ED. Magazine

Why Do Kids Believe in God but Not Harry Potter?

By Lory Hough

Professor Paul Harris’ new book looks at how children learn, whom they trust, and why even a beloved wizard seems too magical to be real.

Illustration by Natalie Kilany

Illustration by Natalie Kilany

Are children more Marie Curie or Margaret Mead when it comes to learning? Are they little scientists who learn best by experimenting and figuring things out for themselves, or little anthropologists who need to listen, observe, and rely on what others tell them?

Progressive educators who emphasize learning by doing would likely say Marie Curie. Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example, in writing about education and children in Emile, said, “Let him know things not because you have told him, but rather because he has understood it for himself. Let him not learn science; let him invent it.” Italian educator Maria Montessori, whose child-centered learning theories are used around the world, once said that when it comes to educating children, the teacher, or “directress” as she was called, should give “a hint, a touch” — just enough to get the child started. “The rest develops of itself.”

Or does it? After years of research, Professor Paul Harris argues that children need more than just a hint or a touch in order to learn about many things. As he writes in his new book, Trusting What We’re Told: How Children Learn from Others, “There is a profound limit to the role that first-hand experience can play in cognitive development.”

For example, how would a child know about a city or country never seen or visited if someone hadn’t told him or her about it? Or have an understanding of the past — that dinosaurs once roamed the world! — or the fact that Harry Potter isn’t real? How would he or she grasp that germs exist, or the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, for that matter?

“Children learn all sorts of things that are opaque to them” by being little Margaret Meads, Harris says, by listening to what others tells them — what he calls “testimony.”

“A dominant metaphor for young children’s cognitive development is that the child is a scientist who does handson experiments, such as with things that float versus sink, and revises his or her ideas about the world like a scientist,” Harris says. “By contrast, anthropologists don’t do experiments, certainly not on the culture they are studying; rather they master the language, observe carefully, and engage in long conversations with trusted informants, especially when they are puzzled. Children, like anthropologists, are trying to make sense of the culture they live in, including its beliefs and values.”

And it basically starts, he says, once they are able to combine their understanding of language with their powerful imagination.

“Once you put these two things together, you have a child who can listen to a scene he or she has never seen and build it in their minds,” Harris says. They can imagine unobserved things. “No other species is capable of this, as far as we know.”

For example, by 13 or 14 months, children show clear signs of being able to understand references to an absent object or person and are willing to alter their ideas based on what someone tells them.

In this way, Harris says, “children accept information that runs counter to their own ideas.”

He describes a scene where a toddler is told that a toy left behind is no longer in the original place. Without actually seeing the toy being moved, the little girl nevertheless looks for it in a new spot. She understands that what she thought about the toy isn’t necessarily true — another person’s testimony could provide an update. In another example, Harris talks about a 22-month-old girl who asks one night where the moon is. She is told that the moon is asleep; it isn’t out. A month later, when the adult asks the girl where the moon is, the girl replies, “Moon sleeping.” She hasn’t seen for herself that the moon is actually asleep; she learned and accepted this “fact” from another person’s testimony.

Harris’ initial interest in this work grew out of his earlier research on imagination. He found that in using their imaginations, children not only think through and act out fantastical possibilities they have never experienced — being a pirate looking for buried treasure or an alien flying through space — but they also, surprisingly, use their imaginations to think about real events and things that are not visible, like death or germs.

In a series of experiments with 4-, 6-, and 8-year-olds, Harris and his team of Ed School research students asked children about familiar things, such as tigers and wolves. They were also asked about made-up creatures no one had ever seen, such as flying pigs. The children all agreed that tigers and wolves exist. No one believed there are flying pigs. The children were then asked about scientific things most had never seen, even in pictures, like germs. Based on the flying pig responses — we don’t believe what we don’t see — children should have said germs also don’t exist. However, since children do learn from what others tell them, from testimony, all of the children said that everybody believes in germs. At some point, the children had been told about germs — “germs exist” or “wash the germs off of your hands!” and had trusted the person who supplied the information. Another way to think about this, Harris says, is to think about the history of medicine. During the 1800s, microbiologist Louis Pasteur’s claims about the harm of germs were contested, particularly by doctors, and so the general public didn’t think much about the role germs played in the transmission of diseases like cholera. Today, the role of germs in spreading illness is widely accepted by doctors and parents and so, Harris says, “assertions made by other people are children’s main guarantee that germs really do exist.”

This cognitive leap that children make helps them understand that other people are an important source of information, Harris says. They understand that they need other people to make sense of the world. Once that leap is made, they then realize it’s worth asking questions, often an endless stream of questions. Questions, of course, have been controversial when it comes to learning. In Trusting What You’re Told, Harris tells a story about developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s response to his daughter, who, after twirling around and around and feeling dizzy, asked her father if his world was turning around, too. “What do you think?” Piaget replied. His daughter, frustrated, shouted back, “You always ask me that!”

