This post is also available in Dutch.
When I look at my 15-month-old son, there is something that I know for sure: he’s a mean lean learning machine. Young children develop at a staggering pace. Recent research has shed light on how this is accomplished.
Infants learn more than you think
For me personally, learning can be hard. As a researcher, I have to master new, complicated techniques and this requires concentration, commitment and, above all, time. However, watching my 15-month-old son on a daily basis, I am amazed at howquickly he learns an incredible amount of new skills like grasping, throwing, walking, climbing, talking… the list is endless. Research has proven that even very young babies show knowledge of the physical world. They understand that an object has not fully disappeared just because it leaves sight, they demonstrate a grasp of quantities and understand “physical laws”, such as gravity. Some people see this as evidence that babies have innate knowledge, but this is highly debated (perhaps with the exception of faces, or, more specifically, eyes). Others say that this amazing level of knowledge shows that babies can learn very quickly and well from their environment. Recent research at the Donders Institute provides new insights.
How do you test infants’ knowledge?
The first question is: how do you carry out research on infants’ knowledge and learning abilities? After all, they cannot speak and are not the easiest test subjects to give instructions to. Most of the time, researchers use methods to investigate how interested in something an infant really is. The idea is that the longer infants spends looking at something, the greater their interest. If an infant looks at a certain picture or listens toa particular sound longer than another, it means two things. First, the infant can perceive the difference between the two (pictures or sounds). Second, the infant appears to have a preference for one of the two. To give an example, infants appear to prefer things that are new. That means that what they have no preference for is already familiar and thus learned! As a consequence, researchers make good use of what infants pay attention to.
Infants learn from their environment
Let’s go back to newborn babies. A baby’s first task is to get a grasp of their environment. Fortunately, much is already familiar; they always see the same faces, the same bed in the same spot and the actions that parents carry out with their baby are always in the same order. It can thus be said that there is a lot of regularity in what an infant experiences. And babies turn out to be very good at learning that regularity or structure in their environment. This is how 6-month-old infants already understand that a telephone handset is held close to the ear and a cup is brought to the mouth.
The same goes for another important development: language. Back in the last century, Jenny Saffran cleverly demonstrated that 8-month-old infants recognize the structure of a language; she taught infants a “fake” language that they had never heard before, consisting of sounds such as bibakupadoti. When she played the language in the wrong order, the children would listen to it longer. It didn’t sound like they had expected, so it was new to them. Thus they understood the grammar (order) rules of the language they had learned!
The goldilocks principle
This shows that infants already have certain expectations based on what they have learned from their environment. However, infants don’t just pay attention to completely new or unpredictable things. Interestingly enough, it appears that there is a “sweet spot”: 7 or 8-month-old infants seem to prefer stimuli that are unpredictable but also not too surprising. This is an example of the “goldilocks principle”, based on the tale of a girl who didn’t like her porridge too hot nor too cold. New research at the Donders Instituteadds important knowledge to this principle: it is not just about how new or predictable something is, but also how much one can learn from it.
Infants know the best teaching practice
In the new study, 8-month-old infants looked at a series of shapes on a screen. These shapes consistently moved to one of the 4 corners of the screen. In fact, within each sequence that particular shape moved into one corner more often than the other three. Thus, the infants were able to learn towards which corner the shape was most likely to move. The researchers then measured how quickly the infants focused their eyes onto the moving shape and at what point in the sequence they looked away and lost their attention. For the same series of shapes, an algorithm was used to calculate how new a position within a series actually was, the degree of predictability, and how much it contributed towards learning as to where the shape moved towards most often. As long as there is still much uncertainty about which corner is the most common, there is still a lot to learn. But if, beforehand, you are almost certain that the next corner the shape moves towards will be the top left corner, then unexpected information – the shape suddenly moves towards a different or completely new corner – may surprise you, but still teaches you nothing new. The researchers then looked at how these three aspects contributed to how quickly infants turned their eyes towards the shapes and at what time they looked away. And what did they find? Infants focused their attention on the shapes as long as they could still learn a lot from the sequence, much more than if the sequence was surprising or (un)predictable. And they could also learn to use this; they moved their eyes faster as the shape moved to the most likely corner.
Thus children can focus their attention from a very young age to where the most can be learned, which contributes to their incredible learning pace!