Children are born smart

Children are born smart.

Or rather, they are born equipped with the tools to become smart. From birth, children are gathering sensory information from the world around them – light, sound, touch – a bevy of physical stimulation. From their very first moments, they are already forming theories in an effort to organize and “make sense of” the overwhelming chaos of the new world.

Research done by Andrew Meltzoff has shown that even in their first hour of life, babies are already striving to imitate facial expressions of the adults around them. He calls this the “like me” theory: I learn about me by watching you; and I can tell you about me by using my own facial expressions, and eventually words.

It is this present-at-birth connection to other people that drives learning, growth, and development. An entire generation of education research has shifted of our understanding of “learning” from a process of information transfer (a smart person tells a less-smart person what it is they need to know) into a process of social experimentation (people construct ideas together, test them out, and coalesce around those that seem effective, efficient, or otherwise appropriate).

Alison Gopnik refers to “children as scientists” because her research shows that children are engaged in a near-constant state of hypothesis-building as they sift through the information the world presents them. How does this marker work? What is my relationship like with my sibling? How do I use this word? The young child is equipped with the skills to answer these questions, if only we let them. That is the key part – and also the hardest – to stop teaching in order to allow the child to learn.

The point, for us as parents and early childhood educators, is that our young children are already learning, before we start teaching. All too often, we present the child with the answer (“teaching”) and rob them of the chance to construct a hypothesis (“learning”). It shouldn’t be hard to guess at this point which of those strategies leads to authentic growth that not only lasts but is also transferable to new contexts.

John Holt writes, “We don’t have to make human beings smart. They are born smart. All we have to do is stop doing the things that made them stupid.” Holt recognizes that, for millennia and generations, humans have propelled themselves forward in this world. We are built for learning; we are designed to seek out data relevant to our questions. Our biological evolution has left us well-endowed to deal with the questions and problems that the world presents us with.

Holt continues, in a telling metaphor: “Teachers can do just about as much harm to their students as [good]. These gifted teachers can’t stop teaching. They are like someone who tries to help a friend start a car by giving it a push. He grunts and strains, the car gets rolling, the engine catches and begins to run. The driver says, “It’s going now, you can let go.” But the pusher won’t let go. “No, no,” he says, “you can’t go without me, the car won’t go unless I keep pushing. So the car, now ready to run at full speed, is held back – unless the driver wants to break free and leave the helper on his face in the road. And most learners, children above all,can’t break free of their teachers.”

A Reggio-inspired school is one in which we believe in the at-birth capacity of children to deal competently with the world around them. This leads us to a pedagogical landscape in which teachers help children get their car started and know when to let go. When we hear that engine humming, we get out of the way, grab a notebook and camera, and document the experience. We’ll then check in every so often as they’re driving, reflecting back to them the journey of how they got the started, where they’ve been, and what’s on the horizon. The exciting part, the part that matters, the part that results in learning, is the child driving the car, not us pushing from behind.

Shabbat Shalom,