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Trusting What You’re Told

Trusting What You’re Told

How Children Learn from Others

Paul L. Harris

ISBN 9780674503830

Publication date: 03/23/2015

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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.

Praise

  • 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, Education Week blog

Awards

  • 2014, Winner of the Eleanor Maccoby Book Award
  • 2012, Winner of the Cognitive Development Society Book Award

Author

  • Paul L. Harris is Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education at Harvard University.

Book Details

  • 424 pages
  • 5-1/16 x 7-7/8 inches
  • Belknap Press

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