4 October 1999

The Greatest Learning Machine In The Universe?

by Kate Melville

Have you looked at a baby recently? Well if so you may have been looking at more than just another cute face - indeed you may have been peering at what some scientists believe is the greatest learning machine in the universe.

At least this is the theory of the University of Washington husband-wife team of developmental scientists Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl and University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Alison Gopnik, in their new book, 'The Scientist in the Crib.'

Their book is a humorous exploration of how babies learn, in addition, the authors propose that the way babies acquire knowledge has an uncanny resemblance to how adults use the scientific method to conduct research. This to book is aimed at parents and other adults who want to know how children's minds work as much as they want to know about feeding them and changing their nappies. It explains the remarkable transformation that happens in the human brain during the first three years of life and how, often unknowingly, parents and others help the process along.

Patricia Kuhl says, "We are born to teach, we do this naturally and quite unconsciously. It seems as if nature designed us to teach babies in the same way it designed babies to learn."

Interestingly the authors seem to have worked from a dual perspective; that of being parents as well as leading figures in the field of human developmental science. Meltzoff, a psychology professor, has done pioneering research into how much infants know and how they learn. Kuhl, a professor of speech and hearing science, is one of the world's leading authorities on language and speech acquisition. Gopnik is a psychology professor and authority on child learning, psychology and philosophy.

According to Meltzoff, "The new science shows that babies are thinking, solving problems and actively learning long before kindergarten". Developmental scientists are in the crib trying to understanding babies, but when the babies look up they are also trying to understand us. Research shows that babies and young children know and learn more about the world than we could ever have imagined. When babies are born they already know many important and surprising things about objects, people and language. Babies also easily and naturally solve new problems that are far beyond the abilities of the most powerful computers. They think, make predictions, look for explanations and even do experiments. And all this spectacular learning happens as part of everyday life in the ordinary child's world of peek-a-boo, drop the spoon and the terrible twos. "It's the same process in science," he said. "As adults we have the capacity to do science because we were once babies. We have this curiosity that in children is called play. Scientists just have bigger and more expensive toys. It's not that children are little scientists but that scientists are big children."

The book look at why:

Children's brains are more flexible than adult's and why what we learn at one point influences what we can learn later

Playing Mozart in the crib or showing a baby flashcards is no substitute for a parent talking, playing, making faces and just paying attention to a baby

It is necessary to realise the child-rearing environment in the country has changed radically and that new strategies and support for infant and preschool care must be devised

Basically they think that being in the company of caring adults "is school for babies".

The theories in this book look set to again ignite the debate about whether or not parents can be too pushy with their kids, but it certainly makes interesting reading for parents, prospective parents and educators.