Piaget clearly wanted his daughter to figure it out for herself. He feared, as others often do, “that when children ask questions, they will unthinkingly defer to adult authority,” Harris writes. “They will not check or test the answers they receive.”

However, this strikes Harris as simplistic.

“If a young child is puzzled about why it gets dark at night,” he says, “it’s not as if they are going to start figuring out the rotation of the earth.”

Plus, as Harris discovered, children don’t blindly defer to adults. Often, they think about what they have been told and then ask more questions. This is especially true when, in response to an original question, children are given an adequate explanation, such as “birds can fly because they have wings” (when the child asks how birds can stay in the air), as opposed to a vague answer like “I don’t know.”

Harris found that trust is not automatic for children. They not only “monitor the messenger,” starting when they are babies, but as they get older, they also often question the content.

In several experiments, teachers gave 3- to 5-year-olds information about an unfamiliar object from a hardware store. Both teachers — one known well by the students, the other not known well — made up names and information about the objects. All age groups equally showed a strong preference for the answers given by the familiar teacher.

“This type of early selectivity is all but universal among children growing up under normal rearing conditions,” Harris writes. This early “profiling” of people — reliable, not reliable — “means that caregivers offer much more than a secure base for autonomous exploration,” Harris writes. “What they say about the world may or may not be internalized and become part of the child’s conception of the way things are.”

What happens when the person providing the information is harder to gauge? Kathleen Corriveau, Ed.M.’03, Ed.D.’10, an assistant professor at Boston University’s School of Education, worked with Harris on several studies, including one that looked at this question.

“We found that under these circumstances, 3- and 4-yearolds look to other people’s reactions for guidance,” she says. “They are more likely to accept an informant’s claim if it is endorsed by other people,” even when those other people leave. As children got older, researchers found that the track record of the person providing the information started to take on more importance. The more often they were accurate, the more they were trusted.

When using stories to figure out how children differentiate real from fiction, Harris found that by the age of 5 or 6, children believe the protagonist of a story is not real if the story includes magic or fantasy. Despite actor Daniel Radcliffe being human, most children understand that the character Harry Potter isn’t. If a story doesn’t contain magical or fantastical elements, however, children generally have no trouble believing a protagonist is real.

“This helps children sort out information about people they have never met,” Harris says.

How, then, to explain religious stories which often include things that don’t ever happen in real life, such as the parting of the sea? Harris assumed that children’s “magic detector” would go off, indicating that this kind of event couldn’t really happen. Instead, he found that children are often willing to accept the miracles or the extraordinary powers of God, perhaps because religious stories are often presented as real, especially in religious households.

“So, we end up with a paradox,” Harris writes. “On the one hand, young children have their feet on the ground — they spot the magic in a fairy story and classify it as fiction. Yet they spot the miraculous in religious claims and accept it as fact.”

In this sense, children do sometimes defer to others, even when it conflicts with the information they have gathered for themselves and even when it may not be in their best interest.

“In the third part of my book, and perhaps the most controversial, I argue that children’s willingness to listen to other people and trust them makes them susceptible to all kinds of things,” Harris says. “They are creatures of their culture. They’ll swallow, for better or for worse, the assumptions of the culture.”

With this in mind, Harris says he didn’t write his new book to revamp early education in the United States.

“I wrote it, I suppose, more because there are longer term issues at stake. My hope is that the impact will be on my colleagues interested in early childhood development. I hope that researchers will increasingly see young children as capable of learning as much via dialogue as from hands-on or discovery learning.”

Corriveau also sees practical implications for educators. For example, the findings on children being more trusting of information supplied by someone they know could improve hiring practices and policies in preschools and elementary schools.

“In particular, given the high rate of teacher turnover,” she says, the information shows that “children might be at a disadvantage when learning from a relative stranger.”

In addition, teachers can learn things they should and shouldn’t do in the classroom, she says.

“One is easy. When teachers say something incorrect, young children view them as inaccurate,” she says, “so even joking errors should be avoided.”

Harris says he hopes the book will be helpful for teachers and parents, too, “by calling attention to the critical importance of sustained dialogue in nurturing children’s curiosity and in encouraging them to ask questions.”

And he stresses that his research isn’t either/or. He’s not saying the Montessori way is wrong or that you shouldn’t encourage children to explore and learn for themselves. And just as children should be encouraged to question their own firsthand knowledge, they should also be encouraged to question the knowledge they gain from others.

Still, he says, it’s important to recognize that for our little anthropologists, “the testimony of other people is likely to be just as important as firsthand experience for setting such reflection in motion.”

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