alison_gopnik's picture
Psychologist, UC, Berkeley; Author, The Gardener and the Carpenter

The world is transforming from an agricultural and manufacturing economy to an information economy. This means that people will have to learn more and more. The best way to make it happen is to extend the period when we learn the most — childhood. Our new scientific understanding of neural plasticity and gene regulation, along with the global spread of schooling, will make that increasingly possible. We may remain children forever — or at least for much longer.

Humans already have a longer period of protected immaturity — a longer childhood — than any other species. Across species, a long childhood is correlated with an evolutionary strategy that depends on flexibility, intelligence and learning. There is a developmental division of labor. Children get to learn freely about their particular environment without worrying about their own survival — caregivers look after that. Adults use what they learn as children to mate, predate, and generally succeed as grown-ups in that environment. Children are the R & D department of the human species. We grown-ups are production and marketing. We start out as brilliantly flexible but helpless and dependent babies, great at learning everything but terrible at doing just about anything. We end up as much less flexible but much more efficient and effective adults, not so good at learning but terrific at planning and acting.

These changes reflect brain changes. Young brains are more connected, more flexible and more plastic, but less efficient. As we get older, and experience more, our brains prune out the less-used connections and strengthen the connections that work. Recent developments in neuroscience show that this early plasticity can be maintained and even reopened in adulthood. And, we've already invented the most unheralded but most powerful brain-altering technology in history — school.

For most of human history babies and toddlers used their spectacular, freewheeling, unconstrained learning abilities to understand fundamental facts about the objects, people and language around them — the human core curriculum. At about 6 children also began to be apprentices. Through a gradual process of imitation, guidance and practice they began to master the particular adult skills of their particular culture — from hunting to cooking to navigation to childrearing itself. Around adolescence motivational changes associated with puberty drove children to leave the protected cocoon and act independently. And by that time their long apprenticeship had given children a new suite of executive abilities — abilities for efficient action, planning, control and inhibition, governed by the development of prefrontal areas of the brain. By adolescence children wanted to end their helpless status and act independently and they had the tools to do so effectively.

School, a very recent human invention, completely alters this program. Schooling replaces apprenticeship. School lets us all continue to be brilliant but helpless babies. It lets us learn a wide variety of information flexibly, and for its own sake, without any immediate payoff. School assumes that learning is more important than doing, and that learning how to learn is most important of all. But school is also an extension of the period of infant dependence — since we don't actually do anything useful in school, other people need to take care of us — all the way up to a Ph.D. School doesn't include the gradual control and mastery of specific adult skills that we once experienced in apprenticeship. Universal and extended schooling means that the period of flexible learning and dependence can continue until we are in our thirties, while independent active mastery is increasingly delayed.

Schooling is spreading inexorably throughout the globe. A hundred years ago hardly anyone went to school, even now few people are schooled past adolescence. A hundred years from now we can expect that most people will still be learning into their thirties and beyond. Moreover, the new neurological and genetic developments will give us new ways to keep the window of plasticity open. And the spread of the information economy will make genetic and neurological interventions, as well as educational and behavioral interventions, more and more attractive.

These accelerated changes have radical consequences. Schooling alone has already had a revolutionary effect on human learning. Absolute IQs have increased at an astonishing and accelerating rate, "the Flynn effect". Extending the period of immaturity indeed makes us much smarter and far more knowledgeable. Neurological and genetic techniques can accelerate this process even further. We all tend to assume that extending this period of flexibility and openness is a good thing — who would argue against making people smarter?

But there may be an intrinsic trade-off between flexibility and effectiveness, between the openness that we require for learning and the focus that we need to act. Child-like brains are great for learning, but not so good for effective decision-making or productive action. There is some evidence that adolescents even now have increasing difficulty making decisions and acting independently, and pathologies of adolescent action like impulsivity and anxiety are at all-time historical highs. Fundamental grown-up human skills we once mastered through apprenticeship, like cooking and caregiving itself, just can't be acquired through schooling. (Think of all those neurotic new parents who have never taken care of a child and try to make up for it with parenting books). When we are all babies for ever, who will be the parents? When we're all children who will be the grown-ups?