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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School 4 How Children Learn Children differ from adult learners in many ways, but there are also surprising commonalities across learners of all ages. In this chapter we provide some insights into children as learners. A study of young children fulfills two purposes: it illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the learners who populate the nation’s schools, and it offers a window into the development of learning that cannot be seen if one considers only well-established learning patterns and expertise. In studying the development of children, an observer gets a dynamic picture of learning unfolding over time. A fresh understanding of infant cognition and of how young children from 2 to 5 years old build on that early start also sheds new light on how to ease their transition into formal school settings. INFANTS’ CAPABILITIES Theories It was once commonly thought that infants lack the ability to form complex ideas. For much of this century, most psychologists accepted the traditional thesis that a newborn’s mind is a blank slate (tabula rasa) on which the record of experience is gradually impressed. It was further thought that language is an obvious prerequisite for abstract thought and that, in its absence, a baby could not have knowledge. Since babies are born with a limited repertoire of behaviors and spend most of their early months asleep, they certainly appear passive and unknowing. Until recently, there was no obvious way for them to demonstrate otherwise. But challenges to this view arose. It became clear that with carefully designed methods, one could find ways to pose rather complex questions about what infants and young children know and can do. Armed with new methodologies, psychologists began to accumulate a substantial body of data about the remarkable abilities that young children possess that stands in stark contrast to the older emphases on what they lacked. It is now known that very young children are competent, active agents of their own
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School conceptual development. In short, the mind of the young child has come to life (Bruner, 1972, 1981a, b; Carey and Gelman, 1991; Gardner, 1991; Gelman and Brown, 1986; Wellman and Gelman, 1992). A major move away from the tabula rasa view of the infant mind was taken by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. Beginning in the 1920s, Piaget argued that the young human mind can best be described in terms of complex cognitive structures. From close observations of infants and careful questioning of children, he concluded that cognitive development proceeds through certain stages, each involving radically different cognitive schemes. While Piaget observed that infants actually seek environmental stimulation that promotes their intellectual development, he thought that their initial representations of objects, space, time, causality, and self are constructed only gradually during the first 2 years. He concluded that the world of young infants is an egocentric fusion of the internal and external worlds and that the development of an accurate representation of physical reality depends on the gradual coordination of schemes of looking, listening, and touching. After Piaget, others studied how newborns begin to integrate sight and sound and explore their perceptual worlds. For perceptual learning theorists, learning was considered to proceed rapidly due to the initial availability of exploration patterns that infants use to obtain information about the objects and events of their perceptual worlds (Gibson, 1969). As information processing theories began to emerge, the metaphor of mind as computer, information processor, and problem solver came into wide usage (Newell et al., 1958) and was quickly applied to the study of cognitive development. Although these theories differed in important ways, they shared an emphasis on considering children as active learners who are able to set goals, plan, and revise. Children are seen as learners who assemble and organize material. As such, cognitive development involves the acquisition of organized knowledge structures including, for example, biological concepts, early number sense, and early understanding of basic physics. In addition, cognitive development involves the gradual acquisition of strategies for remembering, understanding, and solving problems. The active role of learners was also emphasized by Vygotsky (1978), who pointed to other supports for learning. Vygotsky was deeply interested in the role of the social environment, included tools and cultural objects, as well as people, as agents in developing thinking. Perhaps the most powerful idea from Vygotsky to influence developmental psychology was that of a zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), described in Box 4.1. It refers to a bandwidth of competence (Brown and Reeve, 1987) that learners can navigate with aid from a supportive context, including the assistance of others. (For modern treatments of this concept, see Newman et al., 1989;
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School BOX 4.1 Zone of Proximal Development The zone of proximal development is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978:86). What children can do with the assistance of others is even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone (Vygotsky, 1978:85). The zone of proximal development embodies a concept of readiness to learn that emphasizes upper levels of competence. These upper boundaries are not immutable, however, but constantly changing with the learner’s increasing independent competence. What a child can perform today with assistance she will be able to perform tomorrow independently, thus preparing her for entry into a new and more demanding collaboration. These functions could be called the “buds,” rather than the fruits of development. The actual developmental level characterizes mental development retrospectively, while the zone of proximal development characterizes mental development prospectively (Vygotsky, 1978:86– 87). Moll and Whitmore, 1993; Rogoff and Wertsch, 1984; from a different theoretical perspective, see Bidell and Fischer, 1997.) This line of work has drawn attention to the roles of more capable peers, parents, and other partners in challenging and extending children’s efforts to understand. It has also contributed to an understanding of the relationship between formal and informal teaching and learning situations (Lave and Wenger, 1991) and cognition distributed across people and tools (Salomon, 1993). As a result of these theoretical and methodological developments, great strides have been made in studying young children’s learning capacities. To summarize an enormous body of research, there have been dramatic increases in knowledge in four major areas of research, illustrated in this chapter: Early predisposition to learn about some things but not others No evidence exists that infants come into the world as “blank slates” capable only of registering the ambient events that impinge on their senses in an undisciplined way. Young children show positive biases to learn types of information readily and early in life. These forms of knowledge, referred to as privileged domains, center on broadly defined categories, notably physi-
