“Successful creative adults seem to combine the wide-ranging exploration and openness we see in children with the focus and discipline we see in adults.”
Alison Gopnik, is a professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. As an international pioneer in the study of child development and learning, she was the first to posit the theory that children’s minds could teach adult minds a thing or two. Her “theory of mind” focuses on how children understand the minds of others and is based on the premise that children learn in much the same way as scientists do, through a process of active experimentation.
Her 1999 book , “The Scientist in the Crib” (coauthored with Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl) received rave reviews by several prestigious magazines, including the New Yorker, and has been translated into 20 languages. She has also written over 100 articles for various publications, including New Scientist, Slate, and The Times Literary Supplement. Her 2009 book, “The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life” offers some provocative theories about the first months of family life.
According to Gopnik, in modern times, the first months of family life have become far too socially isolated. Ideally, the first months of family life, rather than often being in the care of a single adult or couple, children should have the opportunity to observe and interact with a wide range of people with varying degrees of commitment to their well-being.
She attributes the development of life-long familial attachments that begin from the first months of family life, which doesn’t exist for other primates, to the relatively prolonged helplessness of the human infant. In a sense, it is that helplessness which created selfless love. That selfless love is essential in the first months of family life and to children reaching adulthood.
Childhood learning is one of Gopnik’s specialties, and she believes that adults can learn a lot from children as well. She posits that because adults, in order to earn a living, must perform so many repetitive actions, their minds can lose its natural curiosity and excitement for learning. This can make the first months of family life more difficult. She compares babies’ minds to scientific research and development departments. Babies approach life like travelers in a world in which everything is new.
Like scientists, babies draw conclusions from physical data, and even statistical analyses, such as when they experiment with what will prompt a smile or positive response from their caretakers. She also believes they are capable of what is termed “counterfactual thinking”, which is defined as the ability to imagine different past or future outcomes from those that have actually occurred.
According to a review in Scientific American, she was influenced by the work of psychologist John Hagen of the University of Michigan. His work includes developing alternative learning environments. For example, in one of his labs, the room has no front or rear, the chairs are on wheels and cameras are utilized for a variety of purposes. One of his research studies found that young children were better than older children at remembering playing cards that they had been instructed to forget, a fact which points to the capacity of babies for independent thought.
In addition to working as an educator, she is also a political activist for positive educational change for children. In her capacity as educational activist, she has given several keynote speeches to organizations such as the World Economic Forum as well as organizations that advocate specifically for children, such as Parents as Teachers. She has also lectured for science organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science as well as appearing on television shows such as Nova and NPR radio programs.
In a video interview, she advocates for experiential education, in which children are guided in developing skills by doing and receiving feedback on their performance. She recommends apprenticeships in which young people can observe and experience the activities of those who are already working in professions that they themselves hope to work in one day. This approach would also help them learn whether they are emotionally or psychologically well suited for the job, or what characteristics they would need to develop further to be successful at it.
She also revealed in the interview that none of her psychological training or professional expertise helped during her first months of family life or in parenting her own three children. Theories are just that, and real life has a way of being much more unpredictable, especially when human emotions are involved.
According to Gopnik, there are some things adults can do to reclaim their own natural curiosity and excitement about learning. She recommends travel, meditation, and spending time with and learning from children, as well as teaching them.
One of her personal and professional goals has been to cultivate more respect for children and their innate brilliance, rather than devaluing them and continuing to relegate them to social isolation with one another. She seems to be succeeding admirably.