From Baby Scientists to a Science of Social Learning

Article excerpt

Developmental psychologist Andrew Meltzoff codirects the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. In the July 17 Science, Meltzoff and his colleagues published a paper titled "Foundations for a New Science of Learning." Meltzoff recently spoke with Science News writer Bruce Bower.

What does the science of learning tell us about the nature of intelligence?

People sometimes think of intelligence as a reflection of individual problem-solving skills. But we're increasingly realizing that humans have special brain and cognitive mechanisms for social interaction. A powerful aspect of intelligence is the ability to solve problems collaboratively.

Individuals and groups incorporate knowledge passed along from others into new problem solutions and innovations. Computers and other modern technologies have greatly increased the impact of this type of intelligence. In business and science, innovative breakthroughs now come from those who leverage the intellectual power of groups. These advances aren't going to come from a lone genius in a garret.

Do findings about learning have any practical implications for education?

More and more kids come to school as bilingual speakers or speaking a language other than English. Second-language learning, whether of English or another language, can potentially be improved by integrating social interactions into teaching methods.

Research shows that individual, face-to-face tutoring is the most effective form of school instruction. Learning researchers are now trying to develop intelligent tutoring systems that provide key elements of human tutoring while avoiding its extraordinary financial cost.

In one approach, adults learn a second language by interacting with a simulated tutor on a computer screen.

Are educational videos and scheduled activities preferable to free play for young children?

We now know that early learning sculpts the brain in important ways. This has led to an industry of selling products that promise to increase babies' IQs and learning abilities. But there is no scientific evidence that any product on the market does that. This situation has led to much confusion among parents and much frustration among developmental scientists.

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There is no dichotomy between early educational activities and free play. In the first three years of life, free play is an educational activity. …