Through a child's eyes

We are constantly developing our understanding about how children learn. Research from the behavioural and cognitive sciences, neurosciences and pedagogical research fields is regularly yielding new findings. One of the most interesting reports I have read recently appeared in the February 2013 edition of The Psychologist. In an article entitled 'Learning from Learners', Rachel Wu (Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, New York) discusses some recent findings on how infants learn. She reveals that by the age of 8 months, infants learn better when they are in the company of people than they do through solo exploration. She shows that when a human face is present with an object, infants become more interested in the object and examine it more closely (Wu et al, 2011). It could be argued that these findings support Vygotskiian social constructivist theory (Zone of Proximal Development - Vygotsky 1978) over Piagetian cognitive constructivist theory, confirming to those who adhere to ZPD theory, that human brains are naturally wired to learn better in social contexts. Indeed, Vygotsky was particularly vocal in his opposition to Piaget's theory that children were naturally egocentric, suggesting that it is only when children are deprived of social contact that they resort to egocentric behaviour (p. 27).

Another equally fascinating finding is Wu's claim that infants are extreme explorers. They possess qualities that are discarded by the time we reach adulthood. Young children are naturally curious, seeking novelty, and they are constantly learning without hesitation, and without a fear of failure (Wu, 2013). Unfortunately, as children grow older and begin to receive formalised schooling, they tend to lose these natural traits, and become much more risk averse, because, as Sir Ken Robinson has intoned, they become 'educated'. Wu is not as pessimistic however, believing that we don't actually lose the abilities we had as children. She recommends that schools and universities adopt 'immersive' approaches to learning where little structure is imposed upon new learning in much the same way that infants perceive no boundaries to their exploration. She advocates doing and making, rather than receiving instruction as the best way for students to excel, especially in creative areas of learning.  She cites Schwartz (2008) who promoted the idea of being 'productively stupid', or learning like a beginner with no previous assumptions. Children maintain an explorative state, because this is the only way they know how to learn, she argues. They are unable to impose previous structure onto their learning and are therefore much more flexible and responsive to new information they receive from their exploration of the world. Adults often approach new learning with preconceptions or assumptions that prevent them from engaging or immersing themselves fully in the learning experience. Perhaps the best way to learn really is to see the world through the eyes of a child.

Schwartz, M. A. (2008) The importance of stupidity in scientific research. Journal of Cell Science, 121, 1771.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wu, R., Gopnik, A., Richardson, D. C. and Kirkham, N. Z. (2011) Infants learn about objects from statistics and people. Developmental Psychology, 47 (5), 1220-1229.    
Wu, R. (2013) Learning from learners. The Psychologist, 26 (2), 154-155.

Photo by Ashrei Halom

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Through a child's eyes by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Cristina Milos said…
Children don't begin to lose "these natural traits" (re: curiosity, risk-taking attitudes)due to formalized schooling. That is oversimplified and it is a gross generalization of the maturation process.
Physical, cognitive, social and emotional development occur with or without formalized learning contexts. They impact the level of curiosity and risk-taking attitude in that the child begins to acknowledge the world around him/her, is increasingly aware of risk factors and gains more knowledge about how the world works. The exploration phase is thus naturally diminished and dependent both on the individual's personal traits (i.e. motivation) as well as on the environment.
Solely blaming schools for this outcome is absurd and unfair.
mlf said…
Haha! Sounds like Summerville to me. Back to the 70's! Good grief." Where children are free to create their own definition of success." Does this person think she's come up with something new? Same old nonsense.
Steve Wheeler said…
I assume you mean Summerhill?

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