The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Human Learning is Not the Product of Schools

on August 20, 2016

Hello again, faithfull readers.  I hope you missed me as much as I missed you. Today’s post was born when I read an article in the New York Times on July 30th entitled “What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages,” by Alison Gopnik.  The article described a number of scientific studies that examined the learning processes of infants and young children. I found the results fascinating and only wished for more experiments to explore children’s abilities when they were not taught that there is only one right way to reach a desired goal.

Right at the beginning Ms. Gopnik reminds us that human learning is not the product of schools: “Young children were learning thousands of years before we had ever even thought of schools. Children in foraging cultures learned by watching what the people around them did every day, and by playing with the tools they used. New studies show that even the youngest children’s brains are designed to learn from this simple observation and play in a remarkably sensitive way.”

She also suggests that traditional teaching methods are far less effective than learning by observing real people in action. In a number of studies, even babies could repeat strange adult actions that worked, also detect mistakes or wasted efforts and correct them in their own actions. For example, when 14-month-old toddlers watched an adult turn on a light inside a box by tapping the box with her head, they did the same. But when they next saw a person whose arms were wrapped in a blanket tap with her head, they figured out that  there was a better way. When given the chance to perform, they tapped with their hands.

Even more amazing was a study with four year olds in which a demonstrator tried several different actions to get an unfamiliar toy to play music.  Most of those actions had no effect; only turning the toy over and pressing a tab produced music. When the children got a chance to manipulate the same toy, they ignored all the failed actions of the demonstrator and went immediately to the turn-over-and-tab-pushing technique that worked.

Sadly, the one type of experiment I hoped to see was not mentioned. I can only assume that it has never been tried or it was tried without success. Such an experiment would be one in which the demonstrator tries several different actions to get an unfamiliar toy to work, but is unsuccessful and ultimately gives up. After watching that demonstration I would hope to see children testing the failed strategies for a short time, but then trying out some ideas of their own. From my own experience with children, as a mother and a teacher, I believe that such an experiment would show their ingenuity when given the opportunity to move on from what has been taught to demonstrate their own innovativeness and self-confidence.  I would also hope that some of the children would would quickly discover a real solution to the problem, and that many others would keep on trying for a long time, even come back the next day to try out something new. Either way, those attempts would be examples of children’s natural learning ability.

I am optimistic because I have often seen children invent things they were not taught to do. In fact, studies show that explicit instruction, the sort of teaching that goes with school and parenting, can be limiting. When children are formally taught by an authority figure, they are much more likely to simply reproduce what that person says or does, instead of creating something of their own that is far more interesting and supportive of intellectual growth.

One response to “Human Learning is Not the Product of Schools

  1. Don Bellairs says:

    Role modeling is the most effective form of teaching. That is why so much of what we do in public schools today is counter-productive to producing good citizens. We are teaching inequity.


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