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Learning about and from Babies

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    Learning about and from Babies

What do babies know and how do they learn:

The traditional views of babies typically depict babies as helpless undeveloped human beings. Physically they are weak and need adults to take care of most of their daily functions. Cognitively they do not yet understand how the world works. They make many basic and silly mistakes. However, recent studies have shown that babies actually know more than we thought they do. Babies under four-year-old can understand causality, interpersonal communication, and the seemingly complicated idea of “essence” of living things. Babies show great abilities to discern statistical patterns and make conclusions from those patterns. They may not be conscious of the way they learn, but they are constantly absorbing information and understand the world through the information. In this paper I will explore how babies learn and the implications of those recent studies for educating the babies and human learners in general.       

Many people think that adults are smarter than babies. It makes sense right? Cognitively adults can do most things that babies cannot do: use the GPS map, understand calculus, and talk eloquently. But if the standard for measuring ‘smartness” is how good of a learner one is, then babies may be a serious competition. “Baby brains are more flexible than adult brains. They have far more connections between neurons” (Gopnik). Babies’ brain is more responsive to new information and new environments. One experiment tests the ability of four-year-olds and adult’s ability to respond to unusual blicket patterns. Th study shows that “The four-year-olds were better than the adults at grasping this unusual causal structure” (Gopnik). Adult’s prior knowledge prevents them from thinking creatively or decreases their willingness to entertain unusual patterns. However, high flexibility does not mean efficiency. Babies may take in a well of information that we might consider trivial or useless. Nevertheless their ability to process information is impressive.

Some studies have shown that babies have at least some rudimentary understanding of psychology. First they can recognize human beings as something essentially different from solid objects. “They expect engagement: if a moving object becomes still, they merely lose interest; if a person’s face becomes still, however, they become distressed” (Bloom). Not only that they seems to have a good beliefs about people’s mental activities. “They expect people to move rationally in accordance with their beliefs and desires: babies show surprise when someone takes a roundabout path to something he wants” (Bloom). They also know that people can have false beliefs. The babies are quite advance cognitively in that they have a mental map of the world as seen by other people.

Going further, babies seem to have some understanding of morality. “Human babies, notably, cry more to the cries of other babies than to tape recordings of their own crying” This indicates an ability to have empathy -- an important component of a moral life. They not only feel fellow babies’ pain they will also take actions. “Babies also seem to want to assuage the pain of others: once they have enough physical competence (starting at about 1 year old), they soothe others in distress by stroking and touching or by handing over a bottle or toy” (Bloom). This observation might not qualify as full-blown morality as we understand it but it is at least a display of some moral understanding and ability.

Babies are born scientists. “Children learn about the world much as scientists do—in effect, conducting experiments, analyzing statistics and forming theories to account for their observations” (Gopnik). The ability to discern statistical pattern extends to many areas of daily life. If babies have seen enough of how solid objects work in the world they would likely guess that solid objects do not melt into each others or go through each others without creating a hole. Babies then would go on to test it out by placing solid objects together to see that indeed they do have definite boundaries. When this conclusion is made, babies would be shocked to witness a magic trick where a toy car goes through a solid wall. Babies cannot express their amazement verbally, at least not very well. But one can tell that they notice an unusual pattern if they look at the event longer than usual.

Babies are constantly and spontaneously looking for causes and effects and coming up with accounts that link the causes and the effects. When babies are left alone with toys they naturally explore what those toys can do. “The children's brains, however, must be unconsciously processing information in a way that parallels the methods of scientific discovery” (Gopnik). Some scientists argue that babies’ brain works like a probabilistic model. First the hypothesis about the world are represented in a causal map: A happens because B. Then the causal map is used to predict the likelihood of other patterns of events emerging. Certain pattern of event is either given credit or being doubted depending on whether it fits the overall pattern.

Given babies’ amazing ability to process new information it is not an exaggeration to say that “fundamentally, babies are designed to learn” (Gopnik). They are born to learn about the world around them. This means that their brain has to be very flexible at the time of born in order to adapt to the external condition. Even though the initial stage of babies’ life is extremely vulnerable, it boosts the chance of learning the most effective ways to survive in a given environment. Evolutionarily, the learning strategy seems to work better than betting on lucky matching of genes and environments.

How to teach babies:   
    Here’s a list of five guidelines on how to teach babies, taken from a popular parenting website I will analyze this set of guidelines with regard to the research results I have discussed in the last section.  

1. Windows of opportunities

The younger the brain, the more malleable it is – that’s why young children are like sponges. A baby's brain builds itself by forming connections in response to the stimulation it receives. The fetus begins responding to sound during month five in the womb, when her sense of hearing becomes fully developed. This means that learning begins before birth.

