The Highest Form of Flattery...and Learning

Ashley Thorne

The July issue of the journal Science, the world’s leading science publication, includes an article on the “Foundations for a New Science of Learning”  (subscription required). In it, four West Coast scientists and psychologists present new findings about how infants and young children come to understand the world. The findings, termed here “the new science of learning,” come from cross-disciplinary research in psychology, neuroscience, machine learning, and education; and are represented by three principles: 

  1. Learning is computational.
  2. Learning is social.
  3. Learning is supported by brain circuits linking perception and action. 

Based on these principles, imitation of adults is one of the most important parts of human development. Young children do it naturally—even minutes-old newborns copy facial expressions they see—because their brains innately make a connection between themselves and others.

One example the article gives is that a baby at twelve months old interacting with an adult will follow the adult’s eyes if the adult turns to look at something else. If the adult closes his eyes and turns, however, the baby will not try to follow his gaze. This shows that the child does not merely copy head movement but seeks to share attention with the adult by looking at the same object. Shared attention also helps older children, who learn best in one-on-one tutoring.

When children watch and emulate adults, the authors say, they learn much earlier than when they are left to their own unguided curiosity:

Imitation accelerates learning and multiplies learning opportunities. It is faster than individual discovery and safer than trial-and-error learning.

If this sounds intuitive, that’s because it is. We know by instinct that children need to learn from adults. That’s why parents read to their children and show them how to tie their shoes. That’s why teachers give classroom instruction, have students repeat words after them, and demonstrate math problems on the whiteboard. It all makes sense. But John Dewey (1859-1952), whose theories have shaped the progressive education movement, declared in 1897 in My Pedagogic Creed that “The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

The idea that the teacher should not teach so much as help students participate in the “social consciousness of the race,” became popular (concurrent with the self-esteem era), and education schools around the United States now embrace Dewey’s theories. De-emphasizing textbooks, tests, and teachers’ lessons led to the “child-centered” concept that students can create their own schooling. Even university professors such as Ken Smith (subscription required) have decided to shrug and “allow a few more variants” when it comes to his students’ spelling. Without standards and the guidance of a teaching adult, academics become individualistic and nonsensical. Dewey believed that learning should be social, but removing the authority of the instructor actually slows down the social learning process. Through imitation, the Science authors argue:                                                                                                

Children can use third-person information (observation of others) to create first-person knowledge. This is an accelerator for learning: Instead of having to work out causal relations themselves, children can learn from watching experts. Imitative learning is valuable because the behavioral actions of others “like me” serve as a proxy for one’s own.

Imitation is not servile or oppressive, as the progressive educators depict it. Rather it is creative and enlightening:

Children do not slavishly duplicate what they see but reenact a person’s goals and intentions.

For example:

[S]uppose an adult tries to pull apart an object but his hand slips off the ends. Even at 18 months of age, infants can use the pattern of unsuccessful attempts to infer the unseen goal of another. They produce the goal that the adult was striving to achieve, not the unsuccessful attempts. Children choose whom, when, and what to imitate and seamlessly mix imitation and self-discovery to solve novel problems.

This “new science of learning” provides a compelling argument for the importance of adult teaching in formal education. Ed schools clinging to the “child-centered” method might want to read this article and step into 21st century science.

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