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Thinking Like Babies

LizJ's picture

                                                                   “The child has

a hundred languages

(and a hundred hundred hundred more)

but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and culture

Separate the head from the body.

They tell the child:

To think without hands

To listen and not to speak

To understand without joy”

-Loris Malaguzzi

Founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach


Most people would agree that the brain is the most important part of the human body. Not only does the brain control all bodily functions but it is our most important tool in living and learning within our environment. By studying the brain, scientists can try to understand the way humans move and operate. In this search for understanding, one of the most important reasons for studying the brain is to learn how the brain works when humans think and how we can structure the educational systems around us to incorporate these findings so we can learn in the most effective way. Interestingly enough, babies are a great place to start.

Babies can tell us a lot about how to improve education. Based on multiple scientific studies, scientists have discovered that babies aren’t the asocial, egocentric beings they were thought to be for years and years. Instead, babies are more like a simplified version of who they are going to be in the future. By studying babies, we can try to find the best way to work with the ways children’s brains operate and format educational learning based on those findings. There have already been major pushes to change education for young children to try to incorporate recent studies and findings about how babies think and learn. Two examples of different ways to educate young children are the Montessori method and the Reggio Emilia method of learning. These methods of education for young children are just a few of the ways we can connect our knowledge of the brain by studying neural and cognitive sciences to how we can improve educational practices from childhood on.

Before getting into the reasons of using the Montessori and Reggio Emilia approaches in education, first we must look more in depth in the way babies think and learn. To support the notion that acknowledges babies know more than previously thought, studies have shown that “…newborns are far from being blank slates,” and that they are actually “…learning about the world from their experiences.” We, as humans, are constantly changing and learning throughout our lives. This would suggest that we must start out with some sort of higher-cognitive function before we even have experiences to shape us otherwise there would be no base for us to move forward. Experiences, though, are the fundamental way in which we, especially as children, learn. Then why once children start to reach their “higher education” does the focus tend to shift from their own experiences to “teaching the test” and not using experiences as a tool at all? And if we started using experiences as a tool, how can we organize those experiences in a way that would be beneficial for learning a particular subject?

Recent research has begun to shed light on the fascinating ways babies and young children think and interact with the world around them. One of the more interesting findings discovered in recent research is that scientists have found “…that young children who think they are being instructed modify their statistical analysis and may become less creative as a result.” This is interesting for a variety of reasons but especially because most education in the United States as it is structured today is based on teacher given instruction. From this finding, it seems clear that we should question the methods of education we enact, especially in our public schools. And if it’s proven that babies are more creative when they aren’t given instruction, then is learning from teachers the best way to learn? But clearly, we need teachers in order to learn. The change needed seems to be in the way teachers give instruction, or more specifically, give instruction in a way that doesn’t deter a child’s creativity. This is further evidence as to why we need education to get away from “teaching the test.” By “teaching the test,” we are stifling our future generation’s creativity.

Maybe we should all try to think like we did as babies, after all, in the article “How Babies Think,” Alisom Gopnik makes the point that “Fundamentally, babies are designed to learn.” And aren’t we all striving to learn from our surroundings? Our mistakes? Gopnik explains that because the prefrontal cortex is underdeveloped in young children, it actually is helpful in learning because they are more inhibited in their thoughts and therefore more creative in their learning. Biologically, since our brains are more developed than those of babies, we can’t innately think as uninhibitedly as them. Though it is worth looking at in more depth so we may be able to try and teach ourselves to ignore our inhibitions and think like a child.

Gopnik also discusses studies that suggest “… that when children play spontaneously…they are also exploring cause and effect and doing experiments—the most effective way to discover how the world works.” The Montessori and Reggio Emilia methods of learning speak directly to this. The Montessori method involves a teacher “…in viewing the child as having an inner natural guidance for his or her own perfect self-directed development.” The Reggio Emilia method is similar in that it is based on principles of “…respect, responsibility, and community through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment based on the interests of the children through a self-guided curriculum.” These methods of education are trying to work with the way the human brain works, especially in young children. Not only do they take into account the most effective way to teach children by understanding the brain, but also they realize that young children are social beings just like adults, being socialized by the world around them. For instance, Paul Bloom in “The Moral Life of Babies” states that “…much of the morality that humans possess is a consequence of the culture in which they are raised, not their innate capacities.” The Montessori and Reggio Emilio methods of education are best suited for children to learn in their best capacity academically and socially, to make a well-rounded human being.

If we restrict or limit the way the child’s brain works and the direction that children explore, it will only have a negative effect on their cognitive development. By studying babies, we can better understand how all humans think and then find better ways to educate our youth. The state of education as it currently stands is hindering the possibilities of where our minds can go rather than helping it. Although they’re not perfect, the Montessori and Reggio Emilia methods of learning are just one step in the right direction to improve education by working with the ways the brain functions and fostering creativity and expression in babies and adults alike.