Alison Gopnik
Professor of Psychology, UC Berkeley

How Children Were Meant to Learn

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Developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik points out the crucial age during which children’s brains evolve into adult brains, and explains what parents can do to ensure the transition is seamless.

Alison Gopnik

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. She received her BA from McGill University and her PhD. from Oxford University. Her honors include a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada University Research Fellowship, an Osher Visiting Scientist Fellowship at the Exploratorium, a Center for the Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences Fellowship, and a Moore Fellowship at the California Institute of Technology. She is an internationally recognized leader in the study of children’s learning and development and was the first to argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. She was one of the founders of the study of "theory of mind", illuminating how children come to understand the minds of others, and she formulated the "theory theory", the idea that children’s learn in the same way that scientists do.

She is the author of over 100 articles and several books including "Words, thoughts and theories" (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff), MIT Press, 1997, "The Scientist in the Crib" (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl) William Morrow, 1999, and the just published "The Philosophical Baby; What children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life" Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009. "The Scientist in the Crib" was a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller, was translated into 20 languages and was enthusiastically reviewed in Science, The New Yorker, the Washington Post and The New York Review of Books (among others). She has also written for Science, The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times, New Scientist, and Slate.

She has spoken extensively on children’s minds including keynote speeches to political organizations such as the World Economic Forum and the Organization for Economic Development, children’s advocacy organizations including Parents as Teachers and Zero to Three, museums including The Exploratorium, The Chicago Children’s Museum, and the Bay Area Discovery Museum, and science organizations including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, The American Psychological Association, the Association of Psychological Science, and the American Philosophical Association. She has also appeared on Charlie Rose, Nova, and many NPR radio programs. She has three sons and lives in Berkeley, California.



Question: At what age do babies switch from wide to narrow focus attention?

Alison Gopnik: Well it seems as if there is a really big switch between about five and six. And of course, it's funny because in our culture we talk about that age group as preschoolers versus school-aged children. Of course, school is a very recent invention, but if you look across lots of cultures something happens around six. So the babies say will move from the mother's quarters to the children's quarters. Kids used to start becoming apprentices when they were about seven. Losing your first tooth seems to be a big marker of this transition. And I think what happens is that that kind of transition, and of course it's starting at four or five and then continuing, is really a transition from a creature that's mostly designed to do this very broad-based learning to a creature that's starting to develop the specific skills that are going to important as an adult.

So by the time you get to a seven, eight, nine year olds they can actually work. I mean, they can actually do things. They can actually do things that are productive and helpful. And they're starting to get more narrow, more specialized. So our culture really values a very, very narrow focus of attention, that's what we teach kids to do in school. In other cultures, what they'll do is teach kids to do things like shift attention from one thing to another very easily. The important thing is that in all cultures you go from this early very, very wide ranging attention which is like infants to, “Here’s the intentional strategy that is important to do the things that you need to do in this culture.” Sometimes it can be the narrow focus that we have in our culture, but in other cultures—it might be if you're a hunter for instance. It might be how to pay attention to lots of different things at once in order to hunt more effectively.

Question: Do you have advice for parents who want to maximize their baby’s unique mental abilities?

Alison Gopnik: Yeah. This is what Piaget called the question americain: “What can we do to make them do it better?” I'm afraid I think the answer to it is pretty boring, which is have lots of caregivers around who love them a lot and have lots of stuff around for them to play with and let them play without worrying too much about whether they're getting academic skills or they're making a mess. One of the things I say is from an evolutionary point of view probably the ideal rich environment for a baby includes more mud, livestock, and relatives than most of us could tolerate nowadays. But I think some pigs, a lot of dirt, a bunch of uncles and cousins—that's probably a pretty good environment for babies to grow up in, but if you can't manage that, then a lot of cardboard boxes, bean plants, gold fish. The kids of things you see, in fact, sandboxes. The kind of things you see in really great preschools. When I say that, it sounds very boring, but here is one important thing: we know from the science that the thing that kids learn from most is other people and particularly other people who are dedicated to talking care of them. In most places and times, in human history, babies have had not just one person but lots of people around who were really paying attention to them around, dedicated to them, cared to them, were related to them. I think the big shift in our culture is the isolation in which many children are growing up. So in fact if we really wanted to make babies smarter what we would do is make sure that 20 percent of them aren't growing up in poverty, make sure that even middle-class parents aren't so insane because they're working so hard that they can't spend time with their kids, make sure that preschool workers are actually paid more than dog catchers.

The thing that is most important is having people who are involved and engaged with the kids and also are not stressed and can be involved with them. And that's actually not boring and banal. That actually takes a lot of work to make that happen and it's not something that our society does very well at all.

Recorded on: October 8, 2009