After birth, the baby's brain continues wiring itself in response to the child’s experiences of the world. Learning is faster and more effortless than it will ever be again. Acquiring our native language from birth guarantees that we will master that language, regardless of how linguistically gifted we turn out to be as adults. It's all about harnessing the power of a baby's brain. Likewise, anyone can master the skills of reading, math or music, so long as they begin learning at a young enough age.

2. Babies love to learn

A baby's brain is hardwired for learning, making babies the most avid students in the world. What’s more, babies and small children carry none of the baggage that comes from being sent to school and being subjected to quizzes, tests and examinations. For babies, learning is pure enjoyment.

3. Teaching should never be forced

Regular practice is important, but not to the point of forcing. Above all, your child should enjoy the learning process. Hold lessons only when he is receptive, and end them before he loses interest.

4. Play is essential

Babies and children need time to explore the world around them, pick up objects and examine them, and get to grips with the laws of nature. Your baby should spend the majority of her waking hours engaged in hands-on play.

5. Relax and have fun

    Avoid focusing on having your child achieve specific knowledge goals. Treat lesson time instead as an opportunity for strengthening the parent-child bond. Teaching your baby should never become a source of stress for either one of you. If you feel this is happening, reevaluate your approach or trim down the lesson program as necessary.


The first guideline is consistent with researches that have shown that younger the baby     The more flexible the brain is. For babies learning is indeed fast and relatively effortless. It is hard to assess babies’ subjective evaluation of the difficulty of their learning, but compare to adult brain babies’ brain is more open to information, especially new information. Guideline number two’s statement “Babies love to learn” speaks to the research that have shown that babies are born to adopt to the environment they are born into.

Babies, like many learners, are more creative when given the freedom to explore on their own. Excessive guidance hinders the learning process for babies. One study has shown that giving babies very thorough instructions will prompt them to follow the procedure exactly instead of finding the best way to solve the problem. Guidance number three correctly emphasizes that learning should not be forced. Guidance number five takes this “hands-off” approach even further and says that babies should not be achieving specific goals. Just let them play. It sounds inefficient. But at this stage, learning is not supposed to be efficiency-oriented. Setting aside our ideological differences in the treatment of babies, it actually makes educational sense to just let the babies play. First of all, everything babies do will be learning. Second, goal-oriented learning limits the number of ways the brain neurons connect to each others. In other words, forcing specific knowledge from the very beginning will hinder learning capacities down the line; and thus guidance number four, “Play is essential.”

It is important that babies spend most of their time doing hands-on play and interacting with real humans. With the advance of technology, many parents indulge their child in a whole library of DVDs and talking electronic books, games and cartoon shows. While exposing kids to new words can help them build vocabulary it needs to come from a real human being. Remember that in a study we have discussed babies know the essential different between inanimate objects and human beings. While technology can imitate our speech it cannot imitate the whole living human being. DVDs and electronic books can actually hinders their linguistic development by taking away the richness of human experience. Fancy toys do not help the brain develop more than other common objects in the household. In fact “the greatest pediatric brain-boosting technology in the world is probably a plain cardboard box, a fresh box of crayons and two hours” (Vallo).               

Larger implications:
    Babies are born to learn. But when we are not babies anymore, should we be gearing toward efficiency instead of learning for learning’s sake? To explore this question, let’s remind ourselves that the human brain starts out extremely flexible but then it becomes more and  more inflexible as it forms neuron connections and abandon inefficient ones. This is the rough sketch of the development of the brain assuming that it receives normal daily impressions. At the beginning it seems important to let the brain develop as many connections as possible. But later on, the brain’s ability to form new connections dwindles -- learning becomes less effortless. The brain selects connections that are most useful in a given environment. In the later development it would seem appropriate to be more directive in training the brain, otherwise the neuron connections will form around trivial matters. One can argue that no learning is trivial. This maybe true for the babies but not for the adults. Certainly we value the ability to solve world hunger more than the ability to count the grains of sand.

Some clarification is needed here. To say that babies are born to learn does not exactly mean that learning is their end goal in life. Rather, babies are born to learn to adopt to their environment. We are born into a social reality. We develop mental and physical tools to adopt to the given environment. This is not to say that creativity is diminished. In fact we have to recognize that in adopting we also actively participate in the creation of our environment. There is much room for us to “play.” We should not see learning as strictly for a function, but rather for a purpose. Having a purpose is less mechanistic and more organic than having a particular function. Our purpose influences how we create and recreate our environment. To a large extent, we define that purpose.   

Bloom, Paul. The Moral Life of Babies. Published 5/5/2010. Access date:

           November 10th, 2010.
Fundamentals of Early Learning, The. Access date: November 10th 2010.  

Gopnik, Alison. How Babies Think. Scientific American. July 2010, Vol 303, 76-81. Access date: November 10th,              2010.

Vallo, Mary. Baby’s Brain. Published11/1/2010. Access date:November 13th, 2010