Learning through imitation

Carl Zimmer of the New York Times reported in an article "Children learn by monkey see, monkey do. Chimps don't" on psychological studies concluding that human beings are hard-wired to learn via imitation.

Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn. If he is right, this represents a big evolutionary change from our ape ancestors. Other primates are bad at imitation. When they watch another primate doing something, they seem to focus on what its goals are and ignore its actions.

As human ancestors began to make complicated tools, figuring out goals might not have been good enough anymore. Hominids needed a way to register automatically what other hominids did, even if they didn't understand the intentions behind them. They needed to imitate.

Not long ago, many psychologists thought that imitation was a simple, primitive action compared with figuring out the intentions of others. But that is changing. "Maybe imitation is a lot more sophisticated than people thought," Mr. Lyons said.

Much of learning theory posits that reflection is a deeper form of learning while imitation is a lower form of learning (e.g., Engeström). Yet, there is also an understanding that examples and models facilitate learning. John Anderson of ACT-R learning theory (i.e., declarative and procedural knwoledge) states that there is no real difference between self-generated learning and passive reception of knowledge (unless the former "produces multiple ways to retrieve the material"). Extrapolating to the difference between imitation and reflection, I wonder when reflection is worth the time invested and how much of a difference it really makes.