In conversation: Alison Gopnik

On what’s wrong with the way we teach, and how a year out of university changed her son’s life

What’s wrong with the way we teach, and how a year out of university changed her son’s life

Photograph by Max Whittaker

Alison Gopnik is a professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley. A prolific researcher and author who specializes in cognitive development, her most recent book is The Philosophical Baby: What children’s minds tell us about love, truth and the meaning of life.

Q: What’s the traditional approach to learning at a university, and how does it square with what experts know about how people learn?

A: The traditional way of thinking about learning at a university is: there’s somebody who’s a teacher, who actually has some amount of knowledge, and their job is figuring out a way of communicating that knowledge. That’s literally a medieval model; it comes from the days when there weren’t a lot of printed books around, so someone read the book and explained it to everybody else. That’s our model for what university education, and for that matter high school education, ought to be like. It’s not a model that anybody’s ever found any independent evidence for.

Q: What’s the best way for people to learn?

A: When we actually start to look at the fundamentals, it seems children learn by exploring—by experimenting, playing, drawing inferences—and there’s every reason to believe the same is true for adults. The really remarkable discovery we’ve made is that that kind of exploratory learning isn’t just the purview of scientists but seems to be very, very basic. We all have the capacity to function the way scientists do. The other kind of learning that we see, not so much in preschoolers but in school-age children, is what I call guided apprenticeship learning, where you’re not just exploring and finding out new things but learning to perform a skill particularly well. A person who’s learning that way will imitate what an expert does, then modify what they’re doing based on feedback. That’s the way you learn how to dance, play a musical instrument, learn a sport. We have reason to believe that’s something that kicks in and becomes particularly important in adolescence, when people are learning specific skills. So the point I would make is that if you look at the way we do a lot of undergraduate teaching, and I’m including myself in here, we don’t really do either of those things. There’s not exploratory learning, there’s not guided apprenticeship. An awful lot of undergraduate teaching still has this model of lecturers who get up and try to be entertaining and talk about whatever they’re doing, and students who sit in a lecture hall and take notes.

Q: It may not be the best way to learn, but they are learning something, aren’t they?

A: I don’t think there’s any scientist who thinks the way we typically do university courses has anything to do with the best methods for getting people to learn. I think what actually happens at universities, and in our high school system as well, is that we learn how to go to school. That’s the main thing our children become good apprentices at. What, of course, we want in a university is for people to learn the skills they’re going to need outside the classroom. So having a system that had more emphasis on inquiry and exploration but also on learning and practising specific skills would fit much better with how we know people learn.

Q: How do you know a different model, one based on inquiry and exploration for instance, would produce different results?

A: A couple of recent studies show that preschoolers do something very different if they’re exploring a toy to figure out how it works than if they think somebody’s actually giving them the answer. In a nice experiment that was done at MIT, they gave children a toy to play with that could do lots of different things. You’d punch something and it squeaked, you’d push another button and something else happened, and so on. In one condition the experimenter came in and said, “Oh look, I’ve never seen this toy, let’s see what it can do,” and then bumped into it and it squeaked. In the other condition the experimenter said, “I’ll show you how this toy works.” In the first condition, the children then spontaneously explored everything else the toy could do. Whereas when the experimenter said, “I’m going to show you how this works,” the children just did exactly what the experimenter did, over and over and over again. The findings suggest that children and, presumably, adults, learn quite differently when they’re learning in this spontaneous exploratory way than when they’re learning from a teacher. Now, there are good things about having a teacher who just narrows the range of options you can consider, but there’s also the danger that you’ll wind up just essentially imitating the teacher.

Q: You’ve said that babies and children are “like the R & D of the human species, and adults are the production and marketing.” Where do university students, older adolescents, fit in?

A: We’ve been extending that R & D period more and more, we’re extending childhood in many ways. Young children seem to be learning who to share this toy with and figure out how it works, while adolescents seem to be exploring some very deep and profound questions: how should this society work? How should relationships among people work? The exploration is: who am I, what am I doing? You could think of adolescence as a time when we’re still exploring, but the focus is how am I going to negotiate love and work, which are the two great challenges for every human being.

Q: There’s perennially a hue and cry that this generation of university students is less prepared or inferior in some way to students in years past. Do you find that?

A: I think the biggest difference, and it’s sort of ironic, is that they’re over-prepared, especially at elite universities like Berkeley or Harvard or McGill or Toronto. Because there’s insane pressure on high school students to achieve and get into college, by the time they get here they’ve already got a mindset: “All right, it’s absolutely imperative that I get an A+ on every single test and I need to know what I have to do to achieve that.” But what we want in students is creativity and a willingness to fail. I always say to students, “If you’ve never at some point stayed up all night talking to your new boyfriend about the meaning of life instead of preparing for the test, then you’re not really an intellectual.” The issue—and this is actually much more a problem in the United States but even in Canada it’s true—is we’re selecting a group that has gone through so much pressure to get to university that they don’t have that wide-ranging curiosity that’s a really important part of having an intellectual life.

Q: As a researcher and a faculty member you’d see it one way, but as a parent, don’t you want your children to get into the best universities and avoid failure?

A: Oh, I’m not any better than anybody else about that! One thing I should say is that my son, who’s currently at the University of Toronto studying clinical psychology, took a year off, worked and got a chance to see what the real world was like before going to university. I think that was a good thing for him to do. He was really ready when he started university. That was my contribution to the idea that you could have some more exploration. Another thing I’d want to emphasize is that, by good luck, he stumbled into an internship, which has changed his view of the world the most. He wasn’t just taking classes, he was actually an apprentice, and that’s changed the way he’s approached university in general. There should be many more opportunities for students to go out in the real world. I teach the great big undergraduate lecture courses, and I tell my students to come work as research assistants in my lab; that’s by far the best educational experience kids get at Berkeley. When they’re actually there in the lab, seeing that science is a process where you don’t know how it’s going to come out beforehand, where you’re always adjusting and figuring things out—that’s by far the best way for them to learn. For universities, there’s a really interesting question: how do we get students to be really competent and good at doing things in a focused way, yet also have wide-ranging interests and curiosity? How can you design a program so that you can have both things? I’m not sure that our universities are good at doing either thing at the moment.

Q: Do university administrators seek your input to try to figure out how to help students learn better?

A: There certainly have been attempts at getting cognitive science-oriented educational programs. But I think that with any institution, the path of least resistance is always to do what we’ve been doing before. So it’s: “We’ve been having lectures for years, it seems like the next thing to do is have another lecture.”

Q: It’s odd that universities aren’t seeking to apply the knowledge about the brain and learning they’re helping generate.

A: I do think it’s rather surprising, but I’m not quite sure how to fix it. I think universities are trying to figure out how we could use what we know about learning to change our education system, but it is sort of funny that they don’t necessarily seem to be consulting the people who are sitting right there on campus.

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