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School cal and biological concepts, causality, number, and language (Carey and Gelman, 1991). Strategies and metacognition Outside of these privileged domains children, like all learners, must depend on will, ingenuity, and effort to enhance their learning. It was previously thought that young children lacked the strategic competence and knowledge about learning (metacognition) to learn intentionally, but the last 30 years have witnessed a great deal of research that reveals hitherto unrecognized strategic and metacognitive competence in the young (Brown and DeLoache, 1978; DeLoache et al., 1998). Theories of mind As they mature, children develop theories of what it means to learn and understand that profoundly influence how they situate themselves in settings that demand effortful and intentional learning (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1989). Children entertain various theories of mind and intelligence (Dweck and Legget, 1988). Indeed, not all learners in schools come ready to learn in exactly the same way. Some theorists argue that there is more than one way to learn, more than one way to be “intelligent.” Understanding that there are multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1983) may suggest ways of helping children learn by supporting their strengths and working with their weakenesses. Children and community Although a great deal of children’s learning is self-motivated and self-directed, other people play major roles as guides in fostering the development of learning in children. Such guides include other children as well as adults (caretakers, parents, teachers, coaches, etc.). But not only people can serve as guides; so, too, can powerful tools and cultural artifacts, notably television, books, videos, and technological devices of many kinds (Wright and Huston, 1995). A great deal of research on such assisted learning has been influenced by Vygotsky’s notion of zones of proximal development and the increasing popularity of the concept of “communities of learners,” be they face-to-face or through electronic media and technologies (see Chapters 8 and 9). Methodological Advances The large increase in the number of studies that address early learning came about as a result of methodological advances in the field of developmental psychology. Much of what is now known about the human mind comes from the study of how infants learn. This work demonstrates that the human mind is a biologically prepared organism (Carey and Gelman, 1991). In order to study what babies know and can learn about readily, researchers needed to develop techniques of “asking” infants, who cannot speak, what they know. Because infants are so limited physically, experimenters interested in finding out how babies think had to find methods suitable to an infant’s motor capabilities. New ways were developed for measuring what
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School infants prefer to look at (Fantz, 1961) and detecting changes in events to which they are sensitive. Three such methods are non-nutritive sucking, habituation, and visual expectation. Non-nutritive sucking is a way to use a physical capability that even the youngest infants have. In one experiment, the researchers (Kalnins and Bruner, 1973) showed 5- to 12-week-old infants a silent color film and gave the infants a pacifier to suck, the nipple of which was connected to a pressure switch that controlled the projector lens. The infants quickly learned to suck at a given rate to bring the movie into focus, showing not only that they were capable of and interested in learning how to control their own sensory environment, but also that they preferred a clear image to a blurry one. The second method demonstrates an infant’s thirst for novelty. The habituation paradigm involves presenting babies with an event (a stimulus) —a picture, sound, or series of sounds—to which the baby attends either by looking at it, turning to it, or doing something to keep the event continuing. Over a period of time infants stop responding to repeated presentations of the same event: that is, they habituate. They recover interest if a recognizably different event is presented. A combination of non-nutritive sucking and habituation was used in a study (Eimas et al., 1971) to show that 4-month-old infants will suck vigorously when first introduced to the phoneme (speech sound) “ba,” then gradually lose interest and stop sucking. But when presented with a different phoneme, “pa,” they resume sucking. Because infants will look at things they find interesting, researchers developed the method of visual expectation to study infants’ comprehension of events. It uses infants’ gaze patterns to determine if they are comprehending patterns of visual events. For example, an experimenter establishes a pattern of flashing a picture two times on the left side of a screen and then three times on the right side. Once this alternating pattern has been established, the experimenter can watch an infant’s gaze while the pictures continue to be flashed. If the baby continues to gaze at the left side of the screen after one flash, but then shifts its gaze to the right side after the second picture appears, then it is assumed that a distinction has been made between one, two, and three events. Using this procedure, infants as young as 5 months have shown that they can count up to three (Canfield and Smith, 1996). Thus, using infants’ capacities for looking, sucking, and interest in novelty, developmental psychologists devised methods for reliably studying early aspects of infant cognition. These studies have been refined for studying early infant memory development by using bodily actions, such as leg kicking and arm movements, for determining object recognition (Rovee-Collier, 1989). Studies like these do more than simply show that infants actively select
