Thursday, October 17, 2019

What Can We Learn from the "Best Learners in the Universe"

Ok...here's a thought experiment...

What person or name first comes to mind as the best learner of all time?  

Feel free to blurt it out...

Perhaps Albert Einstein?

Or Marie Curie?  

Or maybe the great scholar, teacher, and mathematician Hypatia?

Well, according to cognitive scientist Alison Gopnik (U.C. Berkeley), it turns out that "...babies are the best learners in the universe." A. Gopnik, The Ultimate Learning Machine, Wall Street Journal (Oct 12, 2019)  

In fact, as a research psychologist, Dr. Gopnik explains that the key to successful development of artificial intelligence requires that computers learn to learn to learn and think like human babies.  Id. And, that's very difficult for machines to do.  Id. Computers are brilliant in processing lots and lots of data but not nearly so good as babies and toddlers in accurately making sense and judgements about the world around them with very little data to boot. Id.  And, most of the time, we have very little data, too.  

Take law school for example.  

We read perhaps a handful of cases on intentional torts.  Perhaps a few on contract formation or consideration.  A few more about equal protection. And, out of just a few experiences we are suppose to generalize, to synthesize, to figure out what intentional torts are all about, or contract law, or equal protection analysis.

So, that begs the question.  

Perhaps we as legal educators might also learn a few things about how to learn by also exploring how babies learn to learn...and learn so expertly and so quickly with so little knowledge at the start [since we too --in our work with law students --often given our law students very little to go on to figure out "the law."].

According to Dr. Gopnik, babies learn through the process of making a mess.  Or, as Dr. Gopnik accentuates, "MESS," which is an acronym that stands for building models about the world that they observe, curiously exploring the world around then, and learning in social experiences with others. Id.  

For example, with respect to models, toddlers and even babies can construct common sense models about such topics as physics and even psychology.  Id. With respect to psychology, even a one-year old baby, when seeing an adult drop a pen, will try to help pick up the pen for the adult out of apparent empathy for the other (but not if the adult was seen by the baby intentionally dropping the pen).  Id. You see, little toddlers have already learned through curious observations about gravity and even about human intentions too.  Id.

With respect to exploring the world, "[babies] are insatiably curious and active experimenters.  Parents call this 'getting into everything.'" Id. Toddlers love to explore, to test out everything, to take things apart and to try to put them together.  Id. It's this sort of "playful experimentation" that is another secret to the ability of children to learn so adeptly.  Id.

The final factor relates to learning in social contexts.  Babies learn by observing people around them, who have the benefit of often times years of experiences, by trying to imitate them.  But there's even more.  Take the situation of toddlers learning to tie sneakers.  Id.  Try as you might, it turns out that it is very difficult to teach computers to learn to tie sneakers [I think it would take lots of mathematical code!].  But children learn to tie shoes by watching others, focusing on the purpose of the task and not just the steps, which leads to learning.  Id. That's something that's just plain difficult for machines to do.

In fact, computers can't generalize very well at all from limited data (i.e., they aren't very good at creating accurate common sense models); they don't really experience the world around them (except to the extent that humans pre-program computers to "act" in particular ways; and they don't have an ability to watch what others are doing (and extract out of those observed activities what purposes might be lurking in one's activities).  

So, that takes us back to law school.  What can we learn about learning the law from babies?

First, as law students read cases (or even before), students can create models or theories about what might lay ahead as they read case after case (or what principle or principles might hold them together).  In short, law students can formulate hypotheses about what they are preparing to read.

Second, as law students work on learning, students should be encouraged to tinker with the cases, to explore them, to be curiously playful.  In particular, law students can imagine different facts, different judges, and whether those sorts of changes might change outcomes.

Third, as law students learn to solve legal problems, faculty should explore with them how they solve legal problems, perhaps walking through reading essay questions and then even writing out answers in real time, with students then having the opportunity to practice themselves by trying to imitate what they watched experts perform.  And, students should be encouraged to think about the purpose behind solving the legal problems and reading the cases.

I know.  There's a lot of deep cognitive science behind learning.  But, perhaps the key to learning is not quite as difficult as we (or at least I) sometimes make it out to be.  Life is complex; perhaps learning is not so complex; perhaps it's one of life's beautiful secrets that we - as legal educators and as law students - can learn from the smallest among us.  

So, next time you see a baby, pay attention; there are important life lessons to be learned!

(Scott Johns)

 

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/academic_support/2019/10/the-best-learnersmight-be-not-who-you-think.html

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