The Scientist as Child

In How Humans Learn (2018), author Joshua Eyler reminds us he’s a medievalist, not an education scholar. Eyler’s book, then, is his distillation of others’ work. He selects and presents research drawn from related disciplines, like evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo), psychology (both cognitive and developmental), and neuroscience.

The Amazing Minds of Very Young Children

One such example comes from psychologist Alison Gopnik. Eyler draws on her learning theories on children and adults. In her 1996 article, The Scientist as Child, Gopnik likens the innate learning methods found in humans from birth to the empirical methods used in science:

Science may be successful largely because it exploits powerful and flexible cognitive devices that were designed by evolution to facilitate learning in young children.

Gopnik, A. (1996). The Scientist as Child. Philosophy of Science,63(4), 485-514. Retrieved from

This view inverts the traditional notion that children can be taught science, asserting instead that scientists, in some ways, are merely adult practitioners of childlike curiosity. On this view, scientists, children, and everyone else are, to varying degrees, indebted to evolution for their investigative prowess. Eyler writes:

The building blocks of human learning are put into place when we are very young and continue to influence the way we make sense of the world throughout our lives.

(Eyler, 9)

Yet, this prowess fades somewhat after childhood. As Gopnik explains in this interview, four-year-olds are better at sussing out unexpected solutions than young adults. She suggests, therefore, rather than making preschools more academic, we should be making the academy more like preschool.

Eyler suggests the learning disparity between young children and older ones is due to the loss of curiosity, the subject of chapter two. Would Gopnik’s prescription forestall the ebb of youthful curiosity? Perhaps we’ll find out.

The challenge, a challenge, is how not to squander the students’ remaining natural curiosity in Tackling a Wicked Problem and how to restore what’s already lost.

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