It is a point so obvious that it is seldom, if ever, mentioned. If children did not have available to them adult instruction through language, pictures, and other symbolic media, they would know the same amount about dinosaurs as did Plato and Aristotle, namely, zero.
– Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition, 1999
What we know depends almost entirely on the accumulated knowledge of the cultures we live in, transmitted mostly through language. Even our own experiential knowledge is shaped largely by conceptual categories we acquire through language, categories we probably wouldn’t have come up with on our own. Kids learn quickly, but not automatically. People don’t always agree, so the child is exposed to alternative explanations. The child may be misunderstand or disagree with what someone else has to say, so she may seek clarification or argue in an effort to refine her understanding. The child’s knowledge is also subjected to verbal critique by adults who (presumably) know better. Knowledge acquisition isn’t just linear and cumulative; it also demands evaluation and alignment of perspectives.
Children reach 3 to 5 years of age before they realize that others have different ideas and beliefs from their own. Still, the process for acquiring this sort of knowledge about other minds is similar to acquiring knowledge about the world: joint attention, contextual framing, dialogue, exposure to alternative views, clarification, argumentation, critique. Exposure to conflicting ideas of other young children seems particularly important in understanding that others have minds similar to, yet different from, their own.
Understanding other minds requires the child to take the perspective of the other, simulating in her own mind the thoughts the other might be thinking. Between 5 and 7 years children begin monitoring and managing the impressions they make on others: “She thinks that I think X.” This observation requires perspective-taking at a second remove: my perspective on her perspective on my thinking. I remember my daughter asking her friend at around age 7: “Do you know how you sound when you say that?” This is third remove: my perspective on her perspective on my perspective on her thinking.
The child also begins to develop the ability to view something from multiple perspectives in mind at the same time. For example, analogy and metaphor depend on grasping the literal meaning of a verbal expression and simultaneously applying it in a figurative context. The child also becomes reflexively self-aware, observing her own perspective, describing it to herself, consciously trying to make it more systematic.
It’s possible that a child develops a sense of self by seeing and imitating how others see her. It seems more likely, based on the natural progression of cognitive development, that the child develops a sense of others by simulating from within the self what it might be like to be the other. Then, from within the simulated other’s perspective, the child can begin to see herself as others see her. Finally, the child can self-reflect, seeing herself as if she were an other. The child’s understanding — of others, of culture, of self — advances from simple to complex, always building on joint attention and contextual framing within the basic referential triangle of self, other, and world. Learning depends on scaffolding — just like Odile has been telling us.