The Role of the Parent, Caregiver, and Teacher

The Eminents interview with Alison Gopnik

Posted Oct 27, 2016

Bill Gauthier--Soul Sheparding, CC0
Source: Bill Gauthier--Soul Sheparding, CC0

What’s the role of the parent, the caregiver, and the teacher with young children?

Alison Gopnik has spent her life exploring that both from a psychologist’s and philosopher’s perspective. She is Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor in Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. She was ranked among the most influential psychologists working today. Her newest book is The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children.

She is my The Eminents interview today.

MN:  You urge young children to be allowed a lot of minimally structured play. Well, for over a century, developmental specialists such as Maria Montessori, David Elkind, and T. Berry Brazelton have urged that. What’s your contribution beyond theirs?

AG:  My research attempts to provide scientific support for those theories. In my book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, I cite research that if you’re trying to get someone to learn something specific, play isn’t the way—you want to train. But whether it’s a rat or a three-year-old, if you want to encourage a more creative, flexible, adaptive person, play has the edge.

MN:  Is that tough to prove scientifically?

AG:  In animal studies, we can do true experiments, not just correlational analyses: You let half the rats play and the other not, and you get pretty good data. With children, the best data is from careful observation. We don’t yet have it completely nailed down but a number of studies have yielded results in the same direction.

MN:  How much should the decision to maximize play versus direct instruction vary with the child’s cognitive ability?

AG:  We probably should pay more attention to individual differences, and if we’re asking the question of what’s the best way to teach a specific thing to a child, it may well be that we need individualized approaches. But I remain convinced of the universal importance of play in cognitive development across a wide range of people. For example, we replicated our results in rural Peru. In addition, play’s importance has been documented across time and culture. We just have to pin down what the role really is.

I do think we know that a child’s environment should be rich, caring, and exploratory. I summarize that by saying a child’s life should be filled with mud, livestock, and relatives. That will encourage the creative problem solvers we need.

Ironically, many schools are moving back toward the automaton-training model of the 19th century at the same time as society will have ever more robots to do routine tasks. Creativity, flexibility, and out-of-the-box thinking are what’s needed.

MN:  Alas, only a small percentage of tomorrow’s jobs will require that. We live in an age when the main products are hardware and software. Only a relative few creative types are needed. After they've developed the first piece, unlimited copies are produced automatically. Most of the time, what’s required is excellent in-the-box thinking and performance. Besides, it’s much harder to help people become much better out-of-the-box thinkers.

AG:  Sure, Silicon Valley only needs a few of those guys, but don’t forget about human careers: nurses, hospice caregivers, and so on. They must think out of the box, be creative, flexible.

MN:  You mention end-of-life caregivers. A liberal utilitarian like Peter Singer would say that it’s wiser to spend resources, for example, on malaria in sub-Saharan Africa. How would you respond?

AG:  Caring, whether for children or the dying, shouldn’t be instrumental. It should be an intrinsic, moral good.

MN:  You extol broad exploration, but efficacy usually requires a person to quickly get focused.

AG:  Absolutely. Engineers, for example, typically start with broad exploration and when that starts to reach a point of likely diminishing returns, they get focused, tactical. Otherwise, no product would ever get to market. But with children, it’s wise to err on the side of facilitating wide-ranging imagination. Apart from instrumentality, it’s key to a pleasurable life.

MN:  Is it possible that a key reason kids can learn so well when young—for example, a foreign-language—is that we begin to senesce from Day One, so we’re at our physiological best in our first few years?

AG:  I’m not a physiologist so I can’t opine on that, but I can say that during those first few years, the brain seems well designed for making new connections.

MN:  Alas, at our age, it’s downhill from here.

AG:  Well, at 55, women—and maybe men—shift focus from reproducing and producing to, for example, caring for our grandchildren, which is a happy state.

MN:  Unfortunately, more men don’t have that luxury. Men decline much faster, dying earlier of nine of the top 10 diseases, and die five years earlier, so they’re much more likely to be preoccupied with disease and decline.

AG:  At least they can get to be grandparents. That’s some compensation.

MN:  Is there an ethical dilemma embedded in how hard to push a child to excel in school?

AG:  There is a tension between our desire to get our kids to turn out a particular way versus letting them develop to be their own person.  If there were a pill that would make my child turn out the way I wanted, I’m not sure I’d take it.

MN:  Well, imagine there were a pill that could guarantee that your child will be smart and altruistic. Wouldn’t it be unethical for a parent not to take it, to deny their child the guarantee of good intelligence and altruism?

AG:  Maybe, but I think we undervalue the unexpected, the unpredictable, compared with being in a position of control. Also, we already have such a “pill": We know that kids who grow up in an environment of warmth and support will thrive and function in whatever environment they find themselves. What we need to do is to do more to help poor kids have such an environment.

MN:  You’re a fan of a very old and a very new form of education: apprenticeship and online learning. Explain.

AG:  Preschool kids learn best when exploring, but kids in school learn best when they do things, interacting with a master. Unfortunately, our schools don’t do much of either. Also, kids do need to learn how to deal with technology, and online education and otherwise using electronic devices as learning tools facilitates that.

MN:  Let's turn to your philosopher side. You argue that children’s minds could help us understand deep philosophical questions. What’s an example?

AG:  Philosophers and psychologists have long puzzled over the question of how we know as much as we do despite our limited experiences. One way is to see how children learn. Another example is consciousness. The concept is usually explored by armchair academics. Looking at kids expands our conceptions of consciousness.

MN:  Another core topic for philosophers is free will versus determinism. Do you think our degree of free will changes over our lifespan?

AG:  Adults tend to think they have much free will. Kids younger than six are less sure. They may be more realistic!

MN:  Perhaps adults believe they have free will because it’s difficult to stay motivated if we believe—as Calvinists preached—that all is preordained.

AG:  Exactly.

MN:  You’re a Jew who's attracted to Buddhism. Tell me about that.

AG:  I’m culturally Jewish but, like most scientists, an atheist: I don’t believe there’s a God or supernatural world. Buddhism offers guidance on what to do in a world without God: It opines that truly being present in the world‚ experiencing and hanging out with your loved ones, provides all the significance you could want.

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia. His newest book, his 8th, is The Best of Marty Nemko.