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School experiences; they also demonstrate what infants are capable of perceiving, knowing, and remembering. Recovery of interest in a novel speech sound could only occur if infants could recognize the rather subtle difference between “pa” and “ba.” Discovering that very young infants can see, hear, smell, and be particular about what exactly they wish to explore led to an emboldened attitude about the kinds of experimental questions that could be asked. The answers about infant understanding of physical and biological causality, number, and language have been quite remarkable. These studies have profoundly altered scientific understanding of how and when humans begin to grasp the complexities of their worlds. In the next section, we present a few examples of infants’ learning in these domains. EARLY COMPETENCIES IN THE PRIVILEGED DOMAINS Physical Concepts How do infants learn about the physical world? Research studies have demonstrated that infants as early as 3–4 months of age have the beginnings of useful knowledge. Three examples from many: they understand that objects need support to prevent them from falling; that stationary objects are displaced when they come into contact with moving objects; and that inanimate objects need to be propelled into motion. Consider the notion of support—that an object cannot be suspended in mid-air. In one study, infants are seated in front of a table that includes a platform. They see an experimenter’s gloved hand reach out from a side window and put a box on top of the platform (possible event) and then withdraw her hand. Alternatively, when the experimenter reaches out from the side window, she places the box beyond the platform, leaving the impression that the box is suspended in mid-air when she withdraws her hand (impossible condition); see Figure 4.1. Using the visual habituation methodology, studies have found that infants as young as 3 months old look reliably longer at the impossible events. This reaction indicates that infants expect that a box can be stable when a hand releases it onto a platform, but not when there is no supporting platform (Baillargeon et al., 1992; Needham and Baillargeon, 1993; Kolstad and Baillargeon, 1994); see Figure 4.2. In a study of visual fixation on consistent and inconsistent events with light and heavy objects, Schilling and Clifton (1998) also showed that 9-month-old infants look longer at the physically inconsistent events than those that are consistent with their expectations; see Figure 4.3. Another well-documented example of infants’ early understanding of physical causality is that stationary objects are displaced when hit by moving objects. Research studies have demonstrated that infants as young as 2–1/2 months understand
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School FIGURE 4.1 Testing infants’ understanding of possible and impossible physical events. SOURCE: Test events used in Needham and Baillargeon (1993). this concept, though it is not until about 6–1/2 months of age that they relate the size of the moving object and the distance of displacement of the stationary objects. “When looking at collision events between a moving and a stationary object, infants first form an initial concept centered on an impact/ no-impact decision. With further experience, infants begin to identify variables that influence this initial concept” (Baillargeon, 1995:193). In the first year of life, infants can understand that inanimate objects need to be propelled into action, that the objects cannot move themselves. For example, Leslie (1994a,b) showed that 4- to 7-month-old infants expect a point of contact to be involved in physical displacement. In one study, the infant watches a film in which a hand approaches a stationary doll and either appears to pick it up (contact condition) and moves away or the doll moves in tandem but without physical contact (no-contact condition). Using the habituation methodology, Leslie demonstrated that infants are highly sensitive to spatiotemporal discontinuities: they see the hand as an agent to cause movement in an inanimate object, but the no-contact conditions are seen as anomalous events—violations of causal principles. The early understandings just described are soon reflected in children’s spontaneous actions. In studies of his own young children’s exploratory play, Piaget found that by 12 months of age they clearly understood the
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School FIGURE 4.2 Habituation and test for physical concepts. SOURCE: Test events used in Baillargeon, Needham, and Devos (1992).
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School FIGURE 4.3 Average visual fixation duration. SOURCE: Adapted from Schilling and Clifton (1998). need for a point of contact to bring inanimate objects into range. For example, Jacqueline (9 months) discovers that she can bring a toy within reach by pulling a blanket (support) on which it is placed. During the weeks that follow, she frequently uses this “schema” (Piaget, 1952:285). Lucienne (12 months), once having witnessed the action of the support, rapidly generalized the schema to sheets, handkerchiefs, table cloths, pillows, boxes, books, and so on. Once the baby understood the notion of the support, this knowledge transferred rapidly to a variety of potential supports. The same learning is true of stick-like things (push schema) and string-like objects (pull schema), as “means for bringing” (Piaget, 1952:295). Each new acquisition brings with it its own realm of generalization. A series of laboratory studies has reaffirmed and extended Piaget’s original naturalistic observations and provided a fairly detailed description of development of the push/pull schema from 4 to 24 months of age. As noted above, Leslie showed that 7-month-olds are sensitive to the need for point of contact in a pushing scenario. Bates et al. (1980) looked at infants’ ability to reach a toy using various tools. And Brown and Slattery (described in Brown, 1990) looked at children’s ability to choose the correct tool (with adequate length, rigidity, and pushing or pulling head) from an array of available tools. It was not until 24 months of age that children immediately selected the adequate tool, but by 14 months children could do so with some practice. Across the age range of 10–24 months, children first used tools effectively that were physically attached (unbreakable contact) in contrast to tools that could be unattached at the contact point (breakable contact) or when the point of contact needed to be imagined (no contact). Children showed
