Research suggests preschoolers may have creative edge over college students

Gopnik Lab/Courtesy

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A child sits at a table, placing a diamond-shaped clay object on a small cubic machine. Her face lights up as a melodic tune sounds from the box. She rests her hands against her chin, and a triumphant smile spreads across her face.

UC Berkeley psychology professor Alison Gopnik and her lab recently conducted hundreds of such experiments with preschoolers and undergraduate students to test the groups’ respective abilities to learn how unusual gadgets such as their machine work. To the researchers’ surprise, the children were more successful than the undergraduates because they were more open to using nontraditional strategies to figure out how the machine worked.

For the study, children and students were tasked with determining which of the differently shaped objects provided had “blicketness” — the intrinsic quality that would activate the machine, causing it to light it up and play music.

Adults tried to identify individual “blickets” rather than test how they worked together, leading them to a more straightforward, but incorrect, conclusion. The children, however, recognized that the machine operated differently with multiple causes producing an effect in conjunction with one another. They understood that the machine responded to combinations of different shapes.

Though previous studies have highlighted certain edges in the learning skills of children, researchers noted the difference between quick learning in languages and sports and learning causal relationships and problem-solving, which the blicket experiments illustrated.

Gopnik explained that the newfound results suggest children are more open-minded and creative learners than adults.

“There may be something about the very fact of being a child that makes you better at those more open things — even if there is a trade-off that it makes you worse at tying your shoes,” Gopnik said.

Chris Lucas, a lecturer in the University of Edinburgh School of Informatics and lead author of the paper, noted another possible explanation for the unexpected results: Adults, unlike children, may have preconceptions from their life experiences that interfere with their judgments.

He added that children are insulated from the consequences of poor decision-making by their caretakers and, as a result, are not afraid to “play the wrong game.”

“The basic idea is that as adults, we pay a price when we get things wrong,” Lucas said. “If we eat things that are poisonous, that’s going to end badly for us. Children are saying, ‘I don’t know how the world works. There are so many things I need to pay attention to; there are so many dimensions to the problems that I face.’ It may be the fact that the children can afford (to make mistakes).”

Campus psychology professor Fei Xu, who was not involved in the study, said the team’s “interesting and novel” results should transform early childhood education.

“Maybe it’s not the best idea to have (children) sit in a classroom all the time and memorize words,” Xu said. “We should give them more opportunities to engage in more imaginary and creative play to give them a lot of chances to do things on their own.”

Gopnik and Lucas also have ideas for applying their findings outside the classroom. Gopnik, who collaborated with co-author Tom Griffiths, director of UC Berkeley’s computational cognitive science lab, suggested that in addition to college students, computers could also learn a lesson from preschoolers.

She explained that while computers are good at following directions, the next step is to explore whether computers can discover original material.

“Children’s brains are like computers,” Gopnik said. “If we figure out what kinds of programs those baby computer brains are running, we could use some of those kinds of programs to make the machines smarter and more creative, the way children are.”

Tahmina Achekzai covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @tahminachekzai.