What We Can Learn From the Way Children Think

I first read about the work of Alison Gopnik’s work in the book “Mind in the Making” by Ellen Galinsky so when I heard she presented for TED Talks, I had to listen to what she had to say. In her presentation: “What Do Babies Think” (shown below), she shares the results of research done on infants and young children that have revolutionised our understanding of children. Just as Makoto Shichida and Glenn Doman have always been saying, babies are geniuses. Alison Gopnik describes them as brilliant little scientists conducting complex experiments about the world around them in order to understand how it works.

If you have been dissatisfied by the “weak” scientific evidence supporting Shichida and Doman’s claims, then watch Alison Gopnik’s presentation below.


There is a lot of interesting information in Gopnik’s presentation and this is what I took home:


We’ve always assumed that babies are egocentric. I even remember learning this fact in early childhood behavioural studies in Uni. We learned that babies are only aware of what they want and that they assume that everyone else wants the same thing. In her research, Alison Gopnik found that by 18 months, babies can understand that other people might not want the same thing that they do. At 18 months old, it is comprehensible to to them that another person might actually prefer yucky broccoli to yummy fish biscuits.

Speed of Learning

Children learn at a phenomenal rate. I know this is nothing new but it is always interesting to hear about the research supporting a child’s learning capabilities. The most interesting point about this, however, is the reason why we are so “smart” is because we spend a longer time being children compared to other animals. It is this period in childhood that allows us to develop our mental capabilities in this way. This is the same across the entire animal kingdom – those animals with young that remain dependent for longer grow up to be smarter than those that mature faster. Having this period in childhood where adults protect them from the dangers in their environment allows children the freedom to explore and learn – something that rapidly declines as they become adults. It’s an interesting perspective – being young, vulnerable and “helpless” is actually a good thing as far as brain development goes.

“children are for learning… the baby’s brain seems to be the most powerful learning computer on the planet.”

More Support for the Montessori Program

Although she doesn’t make reference to the Montessori Program, Gopnik’s depiction of how children learn supports the methods used in the Montessori program. Children learn by doing experiments and making notes from the results of their experiments. That’s why they bang everything, lick everything, listen to everything and perform a whole host of other experiments to see what a new item can and cannot do. Of course, it’s annoying when they destroy things in the process, but it’s a good reminder when we consider disciplinary action for children. Children aren’t trying to be destructive, they are trying to learn.

Gopnik’s research also found that 4 year olds are better at finding out an unlikely hypothesis compared to adults who are given the same task. Even though young children may not understand the Mathematical concepts of statistics the way we do, they are still capable of making complex calculations in their heads to support or disprove a hypothesis. I recall reading a chapter in one of Shichida’s books where he explained that the human brain is the most amazing calculator available – superior even to computers. Likewise, Doman, in his book “How to Teach Your Baby Math” says the same thing about a baby’s ability to understand Math. It would appear that Gopnik’s research supports their statements.

Lantern versus Spotlight

An article I once read talked about the child’s brain working like a lantern shining its light diffusely on a wide area, while an adult’s brain performs like a spotlight that shines a bright light on a narrow area. I said before that this supports TweedleWink’s 360 degree learning where children don’t have to appear to be paying attention to a subject in order to learn it. Gopnik also talks about this difference between the child and adult brain.

I think is might also explain why children are able to discover “unlikely” solutions that adults miss. Because we are so used to narrowing our focus on what looks important, we often miss the other bits of information that show us things which appear unrelated. Whereas children take in everything. If we want to be more open-minded, open to learning, imaginative, creativitive, and innovative, we should spend some time trying to think more like a child again.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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