A Slate article by psychologist Alison Gopnik about how preschoolers have already learned to accept what the teacher says rather than exploring things to develop their own understanding:

[...] Daphna ran through the same nine sequences with all the children, but with one group, she acted as if she were clueless about the toy. ("Wow, look at this toy. I wonder how it works? Let's try this," she said.) With the other group, she acted like a teacher. ("Here's how my toy works.") When she acted clueless, many of the children figured out the most intelligent way of getting the toy to play music (performing just the two key actions, something Daphna had not demonstrated). But when Daphna acted like a teacher, the children imitated her exactly, rather than discovering the more intelligent and more novel two-action solution.


These experts in machine learning argue that learning from teachers first requires you to learn about teachers. For example, if you know how teachers work, you tend to assume that they are trying to be informative. When the teacher in the tube-toy experiment doesn't go looking for hidden features inside the tubes, the learner unconsciously thinks: "She's a teacher. If there were something interesting in there, she would have showed it to me." These assumptions lead children to narrow in, and to consider just the specific information a teacher provides. Without a teacher present, children look for a much wider range of information and consider a greater range of options.

This experiment is from:

D. Buchsbaum, A. Gopnik, T.L. Griffiths, and P. Shafto (2011). Children's imitation of causal action sequences is influenced by statistical and pedagogical evidence. Cognition (in press). pdf

The other paper cited in the Slate article is:

E. Bonawitz, P. Shafto, H. Gweon, N.D. Goodman, E. Spelke, and L. Schulz (2011). The double-edged sword of pedagogy: Instruction limits spontaneous exploration and discovery. Cognition (in press). pdf

New Comment
17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

This isn't guessing a teacher's password. This is children making the reasonable (and in most circumstances accurate) assumption that adults know more about the world then they do especially when adults say so. And for the vast majority of little children, they won't be as smart as their teachers.

Sure there are stupid adults. And there are stupid teachers. (I remember the precise moment in time when I first realized that their were stupid adults. I was about 6 years old and I couldn't explain to a certain relative how War was a really dumb card game because one had no control over anything. It was a traumatic realization.)

But even for smart kids, they can benefit a lot from school, especially at an early age.

We like to complain about education. And there's no question that there are serious problems with how children learn and how our educational system functions. But for the vast majority of children, even for a lot of the smart ones, a traditional education system when it is functioning as intended works fine.

It's a case where children are repeating back what the teacher did, rather than developing a deeper understanding of how the world is. And the other experimental condition shows that the children are capable of developing a deeper understanding.

The children still do have a genuine belief about the external world (they expect the three-step process to produce music), so it's not the most degenerate case of simply parroting words that are meaningless to them, but it still seems to be on the path described in Eliezer's two posts.

My daughter is ridiculously charming. She has learnt (I don't know where) to answer questions with slightly widened eyes, saying "I don't know!" as if she is genuinely surprised not to know whatever it is. It is SO CUTE that even I fell for it for a while, until I realised she was just being lazy. I have now told her she's not allowed to say that when I ask her something. Good social engineering for password elicitation, though.


The thing that really gets me about this sort of scenario is that she may well have learned it from you. It's astonishing how quickly even small differences in reward can shape behavior, and it's very easy for the system being rewarded to be far more attuned to those differences than the system doing the rewarding.

This isn't even an exclusively human thing... I regularly have similar revelations about my dog, who is I'm sure much less charming than your daughter but nevertheless does OK.

Good on you for eventually recognizing the pattern and not further rewarding the behavior you don't want.

The thing that really gets me about this sort of scenario is that she may well have learned it from you.

Almost certainly! But I bet she does it at nursery and they haven't picked up yet that she's being lazy ...

I think I formed the idea pretty early on that my teachers were idiots, like age five or thereabouts. Never realized before how important that could've been in preventing this particular bit of early brain damage!

Were you forced to bite any of them?

Forced to? No.

