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Ask an Expert: Dr. Paul Harris, Harvard GSE

For this installment of our Ask an Expert interview series, Tiggly sat down with Dr. Paul Harris, Ph.D. Dr. Harris is the Victor S. Thomas Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The author of Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others, Dr. Harris’ work focuses on the early development of cognition, emotion, and imagination.

Tiggly: If more early learning migrates to digital devices, what is gained and what is lost? Do the gains outweigh the losses?

Professor Harris: I think it’s far too early to draw up the balance sheet. Electronic devises can obviously have greater flexibility to cater to a range of children. Still, their ease of access and their flexibility may draw children away from more challenging material. So, the ultimate balance sheet will likely depend as much on what is made available by the market place as on the intrinsic psychology of the child

Tiggly: Part of your research has focused on the question of whether children learn like scientists through hands-on experimentation, or like anthropologists through observation (or through some combination of the two). To what extent do digital tools change the dynamics of early childhood learning?

Professor Harris: Again, it’s early days, but in principle digital devices could augment both types of experience – they can allow the child to ‘explore’ a novel, ordinarily inaccessible environment (the ocean floor; the inside of the stomach) but they can also transport the child, and let the child interact with communities way different from his/her own.

Tiggly: What advice would you give to first-time parents who are anxiously analyzing their children’s development? Are there any activities they should encourage or approaches that you wish more parents would take?

Professor Harris: Probably the simplest advice is that they share in the child’s exploration, encourage it, and enjoy talking with the child.

Tiggly: How should parents think about the amount of screen time they allow their preschool-aged children to have?

Professor Harris: Screens can be so captivating that parents probably do need to act as gatekeepers. Common sense suggests that children need a mix – time with peers, physical exercise, constructional activities, pretend play, etc.

Tiggly: For parents who might not be familiar with it, what are some of the key insights on childhood development from your most recent book, Trusting What You’re Told? What is next for your research?

Professor Harris: One chapter deals with young children’s questions. The evidence suggests that children ask many questions not to get attention but out of genuine intellectual curiosity; there are also indications that parents who ask a lot of questions have children who ask a lot of questions.

More generally, dialogue – including sustained dialogue where the child asks a series of questions and/or circles back to the same topic on several occasions – is a way for children to explore and learn.

Team Tiggly