Trusting What You're Told: How Children Learn from Others

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Overview

If children were little scientists who learn best through firsthand observations and mini-experiments, as conventional wisdom holds, how would a child discover that the earth is round—never mind conceive of heaven as a place someone might go after death? Overturning both cognitive and commonplace theories about how children learn, Trusting What You’re Told begins by reminding us of a basic truth: Most of what we know we learned from others.

Children recognize early on that other people are an excellent source of information. And so they ask questions. But youngsters are also remarkably discriminating as they weigh the responses they elicit. And how much they trust what they are told has a lot to do with their assessment of its source. Trusting What You’re Told opens a window into the moral reasoning of elementary school vegetarians, the preschooler’s ability to distinguish historical narrative from fiction, and the six-year-old’s nuanced stance toward magic: skeptical, while still open to miracles. Paul Harris shares striking cross-cultural findings, too, such as that children in religious communities in rural Central America resemble Bostonian children in being more confident about the existence of germs and oxygen than they are about souls and God.

We are biologically designed to learn from one another, Harris demonstrates, and this greediness for explanation marks a key difference between human beings and our primate cousins. Even Kanzi, a genius among bonobos, never uses his keyboard to ask for information: he only asks for treats.

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Editorial Reviews

Education Week blog

In Trusting What You're Told, Harris argues that the longstanding idea that kids should be self-learners who gain knowledge mainly from their own explorations and observations is flawed. In the book's introduction, Harris notes that we adults could barely get through the day without information from other people. It's the same with kids, he says...Harris' book explores lots of interesting ideas, including the impact of a mother's level of education on a child's inquisitiveness and why kids trust what they learn from their parents.
— Julie Rasicot

Michael Tomasello
Paul Harris has given us an intricate and beautifully detailed picture of children as budding anthropologists. They don't just learn about the world on their own, but rather from and through 'informants' who provide testimony—which naturally raises issues of trustworthiness. This is a really terrific book from a researcher acutely attuned to children's inner lives.
Peter J. Richerson
The importance of learning from others was oddly neglected by too many of the 20th Century pioneers of child psychology. In Trusting What You're Told Paul Harris reviews his and his colleagues' beautiful work demonstrating just how entwined culture is with children's development.
Education Week blog - Julie Rasicot
In Trusting What You're Told, Harris argues that the longstanding idea that kids should be self-learners who gain knowledge mainly from their own explorations and observations is flawed. In the book's introduction, Harris notes that we adults could barely get through the day without information from other people. It's the same with kids, he says...Harris' book explores lots of interesting ideas, including the impact of a mother's level of education on a child's inquisitiveness and why kids trust what they learn from their parents.
Choice - J. A. Helfer
Harris provides an important contribution by emphasizing that children, contrary to the view of thinkers like Piaget, do not develop only into a fixed rationality. Rather, children, from a very young age, are able to negotiate the empirical world alongside the supernatural, as well as develop through the tension created by attempting to balance truth and fantasy. Harris emphasizes the notion of testimony as a means to demonstrate the agency of the child and as a central tool through which a child is able to engage in thinking about the world.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674065727
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 5/25/2012
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,383,895
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Paul L. Harris is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education at Harvard University.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 10: Magic and Miracles



In this chapter, I ask how children conceive of the past. Do they think that anything happen there or that it is constrained by causal regularities? One way to approach this question is to look at children’s ideas about stories. Because children cannot experience or re-visit the past, they rely on the narratives of other people to learn about it. When do children start to distinguish between stories that are fictional and those that aim to describe what actually happened?

David Hume claimed that a sense of history as a genuinely factual narrative was slow to emerge: “The first page of Thucydides, in my opinion, is the commencement of real history” (Hume, 1742/1987). Subsequent scholarship has tended to support Hume’s contention that writers before Thucydides did not make a clear differentiation between narratives with a fantastical story-line that included interventions by the Gods and those aiming at an accurate, factual history, shorn of superhuman elements. Hume’s remark points to an interesting question about how children conceive of the unseen past. Like the writers of ancient Greece, young children might not distinguish between fantastical narratives with superhuman protagonists and historical narratives with ordinary human protagonists. Older children, by contrast, might be sensitive to the difference between fiction and history and use it to work out the status of a particular narrative and its protagonist.

Past research does indeed suggest that the distinction between fictional and real characters is not easy for young children to grasp. Yet the findings are not consistent. Some investigators report that young children are prone to think that various real figures are just fantasy figures. For example, Morison and Gardner (1978) found that children often judged real figures that were remote from their everyday experience—‘knight’ ‘Indian’ and ‘dinosaur’—as pretend. Other investigators have found the opposite mistake—that children are prone to think of fantasy figures as real. For example, Applebee (1978) asked children, “Where does Cinderella live? Could we go for a visit?” Whereas 9-year-olds often looked quizzically at him, apparently recognizing that Cinderella is fictional, 6-year-olds were not so lucid. If they denied that a visit was possible, they typically offered pragmatic rather than ontological reasons: “... She’ll have to wash up the plates and all the dishes and wash the floor”.

We revisited this question, taking various precautions to make sure that children understood what we were asking (Corriveau, Kim, Schwalen, & Harris, 2009). We gave them two easily distinguished boxes—a box for real people, soberly illustrated with a teacher standing at a blackboard and a box for pretend people, more whimsically illustrated with a flamingo painting on a canvas—and asked children to allocate pictures of well-known people to the appropriate box. Both 3–4-year-olds and 5–7-year-olds—performed well. Figure 10.1 shows that they would put a picture of say Abraham Lincoln into the real box whereas they put a picture of Batman into the pretend box—although older children were more systematic than younger children.

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