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.

No One Wants to Look Bad in Public

To ready myself for teaching the first year seminar (now Tackling a Wicked Problem) a second time, I’m planning to read How Humans Learn (Joshua Eyler, 2018).

It’s one of six books recommended by the leaders of the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community, a group of Plymouth State faculty who committed themselves to advancing certain learning and teaching methods during the upcoming year.

But instead of simply reading it, I decided to be more rigorous:

  1. Read
  2. Take notes
  3. Reflect
  4. Blog

Annotation and reflection, of course, will help me comprehend the author’s most useful takeaways, but why blog them as well?

One answer is found in Project-Based Learning (PBL), a pedagogical style that vests learners with authority to guide their own practical, problem-solving activities. Learning is more complete and effective, PBL advocates hold, when both the problem examined and the solution proposed are of real-world import.

One component of PBL, Public Product, is described by the Buck Institute for Education this way:

“a public product adds greatly to [Project-Based Learning’s] motivating
power and encourages high-quality work. Think
of what often happens when students make
presentations to their classmates and teacher. The
stakes are not high, so they may slack off, not take
it seriously, and not care as much about the quality
of their work. But when students have to present
or display their work to an audience beyond the
classroom, the performance bar raises, since no
one wants to look bad in public
.” (emphasis added)

Buck Institute for Education. (2015). Gold standard PBL: Essential project
     design elements [Pamphlet]. Buck Institute for Education.

No one wants to look bad in public. This aversion, the thinking goes, fosters a motivating anxiety. When one’s work is held up to examination and scrutiny, that work is likely to be of higher quality. That is the spirit in which I created this blog.