For most of human history no one paid much attention to the fact that children learned all manner of things seemingly without effort.
Children learned their parent's language, the household routines; they learned their parents' norms, beliefs and customs. What we now call learning was simply the unremarkable consequence of growing up.
At first, with writers like Dickens who vividly portrayed the world from the perspective of the growing child (David Copperfield), and then later from psychologists like William James (Talks to Teachers), John Dewey (The Child and the Curriculum) and Jean Piaget (The Child's Conception of the World), the idea that a child was little more than a tiny, rather stupid adult began to fade, replaced by the understanding that a child was different sort of being entirely, a protean creature capable of developing in a dizzying variety of ways.
Contemporary investigations in psychology and cognitive science have revealed that even very young children have remarkable cognitive attributes. The research provides additional evidence that the educational practices of the traditional school are largely inconsistent with and even antagonistic to the fruitful development of the child's cognitive tools.
Far from being an "empty vessel" waiting to be filled with facts, very young children "understand a great deal about the basic principles of biology and physical causality, about number, narrative, and personal intent... (Branford, and others, 2001, p. 4)
A long line of research confirms that very young children already possess the cognitive abilities that enable them to develop ever more sophisticated understandings about the world from their interactions with experiences. A group of 4 year olds were shown a toy with a variety of tabs and handles. An adult showed the children many different and complicated manipulations some of which made the toy play music and some of which did not. When the four year olds were given access to the toy and asked to make it play music, they analyzed the tabs and handles and the patterns demonstrated for them and quickly worked out that a simple pull on a tab and turning the toy over made it play music. Alison Gopnik, a psychology professor at the University of California Berkeley, concluded the children "used their observations to create an intelligent new solution to the problem." (Gobnik, 2016)
Parents' complaint that toddlers "get into everything" is really a feature of young children's learning ability and not a "bug.' Studies of young children engaged with "active learning" show a kind of early-stage scientific method in children's play; they experiment with an object/toy to see what kinds of things it can do. In fact pre-schoolers appear to play most with the objects/toys from which they believe they can learn the most.
An illustration of "baby as critical observer" can be found in an experiment in which babies were shown a ball apparently passing through a solid wall and a toy car running off the table and apparently floating above the floor. After the demonstration, some babies were given a ball like the one in the illusion and others were given the toy car.
The babies with the ball, banged it into the wall while those with the car dropped it over and over to test whether it would float; apparently babies from each group were testing what they were shown against their own understanding that balls can't go through solid walls and that when you no longer support a toy it falls. (Gopnik, 2016)
According to the Professor Gopnik, our understandings about children and their capacities for learning from experience even without formal instruction have only partially been incorporated into how we design school curriculum. It is still taken for granted that if we want more children to learn more in order to meet the requirements of the modern economic realities, we need to do more teaching in its traditional form because "most people think that learning is the sort of thing we do in school, and that parents should act like teachers--they should direct special lessons at learning to produce particular kinds of knowledge or skill with the help of how-to books and "parenting" apps." (Gopnik, 2016)
Unfortunately, the two views (child as vessel to fill vs. child as equipped to learn from experience) are more than just incompatible; the two are antagonists.
The adult who opens with "here's how it works" can lead young children to (the rational) conclusion that there is no point in experiment because the adult surely knows the right way to things. In contrast, an adult's "I wonder how..." appears to encourage active exploration on the part of the child.
The world we live in is filled with surprised that required critical thought and problem-solving; that is, one that is consistent with the way babies and very young children process it well before they enter school classrooms.
Unfortunately, cautions professor Gopnik, many Pre-K programs are designed using educational practices that were developed over the previous two hundred years to support drill and practice.
Gopnik admonishes us that "research tells us what most preschool teachers have always known intuitively. If we want to encourage learning, innovation, and creativity, we should love our young children, take care of them, talk to them, let them play, let them watch what we do as we go about our everyday lives."
For more evidence, look at this account of Boston's preschool program, considered one of the best in the nation.
Branford, John, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy Press: Washington, DC.
Gopnik, Alison (2016). “What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages. New York Times, July 30, 2016.
Mongeau, Lillian (2016). What Boston’s Preschool Program Gets Right. The Atlantic, August 2, 2016.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.