Tapping Into What Young People Know

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In the U.S., we tend to think of babies and young children as immature, incompetent beings. This is because of a long history of research in developmental psychology -- especially the work of Jean Piaget -- that viewed infants' and children's thinking as deficient compared to adults'. By studying his own two children, Piaget concluded that children learn through exploring the world on their own like "little scientists." But Piaget assumed that young children didn't have much capacity for logical thought. He showed this through his famous experiments where he asked preschool children to respond to demonstrations of various physical properties. Videos of these experiments are often used in developmental psychology courses to show the cute, often amusingly incorrect responses of these "immature" children.

Newer research by developmental psychologists such as Alison Gopnik has started to seriously question the assumption that children are immature thinkers. Gopnik has shown us that babies and young children develop cognitive capacities early on -- in fact, they are innately wired for learning from the moment they are born. Annie Murphy Paul pushes this understanding one step further by showing us the many important things fetuses learn about the world while they are still in the womb. Fetuses learn things like what foods are enjoyed by the mother's culture, whether to anticipate a world full of stress and deprivation or a world full of abundance and security. At birth, we already have a sophisticated sense of what to expect from our environment.

However, the babies and children that this research is about are almost always living in the U.S., Canada, or other Western societies. What can we learn when we adopt a broader cultural perspective? Anthropologists who study human development are concerned with understanding how culture influences how we raise our children, what we think they are capable of at different ages, and what we think the outcome of their development should be. In the U.S., popular thinking assumes that children should enjoy an extended childhood where they have the time to play and explore, that they should develop academic skills at a relatively early age (but not too early), and that they shouldn't have to do the kinds of work that adults do. How we raise our children -- and the types of cognitive skills we value and encourage -- grows out of these cultural values.

However, the values that we take for granted are not shared across cultures. Cultural psychologist Barbara Rogoff has shown us that cultures vary widely in when they think children are mature enough for certain adult-like tasks. For example, in Efe culture, it's common for an 11-month-old to use a machete without adult supervision. In many non-Western cultures, children (mostly girls) are responsible for adult-like work, such as taking care of infants, by the age of 3. These childrearing practices may sound shocking to us in the U.S. because we assume that children aren't ready for these kinds of tasks. But these practices make logical sense when understood through the lens of culture. Not everyone shares the Western assumption that children should have an extended, protected childhood. The circumstances of life in different parts of the world create different assumptions about what childhood should look like.

So where do schools fit into all of this? In light of Gopnik's research, schools could be said to serve the function of getting children to give up their immature ways of thinking and move towards the more "logical" thinking of adults. In our public schools, particularly in the current context of No Child Left Behind and other draconian laws that limit what can be taught and learned, the pressure for children to conform to adult notions of what counts as knowledge has never been greater.

Any kind of knowledge or activity that children create is acceptable, as long as children don't endanger themselves or others. -- Marguerite Wilson

In contrast, Sudbury education is an interesting example of taking seriously the idea of children having sophisticated knowledge of their own. These schools - of which there are currently 20 in the United States and a handful in other countries in the global North - are outgrowths of the 1960s free school movement and the unschooling movement. These alternative schools - or, more accurately, alternatives to school - seriously question the whole notion of school itself. They turn the idea of who is the expert and who is the learner completely on its head. Here, children are assumed to know exactly what is right for their own individual learning process. Without grades, tests of any kind, transcripts, or many formal classes, Sudbury students spend their days playing, talking, preparing meals, doing art, going on field trips, and teaching themselves the academic skills they're genuinely interested in. Adults in these schools assume that children are wise, sophisticated individuals who naturally know what is best for their own education. Any kind of knowledge or activity that children create is acceptable, as long as children don't endanger themselves or others. These schools tap into children's capacity to teach themselves. Given Gopnik's research about the amazing capacities of babies and children, maybe Sudbury education - which amounts to an entirely different cultural ideal of children's development - are where our public schools could move in the future.

The author is a member of the American Anthropological Association (AAA).

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