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Learning by Imitation: Learning Heroes

We are built to learn by imitation. Evolution has equipped us with brains that are designed from the moment of birth to do what people around us are doing. When a baby sees you make a fist or a smile the neurons in her brain make her ready to do the same thing.

It’s through this kind of unconscious osmosis that children learn the habits of language and culture into which they have been born. Without any instruction from us, their brains start moulding themselves to the social world around them. They pick up the speech sounds and accents they hear and the emotional reactions they see being modelled. By watching us they learn to be frightened of what we are frightened of, to ignore what we ignore, to find funny what we laugh at.

And in just the same way they learn to learn in the way their parents, carers and teachers learn. If they grow up around people who love to debate round the dinner table they will imbibe the habits, rules and pleasures of debating. If they watch adults being experimental, inquisitive and tenacious in their learning these habits will rub off too. If their role models have no time for ideas, or become angry the minute their efforts are frustrated, that too is what they will learn.

So we must be careful to be at our learning best around young children, especially if they like or admire us, for their ‘heroes’ are the people whose habits they will find most contagious. Capitalising on this rubbing-off of learning habits gives us a powerful way of influencing children’s development — for good or ill.

It is not just us: learning heroes (and heroines) come in all shapes and sizes. Celebrities like David Beckham can be heroes not just because they are handsome and successful but because they overcome set-backs and put in the hard hours of practice. Characters like Gandalf, or even Tinky-Winky, can impress with their tenacity or thoughtfulness. A child’s grandmother can be a source of inspiration through her ability to invite calm discussion of a vexed issue in a stressed family. Children can be helped to see admirable characteristics in their playmates. And most importantly of all, every child can be their own Learning Hero, as they feed off the memories of their own resilience and resourcefulness.

Have you or your school capitalised on children’s powers of imitation, to help them build strong foundations for their own learning lives? If so, why not let everyone know about your experiences in the forum?