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Professional Corner

Learning how They Learn:
A Conversation with Alison Gopnik

From the BrainConnection.com, Understanding what is normal is key to solving what isn't.
By Simon Hanson Ph D. http://www.brainconnection.com/

Most parents have, at one time or another, gazed lovingly at their newborn child and wondered whether someday their offspring would grow up to be the next Einstein or Newton. If Alison Gopnik was watching, she might suggest that the newborn in the bassinet doesn't need to grow up. Perhaps they already think like a great scientist, even before they can reach a chalkboard or leave their diapers. Dr. Gopnik, a developmental psychologist working at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent years observing children as they learn.

In her recently published book The Scientist in the Crib, Dr. Gopnik, along with her colleagues Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington, suggest that newborns and infants use strategies for learning that are not so different from those used by empirical science. Learning for scientists and children is a process of taking in information about the world and seeing how well it fits with our internal theories and assumptions. Like scientists, children are constantly changing and adapting their assumptions about the world to be in accordance with the information they receive from the outside world.

For example, one might assume that your garden-variety scientist is reclusive and introverted, and so focused on their own area of study that they are uninterested in topics outside their field. Upon meeting Alison Gopnik you would have to rethink all these prejudices. She is warm, charming, personable, and conversant on a wide range of topics including, but not limited to, how children learn. My recent conversation with her left me enthused about both science and development. We continue to learn new things throughout life, and as we do, we employ skills characteristic of both scientist and child.

Where were you born, raised, and how did you end up at UC Berkeley?

Dr. Gopnik: I was actually born in Philadelphia. My parents were graduate students at the University of Pennsylvania, but I was raised in Montreal, Canada. I'm actually one of those secret Canadians among us.

They are everywhere, especially in Neuroscience.

Dr. Gopnik: They are, actually. McGill, which is where I did my undergraduate work, was a great, classic place to do Neuroscience. Although I did not in fact do neuroscience -- my undergraduate degree was in philosophy. So I started out as a philosopher and still in fact think of myself as being a philosopher.

McGill was a wonderful place to be because in 1970, when I started my undergraduate degree, they didn't actually have an official word for cognitive science yet, but that was what they were teaching at McGill.

I got a wonderful education there. I was going to become a philosopher, but I had this feeling that the philosophical questions I was interested in were ones that you could answer empirically. Which of course is sort of heresy in philosophy.

I applied to places for graduate school where I could do both philosophy and psychology and I ended up going to Oxford. The way I always tell the story is that for the first year I was there I was spending half my time down in "Logic Lane", which is where the philosophers are, down close to the river in the old part of Oxford. I was spending the other half of my time up in Summertown, which is where they park all the babies and wives far away from the University.

I discovered I was spending my time with these two communities of people, one of which was a group of completely determined, disinterested, seekers of truth who spent all their waking hours trying to figure out deep important problems about the world, and the others were these egocentric narcissistic characters who constantly demanded attention and care-taking.

And, of course, the first group are the babies and the second group are the philosophers. So I decided if I was going to spend the rest of my life with a group of people, I would rather spend it with the babies than with the philosophers.

It is literally true that what I wanted to do didn't change at all from the time I was an undergraduate and doing philosophy through the rest of my career. It just seemed that instead of asking questions, you might want to answer them. Studying development was a good way to answer them.

What was your thesis on?

Dr. Gopnik: My thesis is actually on early language. At Oxford I spent two years doing longitudinal studies of children who were just beginning to talk. I spent a year going to see these nine beautiful 18-month-old English kids. I visited them once a week for a year and a half and recorded everything they said. I can't quite believe I did this. I wrote down all the words they used that were not names.

Everyone always pays attention to early names, no one pays attention to these other words. So my thesis work was doing this very detailed analysis of what kind of language children were using when they were beginning to speak.

In some ways the fact that I spent all that time just sitting and watching the kids completely changed my philosophical views. When I started out at Oxford I was an absolute rabid Chomskian of the most aggressive sort.

I was pretty much convinced that everything was the result of some kind of innate structure or other, on philosophical grounds. By the time I'd spent two years sitting and watching the babies week by week, watching them change in front of my eyes, I didn't think that was going to be a good explanation of what was going on anymore.

Now what is your philosophy?

Dr. Gopnik: The position I ended up in was really a kind of combination of the philosophical work I had done and my psychological work. The Chomsky tradition is one tradition but there is another position in philosophy, particularly in the philosophy of science, which emphasizes that you can have revision and change of theories and knowledge, even if you don't start out with this blank slate. The tradition that comes from Carnap and Quine and other people says that the way science works is that we never start from scratch, we always have some sort of theory about what the world is like.

But we also have enormous degrees of freedom in terms of how we can modify and revise and change our theories in the light of new evidence.

