Observing and Pitching In Lead to Learning

Alison Gopnik’s article in the Wall Street Journal recounts her discovery of how well her 2-year-old grandson learned by watching her and then pitching in. This process started innocently enough, as Ms. Gopnik was in the process of making a dessert souffle and watching her grandson at the same time. She recounts how Augie started helping by pushing the food processor button and upon each successive visit he learned to do more and wanted to help. Augie has since learned to weigh chocolate, crack and separate eggs and properly fold egg whites into the souffle mixture. In fact the creation of souffles has become a standard event on Augie’s visits and he most recently taught his grandfather how to properly incorporate the egg whites into the mixture making Augie a teacher also. Ms. Gopnik was struck by how this type of learning was so different than what a child would encounter in a normal school setting. Yet at the same time Augie was perfecting math skills, communicating his knowledge, increasing motor skills, learning cooperation and gaining self-confidence.

This experience with Augie lead Ms. Gopnik to read studies on human development done by Barbara Rogoff at the University of California at Santa Cruz. What Ms. Rogoff and her colleagues discovered is that this type of learning, observing and pitching in, is more fundamental than academic learning and may also influence how helpful children are later on in life. This theory lead to studies of indigenous cultures where knowledge is more often taught in family or multi age settings than in western or Europeanized cultures. In the indigenous cultures even toddlers are encouraged to do something and as these children age their contributions increase in number and complexity. Astoundingly, this type of learning created children who not only were willing to help but also did so without being asked; they were proud of the ability to contribute. Contrast this to the normal scene played out in western or Europeanized families where children often need to be cajoled or forced to help and it becomes a game of rewards and punishments creating frustration for all involved. In the Europeanized families children viewed chores or tasks as something an adult made you do versus a worthwhile contribution.

What do we learn from this? In my viewpoint as parents or grandparents we need to take the time to teach children from a young age that their  knowledge and contributions are very important and that learning is a step by step process. This could mean we slow down a bit and at times have a larger mess to clean up but know in the long run we are achieving the goal of creating thoughtful and responsible adults. If we fail to do so, then we rob our children of the wonderful feelings associated with the accomplishment of reaching goals set and putting new skills to use.


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