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School distress or surprise at trick events—when a tool appeared to be attached but wasn’t or vice versa, thus violating their pulling schema (Brown, 1990). These studies, taken together, paint an interesting developmental scenario. Although children in habituation paradigms seem to understand the need for point of contact early (5–7 months), they cannot at 10 months apply that knowledge to tool use tasks unless the contact between the tool and the goal is provided in the physical layout of the task: the tool touches the object; the solution is physically situated in the environment itself. Several months later, infants can learn, with a demonstration, to envision the point of contact that is not specified in the visual array, but is invited by the pulling features of the tools. They can see that a hook would work in getting the tool if it is rigid and long enough. By 24 months, children readily note the pulling potential of unattached tools and can make a choice between available tools on the basis of their adequacy. The research shows that young children have the requisite knowledge in some sense very early on, but they need help in the form of demonstrations to prompt the application of what they know. Biological Causality During the past 30 years, a great deal has been learned about primitive concepts of biological causality. We concentrate here on the differences between animate and inanimate objects. Infants learn rapidly about the differences between inanimate and animate: as we have seen, they know that inanimate objects need to be pushed or propelled into motion. Infants as young as 6 months can distinguish animate versus inanimate movements as patterns of lights attached to forces or people (Bertenthal, 1993). And Spelke (1990) has shown that if two people come close together and move away in tandem without touching, 7-months-olds show no surprise; but if two people-sized inanimate objects come together and move without a point of contact, they are perturbed (as measured by the habituation paradigm). Young children show an early understanding that animate objects have the potential to move themselves because they are made of “biological stuff” — they obey what R.Gelman (1990) calls the “innards principle of mechanism.” Inanimate objects, in contrast, obey the external-agent principle: they cannot move themselves, but must be propelled into action by an external force. For example, Massey and Gelman (1988) reported that 3- and 4-year-old children correctly responded when asked if novel objects like an echidna and a statue can move themselves up and down a hill. Despite the fact that the echidna looked less like a familiar animal than did a statue, the children claimed that only the living object could move itself up and down a hill.
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School Similarly, young children in this age range can give sensible answers to questions about the difference between the insides and outsides of animals, machines, and natural inanimate objects; see Figure 4.4. These are only a handful of findings from a large body of research that goes a long way to challenge the idea that young children are incapable of considering non-perceptual data in scientific areas. Given that there is a mounting body of evidence showing that youngsters are busy constructing coherent accounts of their physical and biological worlds, one needs to ask to what extent these early competencies serve as a bridge for further learning when they enter school. Early Number Concepts An ever-increasing body of evidence shows that the human mind is endowed with an implicit mental ability that facilitates attention to and use of representations of the number of items in a visual array, sequence of drumbeats, jumps of a toy bunny, numerical values represented in arrays, etc. For example, Starkey et al. (1990) showed 6- to 8-month-old infants a series of photographic slides of either 2- or 3-item displays. Each successive picture showed different household items, including combs, pipes, lemons, scissors, and corkscrews that varied in color, shape, size, and texture and spatial position. Half of the infants saw a series of two-item displays while the other half were shown a series of three-item displays. When they became bored, their looking times dropped by 50 percent (they habituated). At this point, they were then shown displays that alternated between two and three items, and if the displays showed a different number of items from what they had seen before, the infants began to show interest by looking again. The only common characteristic within the two-item and three-item displays was their numerical value, so one can say the infants habituated to the set of two or three things and then recovered interest when they were shown a different number of things. The infants could have focused on perceptual attributes of the items such as their shapes, motion, textural complexity, and so on, but they did not. This is an important clue that they are able to process information that represents number at a rather abstract level. Other researchers have shown that infants pay attention to the number of times a toy rabbit jumps up and down, so long as the number of jumping events they have to keep track of is kept between two and four jumps (Wynn, 1996). An especially interesting demonstration of infants’ ability to notice abstract number information in the environment was reported by Canfield and Smith (1996). They found that 5-month-old infants used visual expectation (see previous section) to show that infants are able to distinguish three pictures presented in one location from two pictures in another. Young infants and toddlers also respond correctly to the effects of the
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School BOX 4.4 Solving a Problem Children 18 to 36 months of age are given nesting cups to play with (DeLoache et al., 1985b; see also Karmiloff-Smith and Inhelder, 1974, on children balancing blocks). Five plastic cups are dumped on a table in front of a child, who is simply told, “These are for you to play with.” Although the children have previously seen the cups nested together, there was no real need for them to attempt to nest the cups themselves; they could easily have stacked them, made an imaginary train, pretended to drink from them, etc. However, the children immediately started trying to fit the cups together, often working long and hard in the process. Overall, in their spontaneous manipulations of a set of nesting cups, very young children progress from trying to correct their errors by exerting physical force without changing any of the relations among the elements, to making limited changes in a part of the problem set, to considering and operating on the problem as a whole. This “developmental” trend is observed not only across age, but also in the same children of the same age (30 months) given extensive time to play with the cups. Most important, the children persist, not because they have to, or are guided to, or even because they are responding to failure; they persist because success and understanding are motivating in their own right. in isolation. Infants’ activities are complemented by adult-child relationships that encourage the gradual involvement of children in the skilled and valued activities of the society in which they