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: 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