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Originality is Overrated

adult learning game-based learning gamification Aug 16, 2023

With all the discussion and fears of generative Artificial Intelligence, especially what Long-Language Models might mean for education, it’s a good time to wonder why we praise originality and creativity in the first place. 

Why? Well, as a species, we are particularly adept at imitation, more so than any other animal. In fact, it’s the most efficient way for us to learn. 

Imitation is what allows infants and children to absorb so much so quickly. Early in life, children focus mostly on imitating their parents, but by preschool, they have a preference for people they perceive as competent and knowledgeable. By the time they are seven years old, children may give up on copying their parents, choosing instead a stranger they perceive as an expert. 

While other animals mimic, they are selective in what they copy. For instance, when copying an adult who touches a box to their forehead before opening it and retrieving a treat, dogs and chimps will skip the forehead touching and go for the treat. Children, though, will copy each step, including touching the box to their forehead. 

Researchers theorize the reason for this may be a process of imitating now and understanding each step later. There might be a good reason for touching the forehead that we don’t understand yet. Additionally, as social creatures, we wouldn’t want to skip a step that is important to our culture. 

In fact, imitation used to be the crux of our education system. For ancient Greek and Romans, imitation was a revered art. Students worked hard to emulate the masters. Students would read and analyze Aesop’s Fables, and later memorize and recite a speech by Cicero. Romans would translate texts from Greek and compress, elaborate, and alter established texts to demonstrate their mastery of them. If they did write original thoughts, they would do so in the style of someone they admired. 

It wasn’t until the Romantics arrived late in the eighteenth century that originality became prized. Imitation was scorned as the “habit of savages.” Innovation and discovery took precedence over learning from previous great thinkers. Classics became outdated and new lines of theory and thought were praised. 

And soon, children were punished for copying smarter people’s work. 

Perhaps now, though, it’s time to rethink our emphasis on originality and embrace imitation, especially since were are uniquely equipped as a species to learn and thrive via imitation. 

If you’d like to explore this notion more, ask ChatGPT about imitation and learning and read the article it writes for you. 

(That isn’t what I did, though. This article was inspired by Annie Murphy Paul’s book, The Extended Mind. I’m merely copying her original work, modifying it to my voice, and sharing it with you.)

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