The Case for Early Learning

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“You change the beginning of the story, you change the whole story.”
-Dimitri Christakis, Director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, Children’s Hospital

On Wednesday, October 15th,  the case for early learning was persuasively made. The event, Livewire: Conversations that Spark Insight was held on the Microsoft campus. Sponsored by Microsoft, the Seattle Times, and the University of Washington, among others, the participants included state legislators, educators, and brain researchers. We attended this presentation as part of our commitment to early childhood education and to learn first-hand what is happening on the research and legislative fronts to support parents and educators of young children.

Of particular interest was the presentation by Dr. Patricia Kuhl and Dr. Andy Meltzoff, co-directors of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS) at the University of Washington, who spoke about the unique ways in which young children learn.

Dr. Kuhl focused on language acquisition:

  • It’s all about timing. By age 5, the human brain is 92% of its adult size. The brain has 86 billion neurons at birth, and 3-year-olds have three times the synapses adults do. The critical period for language is from birth up to age 7. This also squares with what Dr. Montessori observed over 100 years ago: that the “sensitive period” for language is from birth to age 6+.
  • Children learn in novel ways. Babies are “statistical” learners; they are born with the staggering capacity to absorb whatever language they encounter in their environment, and they are little statisticians – they will hone in on whatever is predominantly reflected in their environment. Young babies in English-speaking households are able to discern the morphemes (units of sound) of Mandarin, or indeed of any language. This is a universal truth. But by about age 6 months or so, babies begin to become culturally-bound language learners. In other words, they will focus on their home language in order to begin acquiring the vocabulary and structure of their specific language. Having said this, research shows just how good bilingualism is for the brain: bilingual children exhibit greater cognitive flexibility and inhibitory control, and there’s evidence to show Alzheimer’s and other cognitive aging issues are much reduced in bilingual people.
  • Language growth requires input during the critical period, and the quality of those interactions matter. Babies are social learners, and they need person-to-person interactions. In an interesting experiment, Dr. Kuhl had one group of babies from English-speaking homes attend 12 sessions of story times with a Mandarin speaker. Other groups of babies were exposed to Mandarin the same amount of time over 12 sessions, but via video or audio. In subsequent brain scans, the in-person groups revealed a marked perceptivity of Mandarin morphemes, while the video/audio learners showed no learning at all. So much for Baby Einstein videos!

And Dr. Meltzoff spoke about the young child as a social and emotional learner:

  • Children are imitative learners. Their brains take in everything they see and experience through all their senses. As Dr. Montessori postulated, the 0 – 6 child has an “absorbent mind” which unconsciously and without judgment takes in everything from the environment like a sponge, forming neural pathways and connections.
  • Children are “emotional evesdroppers”. They are socially aware and regulate their behavior accordingly. Children as young as 15 months old who are in hostile/non-supportive environments exhibit the tendency to view all others as hostile. This in turn is a predictor of later aggression and self-control issues. The 15-month-old who grows up in a hostile, non-supportive environment becomes the 5-year-old who struggles with inhibitory control in school. Check out this recent I-LABS video that’s gone viral.
  • Gender stereotypes are absorbed early. In a 1st – 5th grade study, 2nd graders had already demonstrated a firm belief that certain activities are “girl” things [reading] and certain things are “boy” things [math]. This in turn leads to aspirational shut-down: if a boy perceives reading is inherently hard, or a girl believes that only boys are really good at math, the drive to learn diminishes. This has far-reaching consequences for our children as they make their way through the education system.

The good news is, more and more attention is being focused on the importance of early learning. From local municipalities and school districts, to the state legislature, to the federal “Race to the Top” program, a new awareness is growing about how essential the early childhood period is in human development. The notion that children entering kindergarten without a quality preschool experience are considered “behind” is relatively new. Perhaps a sea change is coming which will galvanize our collective political will to reprioritize our state’s resources (did you know only 9/10 of 1% of Washington’s budget is spent on early learning?).

The foundation constructed in the early-childhood years has profound and far-reaching effects on our society and culture – certainly far greater than our state budget would indicate. Perhaps we’re now ready to re-write the beginning of the story for all children, and perhaps the Montessori community—with its unique perspective gained through over 100 years of guiding children’s development—can help inform the political and social discussion.

If you’d like to see all or portions of this presentation, the video is available here.

“The history of the movement shows that the same education is possible, in all social grades of society, with happy children, as with children shattered by the shock of disaster, and among all the races of the world. The Child is the driving force which is manifested in our time, bringing new hope…” Dr. Maria Montessori, Discovery of the Child

 “When I’m discussing the movement with academics or friends in the media, the first question they pose is usually the same: If it is so large, why isn’t this movement more visible? …For most people, to understand something new requires a cognitive antecedent. …Scientific experiments repeatedly show that groups of educated, urbanized people pay no attention to unfamiliar objects directly in front of them if they focus too strongly on familiar ones. What we already know frames what we see, and what we see frames what we understand.” – Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, & Beauty to the World

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