Be curious — learn and think like a 4-year-old
Learning is a force for change.
Thriving in the future of work is not about the skills you have but about the skills you can acquire. Learning how to learn is a competitive advantage.
But, we got it all wrong. We keep teaching kids to think like machines. And machines to think like adults.
For years, scientists have been trying to replicate the wrong mind — that of an adult. Teaching machines to defeat a chess master is easy— but machines cannot think like a 4-year-old.
The father of computer science and artificial intelligence was onto something back in the ’50s.
“Instead of trying to produce a program to simulate the adult mind, why not rather try to produce one which simulates the child’s?” — Alan Turing
It took us 60 years to finally bring computer scientists and developmental psychologists together to decipher the formula of curiosity.
The secret of learning lies in kindergarten, not in the adult brain.
Curiosity is the Mother of Learning
We are all born curious. But most people stop exploring, learning, and discovering as they grow up.
Thank the education system for making us vulnerable to automation. Schools prepare children to pass a test — not to learn. They teach them to acquire knowledge instead of nurturing a learning mind.
We are victims and survivors of rigid education systems — they taught us to treasure knowing, not the experience of learning.
As Andreas Schleicher said, “The kinds of things that are easy to teach, and maybe easy to test, are precisely the kinds of things that are easy to digitize and to automate.”
The Geman data scientist is on a mission to change how we teach children. At the LearnIt global conference in London, he warned us that we are preparing for the future of work all wrong. We must stop teaching kids to think like robots.
It’s easy to learn and test math — robots are pretty good at it too. However, younger kids can, imagine, create, question, and collaborate in ways that machines cannot yet.
Sanjay Sarma shares a similar view. He believes that education hasn’t made as much progress as medicine or science had. We still know little about how the brain works.
The VP for Open Learning at MIT thinks that our current education system is dated — we educate people the same way we trained workers to use machines in the Industrial Revolution.
The most important thing in learning in curiosity. We need to build a habit of continuous learning. And, most importantly, better learning.
“Learning has to become the new rocket science.” — Sanjay Sarma, MIT
The future of education requires shifting the focus from content-oriented academic tests toward measuring adaptive skills, mindsets, and competencies — including empathy and creativity.
Schleicher is the right place to change education. He oversees PISA — the Programme for International Student Assessment that is administered to over half a million kids across 80 countries.
His philosophy is: “change what you treasure to change what you measure,” as reported by QUARTZ.
In recent years, PISA has developed new tests that focus on problem-solving, collaboration, and, global competencies such as open-mindedness and the desire to make the world a better place.
In 2021, it will tackle creative thinking, flexibility in thinking and curiosity.
School 21 is a perfect example of this new model — the act of learning is central to its teaching philosophy. Located in one of London’s most deprived boroughs, the school wants to prepare kids for life, not just to score well on a test.
School 21 wants to create interesting people.
The headmaster, Peter Hyman, a former advisor to Tony Blair, wants to prepare students for the 21st century. Pupils sit in circles instead of rows. Circles promote equality and democracy — in a row, kids are isolated on the end or stuck at the back.
School 21 designed a unique oracy curriculum, aimed at elevating speaking skills to the same level as reading and writing. Increasing conversational skills develops confident students — they can articulate their thoughts and learning clearly.
Kid’s Brains Hold the Secret to Learning
Four-year-olds can learn things even the most intelligent machines can’t — empathy, for starters.
In one study, 1-year-old children came into the lab and were presented with two bowls — one with broccoli and one with Goldfish crackers. The researchers tried both foods — they showed dislike for the Goldfish and appreciation for the broccoli.
When they asked the children to hand them some ‘candy,’ the kids passed the broccoli — even though they preferred the crackers themselves
The result of the same experiment conducted with grownups was surprisingly different. Adults always passed the Goldfish — they assumed everyone likes them.
As Alison Gopnik, the author of the study, explains: kids are more susceptible to understand other people. Adults tend to behave on autopilot.
Empathy, flexibility, and generalization are something human 1-year-olds can do but AIs can’t.
Moravec’s paradox explains this peculiar phenomenon. Our mind is the result of evolution — we carry billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it.
Computer scientist Hans Moravec believed machines are immune to the pressures of natural selection.
As he wrote in Mind Children, “The deliberate process we call reasoning is the thinnest veneer of human thought, effective only because it is supported by this much older and much more powerful, though usually unconscious, sensorimotor knowledge.”
So, how can we teach machines to truly think?
For Moravec, the answer lies in the thing the machines lack: evolution. We must replicate the development of animal minds. By successfully adding a few capabilities at a time, we can resemble the capacity of animals with complex nervous systems.
As the scientist explained, “Programs which tackle incremental problems similar to those that faced early animals — how to deal with, and even to anticipate, the sudden surprises, dangers, and opportunities encountered by an exploring organism — are being written and tested in robots that have to face the uncertainties of the real world.”
One example is how engineers are teaching artificial intelligence to be exploratory by playing video games.
But, before we can teach machines to think like humans, we need to understand the human brain.
Development psychology continues to solve the puzzle — we still don’t fully know how kids think. A lot of their knowledge comes through evolution. But, how can kids infer how to use something their ancestors didn’t? For example, how can a 4-year old figure out how to use a smartphone on their own?