I got pulled from first grade and was homeschooled for awhile. I would physically attack teachers and students when they were aggressively dumb. I don't think my social skills really recovered.

edit: Wow, this brought up a lot of memories. I think my entire identity is thanks to a garage sale where someone was getting rid of a bunch of science oriented books and I begged my mom into buying them. In third grade I got to go to a school with a library and teachers preferred me to read in class rather than be disruptive. The class library had lots of sci-fi, including stuff like Heinlein, and I remember thinking adults must be illiterate because of the disconnect between the content they wouldn't allow in other media formats and the stuff in books. The librarian knew, and she would lend me her personal books, as long as I promised not to tell anyone about the racy stuff. I specifically remember The Kin of Ata which was a morality play hinging on a rape scene, though not a violent or graphic one.

I would physically attack teachers and students when they were aggressively dumb. I don't think my social skills really recovered.

A little long, but a hell of a site tagline.


I just sometimes wrote really mean corrections to all their nonsense on the back of exams. This somehow got me extra points sometimes.

I am in college now (by force and wanting to drop out) and the teachers are probably worse...

The psychology, western civilization and cultural anthropology teacher: -Said she "didn't believe" in natural selection. -Confused cognitive bias with general biased opinions and explained it as such. -Doesn't really seem to understand how evolution works. -Wants to start drama about a mean complaint I wrote about her letting people take smoke breaks in the middle of her classes. -Is one of those people who cheerfully declare the mind to be a great mysterious mystery that "probably wont be solved until 2000 years from now". -Explained falsifiability incorrectly. -Made some horrible typos in the papers she gave us (this is minor compared to the other errors though).

The other teacher only teaches my chemistry class: -He calls scientific notation "scientific method" -He calls the symbols of chemical elements "formulas" -Makes everyone sit in the front (I'm shy and prefer to stay away from other people if I can help it, I even communicate with these teachers mostly through writing in a notebook and showing them).

And both of them strongly encourage memorizing passwords (the first teacher repeatedly announces everything that will be on the exam and the answer, the second one makes us memorize the symbols and names of chemical elements without explaining much more about them).

Yet when I remember some of the really bad things school teachers used to do...one of them made me teach class in his place since he was not very bright, and made us watch Twilight. And the other students kept rewinding it when he wasn't looking to skip class, he either didn't notice or didn't care.

Any ideas or comments?

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

Apparently I have too agreeable a personality to be a child prodigy... To be honest, I remember very little about anything before Grade 5 or so, but I don't remember specifically disliking my teachers or finding them stupid. I liked my teachers most of the time even if a lot of the time I just ignored them and read books under my day, which may be why my grades were mediocre up until junior high, when I discovered that you were supposed to pay attention in class (and when the material became slightly more interesting!)

I didn't get a really aggressively stupid teacher (or, at least, one I realised was that stupid) until I was 12. I worked out (I think) 37 times 4 in my head (it was thirty-something times an integer less than five) and he looked at me like I was a suspicious freak who was up to something for having been able to do this in my head and not consider it remarkable. I shudder at the thought that that was ever in charge of children.


Note that there's a link to Joshua Tenenbaum's "How to Grow a Mind" which EVERYONE SHOULD READ.

It's an accessibly written framework for how learning happens, from a very interesting cognitive scientist at MIT. And it gives one of the best explanations for Bayesian inference I've seen:

Why, given three examples of different kinds of horses, would a child generalize the word “horse” to all and only horses (h1)? Why not h2, “all horses except Clydesdales”; h3, “all animals”; or any other rule consistent with the data? Likelihoods favor the more specific patterns, h1 and h2; it would be a highly suspicious coincidence to draw three random examples that all fall within the smaller sets h1 or h2 if they were actually drawn from the much larger h3 (18). The prior favors h1 and h3, because as more coherent and distinctive categories, they are more likely to be the referents of common words in language (1). Only h1 scores highly on both terms.