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Young children think like scientists

10.10.2012, Age: 3263 days

Infants and toddlers discover the world and increase their understanding by trial and error. Anyone with children or working with them will know that. Recent studies strongly suggest that learning in young children is very similar to the way scientists think and do their research.

Research over the last 20 years has shown that children, whose brains are rapidly developing, employ logic and a form of probabilistic analysis called “Bayesian inference”. They use these tools to form hypotheses about the world around them and test them like grownup scientists do.

Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, published a view of research from her own lab and by others in the September 28 issue of Science. She reports numerous experiments that were set up to investigate how young children learn. This work not only has implications for learning theory, but also bears on recent trends in education towards more formal learning and standardised testing, even for the very young.

From an interview for the Science podcast, September 28:

"[W]e discovered [...] that when we gave children even quite complicated statistical patterns about what was going on in the world, the children could use that information to actually solve real problems, make real decisions, even though the children didn’t consciously know about probability or causality or statistics."

"[F]our-year-olds learned it very quickly, and, in fact, as it turned out, learned it better than undergraduates did."

"[T]his new research shows [...] that children have amazing cognitive skills even when they’re two, three, and four – things like causal inference or statistical analysis or hypothesis testing – and they’re exercising those cognitive skills in the course of playing, of experimenting, of exploring." (Science podcast)

As it turns out, letting children play and discover things by themselves is far superior to telling them things and teaching them. Thus, trends to make kindergarten a preparation for a later academic career are misguided, Gopnik concludes.


New theoretical ideas and empirical research show that very young children’s learning and thinking are strikingly similar to much learning and thinking in science. Preschoolers test hypotheses against data and make causal inferences; they learn from statistics and informal experimentation, and from watching and listening to others. The mathematical framework of probabilistic models and Bayesian inference can describe this learning in precise ways. These discoveries have implications for early childhood education and policy. In particular, they suggest both that early childhood experience is extremely important and that the trend toward more structured and academic early childhood programs is misguided.

Alison Gopnik, 2012. Scientific Thinking in Young Children: Theoretical Advances, Empirical Research, and Policy Implications. Science 337, 1623-1627. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/337/6102/1623.abstract

Science podcast transcript, 28 September 2012 http://www.sciencemag.org/content/suppl/2012/09/26/337.6102.1689-b.DC1/SciencePodcast_120928.pdf

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