August 18, 2009

Alison Gopnik On How Babies' Brains Work And How They Learn

One of the forgotten pleasures of visiting the grandparents: reading the print edition of the newspaper. I just finished reading Alison Gopnik's editorial in the Sunday NY Times. Gopnik, a UC Berkeley child psychologist, has turned up on DT before, in a discussion of baby consciousness, Baudelaire, Walter Benjamin, and potheads.

Her Times piece is a clearly illustrated explanation of research in how kids under 5 learn differently, and how their brains develop and perform differently than adults. Her takeaway is that "Babies explore; adults exploit," and that we underestimate little kids' intelligence precisely because it's not the kind of focused, goal-oriented, testable results-oriented stuff we see and expect from schooling.

Gopnik sticks a tiny parenthetical at the end, "(Imagine how much money we can save on "enriching" toys and DVDs!)" that should probably be her headline.

I recently picked up a vintage copy of a book titled, Teach Your Baby To Read, thinking I could do an amusing post on how our generation didn't invent the whole competitive, "Baby Einstein," flashcard, syndrome; we inherited it from yuppies and baby boomers.

But then I found the book was still in print and going gangbusters. And a couple of weeks ago, I got a press release from another sight reading program, with all these YouTube clips of 12-month-old babies reading books or whatever.

So yeah, you could teach a baby to read; the question is should you? What's the point? What's the cost? Because emphasizing this older kid stuff at a younger age just displaces the kinds of experiences and learning that a kid should be getting.

Gopnik's findings are important for challenging parents' tendency to equate learning only with focusing and reading and writing. Because apparently, none of that stuff kicks in until kindergarten at the earliest.

Your Baby Is Smarter Than You Think [nyt]
Coincidence? Gopnik's new book, The Philosophical Baby just came out August 4th [amazon]

1 Comment

My daughter read when she was just barely three - simple sentences in Ladybird readers. I discovered she could when I decided that it was probably time she had a couple of early reader books (as opposed to those that were read to her). She picked one up at the store and began to read it aloud.

She's very bright, but not super-amazing-bright. However we had a household without a television and she had free access to virtually everything in the house, which gave her a really diverse world in which to develop both physically and intellectually.

She entertained herself with pots and pans, opening and closing cabinets and jars, handling her own picture books when she felt like it, and exploring her world when and as she felt like it. As a toddler, she had only a few "baby toys", and none of that horrible "make baby smart" stuff.

Of course, she was read to every day, and talked to on a regular basis. All of this made for an organically rich environment that let her develop at her own pace.

Giving her this kind of freedom was also very good parent-training for those years when there is so much pressure to measure achievement and quantify it in ways that may or may not be meaningful. Learning to look to the individual kid for cues to development is a really, really great skill to have when parenting.

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