In Piaget's footsteps

September 2012


Facebook       Tweet

American professor Alison Gopnik is emerging as a leading light in child psychology. LAWRENCE WATT reports.

Most Kiwi teachers probably recall studying the famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980).

Piaget’s research was ground breaking; Piaget has provided a world view, using intellectual stages, through which it’s possible to understand how children think, from the age of only a few months until the teenage years.

But Piaget is beginning to totter from his perch. Modern research in developmental psychology, led by Dr Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, shows young children are smarter than Piaget thought.

Gopnik hasn’t quite thrown Piaget out with the bathwater, but she does see children’s brains, particularly pre-schoolers’, quite differently.

Gopnik is author of New York Times best seller ‘The Philosophical Baby’ as well as numerous academic papers on her experimental work. She gave three Sir Douglas Robb lectures at The University of Auckland in June and appeared on nationwide television and radio. Her focus is to try to look inside the “downy heads” of children as young as 18 months.

She began her career as a philosopher, asking questions like “how do we learn?” But realising that philosophers make little reference to children, she switched to psychology – where she began to think Piaget and Freud had got quite a lot wrong. She says Piaget saw children as egocentric and not quite logical beings. “Piaget was a wonderful scientist; he was the first person to try to work out what children were thinking. But his methods were pretty limited,” she says.

She says there has been a lot of work done since then, asking children very precise questions, rather than Piaget’s open-ended ones – and using video cameras and a gadget called a ‘blicket detector’ – a mysterious device that lights up and plays music, according to how children place blocks on it.

Being inside that child’s head would be “a bit like being in love in Paris for the first time, after you have three double espressos,” she says. “It sounds great but it would make you wake up in the middle of the night crying.”

The point is that the child’s brain is set up to learn, although not quite in the way that people think. “You often hear people say things like ‘children are like little sponges’,” she says. But her research shows children are doing much more than just soaking up information. “The big discovery was they were not just randomly putting things together working things out, but are actually going out and testing.”

This is the so-called ‘theory theory’ about how young children behave like little scientists, who learn by experimenting. “Think of them as little psychologists. We are actually the lab rats. They will push their fingers just that much closer to see if Mummy will actually explode,” she says.

The science is based on 12 years of laboratory research by Professor Gopnik and many others. The conclusions “have been replicated many times,” she says. Study samples had in excess of 300 subjects.

Gopnik showed her audience a film of pre-schoolers experimenting with blocks, which they rested on the ‘blicket detector’ device to make it light up. By and large, the children’s approach was logical and experimental. “Somehow children seem to have done the math… just like scientists do,” she says.

Adults call this phase that all kids go through ‘getting into everything’, but in the space of a few minutes, your four-year-old will easily try six different theories to explain something new – meaning that “scientists are really like big kids,” she jokes.

Children need a long period of learning, due to the complexity of the human species. So children’s brains are designed to learn; adults by contrast are utilitarian beings who exploit more than explore. She describes children as the ‘research and development division’ of our species while adults are in production and marketing, focusing on and blacking out a lot of information.

There is no doubt that young children’s and adults’ brains are qualitatively different. But by age two, Dr Gopnik says children are far less egocentric than Piaget thought.

Around 14-18 months old, children start working out that “sometimes people don’t want the same thing as you”. By age two, children could actually work out that adults may like broccoli, which of course kids generally detest.

Many (but not all) pre-schoolers have ‘pretend friends’. “They spend so much time pretending. Walk into a pre-school and you will see tea parties and imaginary ninja battles going on,” she says.

In another test, children were told it was “Monkey’s birthday” and the blicket device would play music if you put a block on it. “But what if you just pretended? What would the device do then?” the researchers asked the children. By age four, many children could actually use their imagination to pretend the device would play ‘pretend’ music.

But 40 per cent of three to four-year-olds could not grasp the idea of counter-factuality and some children were somewhat more articulate and some more motivated than others.

“Children realise their imaginary world can sometimes be preferable to real life – and you have to agree they have a point,” she says. They speak about what could happen. She says the children reminded her of Einstein’s thought experiment about what it would be like to travel on a train at the speed of light.

“But rather than live in that fantasy world, as Freud and Piaget thought, children can snap back into to the real world,” she says.

“Even the very youngest children are already perfectly able to discriminate between the imaginary and the real, whether in books or movies or in their own pretend play.”

Gopnik says her research indicates even younger pre-schoolers have a sense of right and wrong, against the gist of Piaget’s ideas about infants’ natural egocentricity. For example, when experimenters accidentally dropped their pens, 18-month-olds were quite happy to give them back. “Babies (i.e. 18-month-olds) are more caring and more conscientious than adults,” she says.

Such work will no doubt affect teaching methods over time. Before the great thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Freud, and Piaget influenced our ideas, many people treated children like little adults, dressing them in ‘Mini-Me’ clothes and expecting them to work. Then it was realised that children were very different.

Today we have so-called ‘Tiger Moms’. Some parents have very high expectations for Johnny and Mary. However, Gopnik advises against ‘pressure cooking’ children, whom her research shows learn naturally from everyday life. If you have young children, forget about so-serious words like ‘parenting’ and try to be a kid yourself, she cautions.

“Get in the mind of children and look at the world from their perspective,” she says. That sounds like a happy place, even for us utilitarian adults.

Piaget, of course, is unable to reply to criticisms, but little doubt, would favour all in-depth research into children’s minds and behaviour. His view of how children’s thinking changes and grows is so comprehensive, it is hard to imagine that his ideas, like the ideas of the great educational thinkers like Jean Jacques Rousseau or Aristotle, will ever disappear.