How to Nurture a Curious Mind
Curiosity is the most crucial piece of the puzzle — it’s vital for learning.
When the brain is curious, it generates dopamine, triggering the learning that occurs. That’s what happens with the mind of a child — it’s always overstimulated.
Young kids are incredibly bright and vivid. So what’s it like to be a baby? As developmental psychologist Allison Gopnik sums it up, “It’s like being in love in Paris for the first time after you’ve had three double espressos.”
Adults have a very focused, purpose-driven kind of attention.
Unlike the mind of an adult, kid’s computers are driven by curiosity.
Babies and young children have more of a lantern of consciousness than a spotlight of awareness. They are bad at narrowing down to one thing but can create five hypotheses in two minutes. They are very good at taking tons of information from various sources at once.
As Gopnik says, “When we say that babies and young children are bad at paying attention, what we really mean is that they’re bad at not paying attention. So they’re bad at getting rid of all the interesting things that could tell them something and just looking at the thing that’s important.”
The Berkeley psychologist refers to the infant mind as “butterflies who are designed to learn.”
Everything you need to know about learning, you can borrow it from kindergarteners.
1. Play to learn; learn to play
There’s a critical connection between students’ well-being, sense of belonging and their academic achievement.
For young kids, learning is not tied to any reward — like acing a test. Curiosity is a way of life — playing and learning are two sides of the same coin. It’s not a burden imposed by others, but an innate desire.
According to a report by PISA, if you feel good, you learn better. Developing social skills is more important than promoting high achievement.
Increased communication, empathy, and collaboration directly impact how we learn.
2. Learning makes time go slower
Time seems to speed up as we grow older. But, it slows down when we face new experiences or visit new places.
The more information our minds process, the slower time seems to pass.
That’s one of the laws of psychological time, as Bob Clagett describes in his book Making Time. Our perception of time is caused by the relationship between our experience of time and the amount of information our minds take in.
The world is a fascinating place — full of new perceptions, experiences, and thoughts. Children know this. That’s why they are curious.
When you are busy exploring the world, time slows down.
3. Learning requires emptying your mind
When I ask an adult in one of my workshops to draw, they get paralyzed. “I don’t know how to draw.” When I ask a child, they immediately start drawing. It’s not that kids know how to draw — they don’t think in right-or-wrong terms.
Curiosity keeps our mind thirsty for more experiences.
To learn something new requires emptying your mind. What you know is an obstacle for incorporating new ideas. Prejudices and anticipation — like mental shortcuts or thinking ‘you don’t know’ — shut down your curiosity.
Our mind can’t hold attention for more than 10 minutes — your short-term memory gets filled quickly. Take a break to decant new concepts. Neuroscientists recommend allowing our brain to forget something we learned — get back to it later.
Kids are curious — ignorance is not a barrier but fuel to learn new things.
4. Active learning happens in the real world
New situations expand our consciousness — being in an office or school limits our curiosity.
AI exists inside a computer — kids are out in the real world. Young children learn by doing. By experimenting — observing, touching, playing — they get data to solve their problems.
In the famous Marshmallow challenge experiment, kindergarteners build taller towers than business school students. The reason: they plan and build at the same time. Adults design first and, only then, start touching the materials.
Psychologists call it active learning — the ability to go out into the world and experiment. Instead of taking data someone else presents, kids learn from direct interaction.
Engaging our body reinforces learning. Taking notes by hand is better according to research — we tend to be more selective than when typing on a computer. Thus, writing by hand helps us remember and assimilate more concepts.
Kids don’t observe the world — they experience it.
5. Continuous learning keeps us healthy
Repetition and lack of stimulation can shorten our lives.
There’s a direct correlation between education level and life expectancy — the higher your education, the longer you’ll live.
However, this is driven not by a college degree, but by continuous learning. The brain is a muscle that we need to train every day — that’s why young kids are so creative and curious.
Staying curious keeps us young.
6. Social learning: the power of collaboration
We learn faster, and better, working with others than on our own.
Kids are social learners — they don’t learn in isolation. They are continually interacting with other children, teachers, and parents.
As Alison Gopnik explains here, children use theory of mind to decide whether and how to learn from others. They try to understand what’s going on in other people’s mind.
Young children observe others’ behavior and try to infer if people are trying to teach them to perform a specific task or not. Machines are not yet there in understanding basic theory of mind, let alone using those inferences.
7. You can’ learn without breaking the rules
Without trouble, there’s no change, as I wrote here.
Dr. Maria Montessori started her namesake education method out of intuition, not facts. School 21 was founded with a broader purpose — kids are not students, but people. The English school wants to help children thrive in life, not just to learn new concepts.
The best educators and learners don’t follow the norms; they create their own — just like kids do.
Adults see rebellions as problematic. Kids are rebels by nature — they don’t even realize the rules they are supposed to follow
Learning requires challenging the status-quo — curiosity is asking endless questions. A habit that is not always welcomed.
Everything we need to know we learned it in kindergarten. Being curious helps us understand and adapt to a fast-changing world.
Curiosity keeps our mind open to new experiences. Instead of trying to get children to think like adults, we should all think more like children.