s language comprehension.

More broadly, Huttenlocher’s work challenged the idea a child’s ability to learn is driven primarily by inherited traits. In one example, her research found that children’s ability to learn fluctuates depending on whether they were spending time in school during the school year or out of school during the summer months. The work was cited as an argument for year-round schooling.

“She was really ahead of her time in wanting to understand childhood development and adult cognition,” said Nora Newcombe, the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University, who collaborated with Huttenlocher in researching spatial development and spatial cognition. “She always kept an eye on both adult and kid. Even today they are very separate worlds.”

Besides her prolific career as a researcher, Huttenlocher helped draw top psychology scholars to UChicago and mentored and taught many students, influencing new generations of psychologists who are on the faculty at universities and colleges across the country. Even into retirement, she remained an active research collaborator and frequently attended colloquia and the weekly developmental seminar in UChicago’s Department of Psychology.

Newcombe described Huttenlocher as having a keen mind and a love of classical music and the arts. She also was deeply devoted to her children.    

Huttenlocher was preceded in death by her husband. She is survived by her children: Daniel, Anna and husband Andrew, Carl and wife Tami, and six grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Jan. 28 at Montgomery Place, 5550 S. Shore Drive, Chicago. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the University of Chicago Department of Psychology.