live. Research has shown that learning is strongly influenced by these social interactions. In fact, studies of interactions of drug-abusing mothers and their infants show how the absence of these critical learning interactions depresses 3- and 6-month-old infants’ learning (Mayes et al., 1998). Parents and others who care for children arrange their activities and facilitate learning by regulating the difficulty of the tasks and by modeling mature performance during joint participation in activities. A substantial body of observational research has provided detailed accounts of the learning interactions between mothers and their young children. As an illustration, watch a mother with a 1-year-old sitting on her knees in front of a collection of toys. A large part of her time is devoted to such quietly facilitative and scene-setting activities as holding a toy that seems to require three hands to manipulate, retrieving things that have been pushed out of range, clearing away those things that are not at present being used in order to provide the child with a sharper focus for the main activity, turning toys so
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School that they become more easily grasped, demonstrating their less obvious properties, and all along molding her body in such a way as to provide maximal physical support and access to the play materials (Schaffer, 1977:73). In addition to the research showing how adults arrange the environment to promote children’s learning, a great deal of research has also been conducted on how adults guide children’s understanding of how to act in new situations through their emotional cues regarding the nature of the situation, nonverbal models of how to behave, verbal and nonverbal interpretations of events, and verbal labels to classify objects and events (Rogoff, 1990; Walden and Ogan, 1988). Parents frame their language and behavior in ways that facilitate learning by young children (Bruner, 1981a, b, 1983; Edwards, 1987; Hoff-Ginsberg and Shatz, 1982). For example, in the earliest months, the restrictions of parental baby talk to a small number of melodic contours may enable infants to abstract vocal prototypes (Papousek et al., 1985). Parental labeling of objects and categories may assist children in understanding category hierarchies and learning appropriate labels (Callanan, 1985; Mervis, 1984). Communication with caregivers to accomplish everyday goals is the groundwork for children’s early learning of the language and other cognitive tools of their community; see Box 4.5. An extremely important role of caregivers involves efforts to help children connect new situations to more familiar ones. In our discussion of competent performance and transfer (see Chapter 3), we noted that knowledge appropriate to a particular situation is not necessarily accessed despite being relevant. Effective teachers help people of all ages make connections among different aspects of their knowledge. Caregivers attempt to build on what children know and extend their competencies by providing supporting structures or scaffolds for the child’s performance (Wood et al., 1976). Scaffolding involves several activities and tasks, such as: interesting the child in the task; reducing the number of steps required to solve a problem by simplifying the task, so that a child can manage components of the process and recognize when a fit with task requirements is achieved; maintaining the pursuit of the goal, through motivation of the child and direction of the activity; marking critical features of discrepancies between what a child has produced and the ideal solution; controlling frustration and risk in problem solving; and demonstrating an idealized version of the act to be performed. Scaffolding can be characterized as acting on a motto of “Where before there was a spectator, let there now be a participant” (Bruner, 1983:60).
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School BOX 4.5 Which Toy? Consider the efforts to reach an understanding between an adult and a 14-month-old about which toy the infant wants to play with. The adult is looking for a toy in the toy box. When he touches the tower of rings, the baby exclaims, “Aa!” The adult responds, “Aa?” picking up the tower. The infant continues looking at the toy box and ignores the tower, so the adult shows the baby the tower and again asks “Aa?” The baby points at something in the toy box grunting, “Aa…aa…” The adult reaches toward the toy box again, and the infant exclaims, “Tue!” The adult exclaimed “Aa!” as he picks up the peekaboo cloth and shows it to the infant. But the infant ignores the cloth and points again at something in the toy box, then, impatiently, waves his arm. The adult responds, “Aa?” But the baby points down to the side of the toy box. They repeat the cycle with another toy, and the baby waves his arm impatiently. The adult says “You show me!” and lifts the baby to his lap from the high chair. The adult then picks up the jack-in-the-box, asking, “This?” —the baby opens his hand toward the toy, and they began to play (Rogoff et al., 1984:42–43). Learning to Read and Tell Stories The importance of adult support of children’s learning can be demonstrated by considering the question: How is it that children, born with no language, can develop most of the rudiments of story telling in the first three years of life? (Engle, 1995). A variety of literacy experiences prepare children for this prowess. Providing children with practice at telling or “reading” stories is an impetus to the growth of language skills and is related to early independent reading; see Box 4.6. For many years some parents and scholars have known about the importance of early reading, through picture book “reading” that is connected to personal experiences. Recently, the efficacy of this process has been scientifically validated—it has been shown to work (see National Research Council, 1998). In the late nineteenth century, C.L.Dodgson—Lewis Carroll—prepared a nursery version of his famous Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass books. The majority of the book consisted of reprints of the famous Tenniel woodcut illustrations. The book was to stimulate “reading” in the sense that contemporary children’s wordless picture books do. This was a first of its kind, and we quote Lewis Carroll (cited in Cohen, 1995:440). I have reason to believe that “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” has been read by some hundreds of English Children, aged from Five to Fifteen: also by Children aged from Fifteen to Twenty-five: yet again by Children aged
