By 20 months old, most babies are able to imitate and process words and seem eager to learn about the world around them, but experts now believe that babies’ level of understanding goes beyond the ability to learn. According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, babies are capable of practicing a sophisticated form of thinking called metacognition. According to Dr. Sid Kouider, one of the authors of the study, metacognition is best described as a “gut feeling” about your knowledge, or lack thereof. It’s something we adult humans do on a regular basis—we realise when we face a problem that is too complex for us to answer.
It was previously assumed that children develop this skill later in life. But Kouider’s research suggests that from an early age, “infants know when they don’t know something, and they are able to signal this fact to their caregivers” in order to get help solving problems. “They consciously experience their own uncertainty.”
To study this, researchers at the Ecole Normal Superieure in Paris recruited 80 parents and their 20-month-old infants to undergo a learning experiment. For the first few minutes of the study, researchers played with the infants and then hid a toy in one or two boxes either in full view of the infant or behind a curtain that blocked the babies’ view. Researchers paused for 3 seconds and then asked the baby to point to the box where the toy was in.
Half of the babies were left to figure it out on their own and selected one of the two boxes. However, the other half of the babies were given the option to ask for help by having their parents nearby, in which case most of the babies turned and made prolonged eye contact with their parents, indicating a request for help. In a second round, researchers repeated the experiment except this time they held a longer pause of 12 seconds before they asked the babies which box the toy was hidden in. The infants asked for help more often in the second round because it was perceivably more difficult for them to remember where the toy was placed when it was hidden behind the curtain.
The babies who recognised their limitations and asked their parents for help had far fewer incorrect guesses compared to babies who were either not given the option to ask or who chose not to ask. When babies realised they needed help and asked for it, they avoided errors and improved their chances of answering the question correctly.
Why does this matter? Kouider says this information is relevant to parents and to anyone else interested in early education.
Metacognition allows humans to actively seek out new information, and to adapt their learning strategies to specific situations. When children understand that they don’t know everything, and when they know where to look for answers to their questions, they can start to acquire knowledge faster, without repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
Instead, they develop strategies that will help them find answers to new problems in the future. They learn that they need to look to outside sources for answers to some of life’s puzzles.
This means not always solving the problem for a child straight away. “There are 2 ways of teaching new things to a child,” explains Kouider. “The first is to simply give them the information. That’s the usual way we teach them.” The second way—the better way, according to Kouider—is to teach your child how to learn, to teach them how to find answers instead of simply providing them with the solution.