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Question: How can early education be fixed to guide children’s mental development?

Alison Gopnik: Well I think the stuff that I study most, which is the babies and infants that seems to be something that's so deeply built in that we see great commonalities across cultures in that respect. It's interesting, when you start thinking about the school aged period, I think we have pretty good reason to believe that for most of human history, the way that babies and children made that transition was through a kind of process of apprenticeship. So the way the children learn the skills that they needed was they practiced them, they had other people around who corrected them, they saw people who were doing the things that were important, they could imitate them, they could practice a little bit. The people around them would say, "Yeah, you're doing that well or badly." And in fact if you think about how we teach kids to cook or how we teach kids to dance or how we teach kids to play basketball, those are all examples where we still use those kids of teaching techniques.

Now we don't do that typically in schools. So in schools, children are not learning to write from people who are writers or by watching people who write. They are not learning how to do math from people who are mathematicians. There is this kind of weird special thing that we have which is school, which is very different from the ways that I think human beings have ever learned before. Now I don't want to be sentimental and romantic about the past, we're not teaching people to people hunters or gatherers, we're teaching them to have this wide range of skills like being able to read and do mathematics and all sorts of other things. I think it's interesting that children so often are so enthusiastic about something like basketball, even with these horrible mean coaches yelling at the kids all the time. I think it was because the kids are kind of tuning into, "Oh, this is really a way that I can learn."

One of the things that I say is imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science, right. So all through school, what you would do is read about great baseball players and then in college you might get to actually replicate the occasional great baseball game and you'd have pitching drills where you just throw the same ball over and over and over again. You'd never play the game until you got to graduate school; that's pretty much what happens with science, right? We don't actually play the game of science until we get to graduate school and I think our baseball performance would be about like our science performance if that's what we did.

Recorded on: October 8, 2009

More from the Big Idea for Tuesday, May 15 2012

Today's Big Idea: Humanizing Technology

While still imperfect, the current generation of brain imaging technology is enabling researchers to zero in on elusive mental activities like creativity. The practical applications are boundless.... Read More…


How to Think Like a Baby

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