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School BOX 4.6 Baby Reading Sixteenth-month-old Julie is left alone temporarily with a visiting grandfather. Wishing to distract the child from her mother’s absence, he starts “reading” a picture book to her. On each page is an animal and its “baby.” Julie shows interest as a spectator until they came to a picture of a kangaroo and its “joey.” She quickly says “Kanga, baby.” Pointing to a shirt with Kanga and Roo (from Winnie the Pooh), she says again, “Kanga” “baby.” Grandfather repeats each utterance. Then he says: “Where’s Julie’s Kanga?” knowing that she has recently received a large stuffed animal from Australia. With great excitement, Julie pulls the stuffed animal over to her grandfather and, pointing to the book, says “Kanga, baby,” then points to the stuffed toy, “Kanga” and to the joey in the pouch, “baby.” Communication had been reached with much laughter and repetition of the Kanga/baby routine. Even at the one-word utterance stage, children can “read,” “refer,” and “represent” across settings (Brown, personal communication). from Twenty-five to Thirty-five…And my ambition now (is it a vain one?) is that it will be read by Children aged from Nought to Five. To be read? Nay, not so! Say rather to be thumbed, to be cooed over, to be dogs’-eared, to be rumpled, to be kissed, by the illiterate, ungrammatical. A preeminent educator, Dodgson had a pedagogical creed about how “Nursery Alice” should be approached. The subtext of the book is aimed at adults, almost in the fashion of a contemporary teacher’s guide; they were asked to bring the book to life. The pictures were the primary focus; much of the original tale is left unspecified. For example, when looking at the famous Tenniel picture of Alice swimming with mouse in a pool of her own tears, Carroll tells the adult to read to the child as follows (cited in Cohen, 1995:441): Now look at the picture, and you’ll soon guess what happened next. It looks just like the sea, doesn’t it? But it really is the Pool of Tears—all made of Alice’s tears, you know! And Alice has tumbled into the Pool: and the Mouse has tumbled in: and there they are swimming about together. Doesn’t Alice look pretty, as she swims across the picture? You can just see her blue stockings, far away under the water. But Why is the Mouse swimming away from Alice is such a hurry? Well, the reason is, that Alice began talking about cats and dogs: and a Mouse always hates talking about cats and dogs! Suppose you were swimming about, in a Pool of your own Tears: and suppose somebody began talking to you about lesson-books and bottles of medicine, wouldn’t you swim as hard as you could go?
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School Carroll, a natural teacher, guides caretakers through the task of concentrating the child’s attention on the picture, prodding the child’s curiosity by asking questions, and engaging the child in a dialogue—even if the child’s contribution is initially limited. Carroll asks the adult to lead the child through literacy events by developing “habits of close observation.” He cleverly suggests certain truths about human and animal nature, and he opens up a realm of fun and nonsense that the child can share with the adult reading the story (Cohen, 1995:442). When caregivers engage in picture book “reading,” they can structure children’s developing narrative skills by asking questions to organize children’s stories or accounts (Eisenberg, 1985; McNamee, 1980). If the child stops short or leaves out crucial information, adults may prompt, “What happened next?” or “Who else was there?” Such questions implicitly provide children with cues to the desired structure of narratives in their environment. For example, one mother began reading with her child, Richard, when he was only 8 months old (Ninio and Bruner, 1978). The mother initially did all the “reading,” but at the same time she was engaged in “teaching” Richard the ritual dialogue for picture book reading. At first she appeared to be content with any vocalization from the baby, but as soon as he produced actual words, she increased her demands and asked for a label with the query, “What’s that?” The mother seemed to increase her level of expectation, first coaxing the child to substitute a vocalization for a nonvocal sign and later a well-formed word for a babbled vocalization. Initially, the mother did all the labeling because she assumed that the child could not; later, the mother labeled only when she believed that the child would not or could not label for himself. Responsibility for labeling was thereby transferred from the mother to the child in response to his increasing store of knowledge, finely monitored by the mother. During the course of the study the mother constantly updated her inventory of the words the child had previously understood and repeatedly attempted to make contact with his growing knowledge base. Middle-class children between 1–1/2 and 3 years often provide labels spontaneously. One group of children did such labeling as “There’s a horsie” or asked the mothers for information “What’s this?” (DeLoache, 1984). With the 3-year-olds, the mothers went far beyond labeling; they talked about the relation among the objects in the picture, related them to the children’s experiences, and questioned the children about their outside experience. For example, “That’s right, that’s a beehive. Do you know what bees make? They make honey. They get nectar from flowers and use it to make honey, and then they put the honey in the beehive.” The mothers use the situation and the material to provide the children with a great deal of background information. They continually elaborate and question information, which
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School are comprehension-fostering activities that must later be applied to “real” reading tasks. In these reading activities, mothers are attempting to function in what psychologists call a child’s zone of proximal development—to stretch what the child can do with a little assistance (see Box 4.1 above). As the child advances, so does the level of collaboration demanded by the mother. The mother systematically shapes their joint experiences in such a way that the child will be drawn into taking more and more responsibility for their joint work. In so doing, she not only provides an excellent learning environment, she also models appropriate comprehension-fostering activities; crucial regulatory activities are thereby made overt and explicit. Story telling is a powerful way to organize lived and listened-to experiences, and it provides an entry into the ability to construe narrative from text. By the time children are 3 or 4, they are beginning narrators; they can tell many kinds of stories, including relating autobiographical events, retelling fiction, and recalling stories they have heard. The everyday experiences of children foster this story telling. Children like to talk and learn about familiar activities, scripts or schemes, the “going to bed” script