When I looked at kids, that's much more what babies look like. The idea is that the kids are not born as blank states -- they are born with innate theories about how the world works. But unlike the Chomskian picture, they can and do revise pretty much anything in those theories in fundamental ways as they interact with the world and get more information and knowledge.

T he neurological evidence supports this view that early on you have massive flexibility. There is this enormous number of different things that could all happen and the connections and pruning of the nervous system are happening at a great pitch. What you have at the end, as an adult, is this lean mean machine. This machine that's really good at doing things very quickly, and not having to sit and explode before deciding what to do. So I think the trade off is we lose flexibility and learning capacity as adults, but we gain in terms of automaticity and efficiency of implementing the things we've already learned.

For scientists, it is important we don't completely lose our flexibility because what we do is get ourselves back into that baby mode of simply exploring things for the sake of exploring them.

Do you think your work with children has kept you more childlike?

Dr. Gopnik: That's an interesting question. I think... I think it has. Here's a little background. Obviously I'm a scientist and I'm deeply committed to a kind of scientific, rationalist, naturalist approach to the world, but I also agree with the classic romantic poets, people like Wordsworth and Blake, that there really is this kind of intense, extremely valuable perception in very young children.

I think that's actually right, and more, I think that's actually what you find empirically when you do the science -- children really are learning more about the world and taking in more information than we are. I do think that hanging out with children and watching them and observing them on a regular basis is like reading poetry.

It's a way of kind of cleansing the doors of perception. It's a way of getting yourself, at least temporarily, back into that state where everything's up for grabs, and everything's new, and nothing is taken for granted.

One of the things I say in the book, The Scientist in the Crib, is that going to the 7-11 with a two-year-old is like going to get a quart of milk with William Blake. It takes you four times as long, but you suddenly realize that this incredibly boring couple of blocks is actually full of riches and excitement, novelty, and things to look at and find out about. I think that's an extremely satisfying part of this kind of work.

When did your children come along?

Dr. Gopnik: It's interesting. I'm the oldest of six children, so I had little kids around pretty much all of my life. I had my first two children when I was in graduate school, in Oxford. My first son was born when I was 23, and my second was born four days after I did my oral exam for my Ph.D. Which in Oxford is called the Viva, and is this terrible ordeal, a nightmare that goes on for four hours where they interrogate and drill you. This is after you've done your thesis, and literally after you've spent five years doing your thesis either you pass your Viva or you don't, and if you don't then that's it. You don't get your Ph.D. So it's a totally terrifying ordeal. I came in with my enormous belly, much to the shock of the people who were examining me, and they asked when is it that you're due to have this baby?

And I said any day now, could be anytime, which was true, and I had a 20 minute long Viva. They were obviously convinced I was going to go into labor right there. My second baby was born four days afterwards.

When I had my third child, eight years after, I was doing my job interview at Berkeley. I gave my job talk at Berkeley seven months pregnant, and I recommend this to all my students as a way of dealing with stressful situations. It gives you that "who cares?" feeling. Getting the job or not seems completely trivial compared to having a baby.

What books are you reading right now?

Dr. Gopnik: I read a lot outside my field, but I have just in fact finished writing a review of two wonderful books in my field, one of which is a book about imaginary companions by Margorie Taylor, called Imaginary Companions and The Children Who Create Them. The other is a book by Owen Flanagan called Dreaming Souls, which is about dreams and neuroscience. Those are both really terrific cognitive science books that were fun to read.

But I read a lot just for my own enjoyment. I just finished a biography of Benjamin Franklin, who is one of my heroes, and I've started on Philip Lopate's Art Of the Personal Essay.

What are you working on in the lab right now? What is your newest idea?

Dr. Gopnik: Actually it's the most exciting thing that has ever happened in my career. Its funny because it has come just by coincidence, at the same time as doing this very different thing, writing the book Scientist in the Crib and trying to get things across to the popular audience.

I'm doing some work right now about children's causal inference. It's about very young children and how they work out the causal structure of the world. What we are doing is a collaboration with a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon.

There are some very powerful recent computational advances in causal inference and how you can get computational systems to do causal inference. Interestingly, they are even proposing -- if they ever try to send anything to Mars again -- they are proposing they might have some robots that have this sort of computational structure in them. The idea is that these are systems that look at patterns and correlations in data and try and work out what the underlying causal structure is.

So we've been looking at kids. If we are right, then what children are doing is like what scientist are doing. Making up theories. Looking for causal structure is a really important part of what theorists do.

What theorists do is make claims about what causes what, even when it's not apparent or obvious. What we are trying to do is figure out when and how children actually figure out the underlying structure of what causes what, even when it isn't obvious to them. We have actually invented this little machine, the Blicket Detector, which is a little machine you put things on and it lights up and plays music. We can use it to give the kids all kinds of information about what the causal nature of this machine is, and it looks as if they are using some of these very abstract powerful inductive procedures that you would have thought only statisticians and computer jocks would use to solve these problems. So that's really cool.

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Last modified: January 26, 2013