Meet Andrew Meltzoff

Screen Shot 2014-01-13 at 4.39.39 PMby Bruce Bower (Science News)

Developmental psychologist Andrew Meltzoff codirects the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. Meltzoff and his colleagues published a paper titled “Foundations for a New Science of Learning” in Science. Meltzoff recently spoke with Science News writer Bruce Bower.

What does the science of learning tell us about the nature of intelligence?

People sometimes think of intelligence as a reflection of individual problem-solving skills. But we’re increasingly realizing that humans have special brain and cognitive mechanisms for social interaction. A powerful aspect of intelligence is the ability to solve problems collaboratively. 

Individuals and groups incorporate knowledge passed along from others into new problem solutions and innovations. Computers and other modern technologies have greatly increased the impact of this type of intelligence. In business and science, innovative breakthroughs now come from those who leverage the intellectual power of groups. These advances aren’t going to come from a lone genius in a garret.

Do findings about learning have any practical implications for education? 

More and more kids come to school as bilingual speakers or speaking a language other than English. Second-language learning, whether of English or another language, can potentially be improved by integrating social interactions into teaching methods.

Research shows that individual, face-to-face tutoring is the most effective form of school instruction. Learning researchers are now trying to develop intelligent tutoring systems that provide key elements of human tutoring while avoiding its extraordinary financial cost.

In one approach, adults learn a second language by interacting with a simulated tutor on a computer screen.

What question about the nature of learning would you most like to answer? 

What makes social interaction such a powerful catalyst for learning? This is the key that will unlock more effective educational practices. Also, how do we design learning environments that capitalize on … social interaction rather than having kids work alone at desks?

One element of social learning involves having a mentor, someone you identify with who frames important issues and provides an example that can be imitated and emulated. Having a mentor can change a child’s, and an adult’s, social identity.

Lucky scientists have kind and supportive mentors…. My mentor was Jerome Bruner, a psychologist who inspired me by connecting cognitive science to education. Scientists who have effective mentors learn to learn for the joy of it. They go back to being like baby scientists in the crib.