or the “going to McDonald’s” script (Nelson, 1986; Mandler, 1996). Children like to listen to and retell personal experiences. These reminiscences are stepping stones to more mature narratives. As they get older, children increase their levels of participation by adding elements to the story and taking on greater pieces of the authorial responsibility. By 3 years of age, children in families in which joint story telling is common can take over the leadership role in constructing personal narratives. Reminiscing also enables children to relate upsetting experiences; such narratives act as “cooling vessels” (Bruner, 1972), distancing the experience and confirming the safe haven of homes and other supportive environments. This early interest in sharing experience, joint picture book reading, and narrative, in general, have obvious implications for literary appreciation in preschool and early grades. Indeed, the KEEP (Au, 1981; Au and Jordan, 1981) program in Hawaii and the Reciprocal Teaching Program (Palinscar and Brown, 1984) in urban U.S. cities were both explicitly modeled after the natural interactions; they attempted to build on them and model the style. Connection-making and scaffolding by parents to support children’s mathematical learning has also proved a successful intervention (Saxe et al., 1984; Byrnes, 1996) that has been mimicked in school settings. Cultural Variations in Communication There are great cultural variations in the ways in which adults and children communicate, and there are wide individual differences in communication styles within any cultural community. All cultural variations provide
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School strong supports for children’s development. However, some variations are more likely than others to encourage development of the specific kinds of knowledge and interaction styles that are expected in typical U.S. school environments. It is extremely important for educators—and parents—to take these differences into account. Conversing, Observing, or Eavesdropping In some communities, children are seldom direct conversational partners with adults, but rather engage with adults by participating in adult activities. In such situations, children’s learning occurs through observing adults and from the pointers and support provided by adults in the contexts of ongoing activities. Such engagements contrast sharply with patterns common in other communities, in which adults take the role of directly instructing young children in language and other skills through explicit lessons that are not embedded in the contexts of ongoing activities (Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984; Rogoff, 1990; Rogoff et al., 1993). For example, Pueblo Indian children are provided access to many aspects of adult life and are free to choose how and with whom to participate (John-Steiner, 1984). Their reports of their own learning stress their role as “apprentices” to more experienced members of the community (Suina and Smolkin, 1994). Observation and verbal explanation occur in the contexts of involvement in the processes as they are being learned. In an African-American community of Louisiana, in which children are expected to be “seen and not heard,” language learning occurs by eavesdropping. “The silent absorption in community life, the participation in the daily commercial rituals, and the hours spent overhearing adults’ conversations should not be underestimated in their impact on a child’s language growth” (Ward, 1971:37). “Nothing is censored for children’s ears; they go everywhere in the community except Saturday-night parties.” Older children teach social and intellectual skills: “Alphabets, colors, numbers, rhymes, word games, pen and pencil games are learned…from older children. No child, even the firstborn, is without such tutelage, since cousins, aunts, and uncles of their own age and older are always on hand” (Ward, 1971:25). In this community, small children are not conversational partners with adults, as in the sense of other people with whom one converses. If children have something important to say, parents will listen, and children had better listen when their parents speak to them. But for conversation, adults talk to adults. Questions between older children and adults involve straightforward requests for information, not questions asked for the sake of conversation or for parents to drill children on topics to which the parents already know the answers. Mothers’ speech to children, while not taking the form
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School of a dialogue, is carefully regularized, providing precise, workable models of the language used in the community (Ward, 1971). Schooling and the Role of Questioning Detailed ethnographic research studies have shown striking differences in how adults and children interact verbally. Because of the prevalence of the use of questions in classrooms, one particularly important difference is how people treat questions and answers. One classic study, a comparison between the questioning behavior of white middle-class teachers in their own homes and the home question interaction of their working-class African-American pupils, showed dramatic differences (Heath, 1981, 1983). The middle-class mothers began the questioning game almost from birth and well before a child could be expected to answer. For example, a mother questions her 8-week-old infant, “You want your teddy bear?” and responds for the child, “Yes, you want your bear” (see Box 4.6 above). These rituals set the stage for a general reliance on questioning and pseudo-questioning interactions that serve a variety of social functions. Children exposed to these interaction patterns seem compelled to provide an answer and are quite happy to provide information that they know perfectly well an adult already possesses. Such “known-answer” questions, where the interrogator has the information being requested, occur frequently in classroom dialogues (Mehan, 1979). Teachers routinely call on children to answer questions that serve to display and practice their knowledge, rather than to provide information that the teacher does not know. Similarly, in middle-class homes, known-answer questions predominate. For example, in one 48-hour period, almost half the utterances (48% of 215) addressed to 27-month-old Missy were questions; of these questions, almost half (46%) were known-answer questions (Heath, 1981, 1983). In general, questions played a less central role in the home social interaction patterns of the African-American children; in particular, there was a notable lack of known-answer rituals (Heath, 1981, 1983). The verbal interactions served a different function, and they were embedded within different communicative and interpersonal contexts. Common questioning forms were analogy, story-starting, and accusatory; these forms rarely occurred in the white homes. For example, the African-American children were commonly asked to engage in the sophisticated use of metaphors by responding to questions that asked for analogical comparisons. The children were more likely to be asked “What’s that like?” or “Who’s he acting like?” rather than “What’s that?” Such questions reflected the African-American adults’ assumptions that preschool children are adept at noting likenesses between things, assumptions that are also revealed in speech forms other than questioning,
