How Congressmen Are Like 4-Year-Olds (But Not 6-Year-Olds)

Regular readers know that I like to speculate about the long-term future of our education system. In general, I think that technology will eventually make the practice of learning standard academic subjects in the classroom obsolete. The hyper-interactive chemistry or history lessons that will be freely available will make it easy enough to learn academic subjects on your own. The result is that schools will focus on helping kids learn how to motivate themselves and evaluate their own learning. In order get to that point it will be useful to have more studies like this one, which sheds some light on how and when children begin to know what they don’t know.

This research investigated children’s ability to recognize gaps in their knowledge and seek missing information from appropriate informants. In Experiment 1, forty-five 4- and 5-year-olds were adept in assigning questions from 3 domains (medicine, firefighting, and farming) to corresponding experts (doctor, firefighter, or farmer). However, when given the options of answering the same questions themselves or assigning them to an expert (Experiment 2), only 6-year-olds were consistently able to recognize when they did not know answers and then assign test questions correctly. Four- and 5-year-olds tended to overestimate their own knowledge or assign questions to the wrong expert.

Six-year-olds know when to defer to experts, but when Ben Bernake appears before Congress he still has to sit there as a bunch of lawyers-turned-fundraisers lecture him about the effects of monetary policy.

It should be obvious that older kids also have room for improvement when it comes to evaluating their own knowledge and the knowledge of experts. “Understanding when a person is worthy of being the decision maker” doesn’t neatly fit into any generic school subject, but it seems more useful than much of what kids learn. I think it be worthwhile to develop a Common Core-like set of standards for important skills that don’t align with a well-defined academic subject. It wouldn’t accomplish much at the beginning, but it would get people thinking outside of the box in terms of the classes middle and high school students should be taking.

Aguiar, N.R., Stoess, C.J., & Taylor, M (2012). The Development of Children’s Ability to Fill the Gaps in Their Knowledge by Consulting Experts Child Development DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2012.01782.x

One Response to How Congressmen Are Like 4-Year-Olds (But Not 6-Year-Olds)

  1. Joli says:

    I have thought much the same thing.

    Some skills that I did learn in school that have been deeply valuable include recognizing propaganda and different persuasion tactics, such as the bandwagon approach. Learning how to do research was another skill that has been invaluable.

    Some things, I have learned since leaving secondary school, but I think would be invaluable to everyone (in some case, specifically in America) to understand. One of these would be the basics of Copyright Law, now that we’ve entered an era of universal self-publication.

    Expanding on the lessons of advertising tactics, learning about bias would be very useful, too. Confirmation bias, framing bias, loss aversion, etc, and the ways these biases are used against us, as well illustrated by Robert B. Cialdini’s “The Science of Persuasion”, published in Scientific American Mind, Vol. 14, Issue 1, pp. 70-77. The Congressmen in your example may be aware of their own biases, but see it as something they can use to their advantage, whereas the 6-yr-olds may understand good reasoning, but not yet have been exposed to the advantages of “bad reasoning” for their own ends.

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