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School such as frequent use of similes and metaphors. The adults were asked about and value metaphorical thinking and narrative exposition initiated by a storytelling question: one participant indicated a willingness to tell a story using the question form, “Did you see Maggie’s dog yesterday?” The appropriate answer to such a query is not “yes” or “no,” but another question, “No, what happened to Maggie’s dog yesterday?” that sets the stage for the initiator’s narrative. Both adults and older preschool children were totally familiar with these questioning rituals and played them enthusiastically. These examples emphasize the systematic differences between the form and function of questioning behaviors in the working-class black and middleclass white communities that were studied. Neither approach is “deficient,” but the match between the activities that predominate in classrooms at the early grades is much greater with middle-class homes than with workingclass ones in that community. As the middle-class teachers practiced their familiar questioning routines with their pupils, it is not surprising that the middle-class pupils, who shared the teacher’s background, successfully fulfilled the answerer role, while the working-class African-American children were often perplexed (Heath, 1981, 1983). Moreover, teachers were sometimes bewildered by what they regarded as the lack of responsible answering behavior on the part of their black pupils. They commented (Heath, 1981:108): They don’t seem to be able to answer even the simplest questions. I would almost think some of them have a hearing problem; it is as though they don’t hear me ask a question. I get blank stares to my question. When I am making statements or telling stories which interest them, they always seem to hear me. The simplest questions are the ones they can’t answer in the classroom; yet on the playground, they can explain a rule for a ballgame, etc. They can’t be as dumb as they seem in my class. I sometimes feel that when I look at them and ask a question I’m staring at a wall I can’t break through. However, as the teachers learned about the types of metaphoric and narrative question sequences with which the children are familiar, they were able to gradually introduce the unfamiliar known-answer routines. This is an excellent example of the “two-way path, from school to the community and from the community to school” (Heath, 1981:125) that is needed if the transition to formal schooling is to be made less traumatic for ethnically diverse groups. Not only can interventions be devised to help minority-culture parents prepare children for school, but the schools themselves can be sensitive to the problems of cultural mismatches. The answer is not to concentrate exclusively on changing children or changing schools, but to encourage adaptive flexibility in both directions.
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School CONCLUSION The concept of “development” is critical to understanding the changes in children’s thinking, such as the development of language, causal reasoning, and rudimentary mathematical concepts. Young children are actively engaged in making sense of their worlds. In some particular domains, such as biological and physical causality, number, and language, they have strong predispositions to learn rapidly and readily. These predispositions support and may even make possible early learning and pave the way for competence in early schooling. Yet even in these domains, children still have a great deal of learning to do. Children’s early understanding of the perceptual and physical world may jump-start the learning process, even making learning possible, but one should look with caution for ways in which early knowledge may impede later learning. For example, children who treat rational numbers as they had treated whole numbers will experience trouble ahead. Awareness of these roadblocks to learning could help teachers anticipate the difficulty. Although children learn readily in some domains, they can learn practically anything by sheer will and effort. When required to learn about nonprivileged domains they need to develop strategies of intentional learning. In order to develop strategic competence in learning, children need to understand what it means to learn, who they are as learners, and how to go about planning, monitoring, revising, and reflecting upon their learning and that of others. Children lack knowledge and experience but not reasoning ability. Although young children are inexperienced, they reason facilely with the knowledge they have. Children are both problem solvers and problem generators: children attempt to solve problems presented to them, and they also seek novel challenges. They refine and improve their problem-solving strategies not only in the face of failure, but also by building on prior success. They persist because success and understanding are motivating in their own right. Adults help make connections between new situations and familiar ones for children. Children’s curiosity and persistence are supported by adults who direct their attention, structure their experiences, support their learning attempts, and regulate the complexity and difficulty levels of information for them. Children, thus, exhibit capacities that are shaped by environmental experiences and the individuals who care for them. Caregivers provide supports, such as directing children’s attention to critical aspects of events, commenting on features that should be noticed, and in many other ways providing structure to the information. Structure is critical for learning and for moving toward understanding information. Development and learning are not two
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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School parallel processes. Early biological underpinnings enable certain types of interactions, and through various environmental supports from caregivers and other cultural and social supports, a child’s experiences for learning are expanded. Learning is promoted and regulated both by children’s biology and ecology, and learning produces development.
Representative terms from entire chapter: