Thursday, November 08, 2007

First Things First

The Boston Globe (registration required but they don't tell you until halfway through the article--tricksy) has an interesting article about the pitfalls of pushing academics on children at too young of an age. The article is titled "Rush, Little Baby."

The author explores some of the scientific evidence--and lack thereof--for our culture's growing efforts to push children under the age of 6 to learn more and more academics. I like that there are journal citations and I plan to read them as I can. (I hate hearing about this study or that study where the study in question is never cited and so I am unable to gauge for myself things like sample size, methodology and the like.) Here's something interesting about the brain and reading skills I learned (emphasis added):

True reading requires the integration of complicated functions from different regions of the brain - visual, auditory, linguistic, conceptual - a process that takes time. The speed with which these regions can be integrated depends on something called myelination, in which the tails (or axons) of neurons in the brain are wrapped in a fatty sheathing that makes them perform better. For these regions of the brain to interact efficiently, they need one neuron to talk to another neuron in rapid succession. And to do that well, those neuron tails need lots of myelin. Myelination rates can vary, but Wolf says generally these pivotal regions aren't fully myelinated until sometime between the ages of 5 and 7, with boys probably being on the later side.

And I thought this was interesting, too:

Researchers from the National Institutes of Mental Health performed periodic MRI brain scans on children and teens ranging in age from 5 to 19, tracking the relationship between the thickness of the brain's outer mantle, or cortex, with the subject's IQ. They found that the people whose IQ scores put them in the "superior intelligence" category had cortexes that matured much later than those of average intelligence.

This whole subject fascinates me, since we have chosen not to "school" our kids while they are young. Oh sure, they learn stuff, but typically at their own initiation. We don't drill them with flashcards or force them to memorize facts or turn every. single. thing. into a Learning Opportunity. What they do with their days is explore, play, pretend, build, talk, listen to books, watch movies, run around outside, help me with housework or the cabin business, ask questions, see how high or far they can jump, dance, sing, test the Law of Gravity, figure out relationships between numbers, splash in water, dress up in costumes, play with puzzles and Play-doh, and create long complicated military theaters of war with anything with pieces that can be grouped by color or size.

They know some academics, but that is not their (or our) primary focus. They are both very bright kids who would certainly score fairly high on an IQ test. They know (most of) their letters and a surprising amount of arithmetic, all the colors and shapes, etc. Academics will come in time; I'm confident about it.

The author of the article interviewed a little girl named Morgan (nice name!) and her parents:

. . . I had gone through a drill asking Morgan to identify flashcards with the following images: the Mona Lisa, Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer, Marie de Medici, and Erasmus of Rotterdam. She had correctly identified each one, pausing only once, when I clumsily mispronounced Erasmus's name.

This child is not much older than my Morgan. I honestly can't imagine teaching her the Mona Lisa. We have a bust of Aristotle in our house (yes!) and when Ryan was about Morgan's age, he'd point to it and say "Awis-toddle" but we didn't teach him about formal, efficient, material and final causes. It just never occurred to me and if it had, I doubt I'd have imagined that that would be necessary or appropriate to share with a child under 3. Morgan hasn't even noticed our Aristotle bust, so is no doubt destined for a state university.

Just now, both of my kids are so imaginative and creative. Here's the story of a child who was doing something a little more age-appropriate. (I can totally see either of my kids doing something like this, by the way):

When their oldest was 4, they took her for an admission interview at the most highly regarded preschool in town. Giedd and his wife, both high achievers who imagined the same for their daughter, found themselves nervously hoping she would ace her interview. "She pretended she was a horse the whole time," he recalls, laughing. "When she was asked how old she was, she tapped her foot four times."

Really. Admission "interviews" for preschool. Honestly! Obviously, this particular girl did not get admitted as I imagine the school had already met their "pretends to be a horse" quota for that particular school year. Don't worry, she's now 15 and seems to be doing just fine.

Here at our house, Ryan just got through telling me an 8 minute story about the Minutemen he is in charge of, complete with dramatic reenactment of certain key battles (sound effects included). Yesterday at a friend's house, he immediately came up with a theory for the unusually large vent in the middle of the floor. He was wrong about its purpose; but he was working those gears in his head and came up with a pretty good theory given his context of knowledge. He can abstract very well for a kid his age which requires all kinds of spinning wheels in the gray matter. Imagination and creativity and getting practice spinning those mind wheels, coming up with solutions to problems and theories and solutions--that's my boy. Children need freedom to play and imagine. Is it possible to stunt somebody's creativity from lack of use? I wonder.

Now don't misunderstand me--I'm not against reading, writing, and 'rithmetic. In fact, I am strongly pro learning academics and plan to spend a goodly amount of our future homeschooling years pointing out the strong inverse correlation between Knowing Useful Things like Academics and Working a Minimum Wage Job as an Adult. But I am against this big early push to get 5 and 4 and 3 and 2 year olds to memorize facts such as who painted the Mona Lisa and what the square root of 25 is. Besides, can a small child really understand what these things mean? No doubt a few could; but it seems safe to say that most kids need more context, and dare I say, brain-maturing-time before some of these concepts would even mean anything to them.

And it's not that we recoil from anything the slightest bit academic here. Our house is filled (and I mean filled) with good literature, math games, alphabet games, puzzles of all types, Cuisenaire rods, history books, and science books and toys. I spent an hour today with Morgan and a new alphabet puzzle, talking about letters and their sounds and making up funny rhymes to emphasize the sounds. But our activities were the result of her interest. I don't see what else needs to happen at the age of 2.5. She definitely learned more about the alphabet--she now recognizes more letters than she did at the beginning of our game. But she also got to experience efficaciousness, pride, self-motivation--those things are important and would have been diminished or lacking had this exercise been something that I made her do.

What else did she learn? That Mommy is interested in her interests, that Mommy will answer her questions truthfully, that Mommy will help her when she gets stuck. Because parental involvement--actually, just parenting--is what kids really need:

Wolf says the best predictor of how a child will do in school is not reading ability but rather the size and richness of the child's vocabulary. And, as with so much in life, the kids whose parents worry about this area the most tend to be the kids we need to worry about least. . . They found that the children were very much a product of what they were exposed to by their parents: between 86 and 98 percent of the words in their vocabularies were also words their parents used.

I wonder what would happen if we pushed academics on our kids at this point, filling up their brains with the kinds of facts that the little girl mentioned above is learning. I wonder just when they would have time to exercise their minds in creative ways. Or if they would perhaps get the impression that the facts themselves are inherently more important that using the facts. I wonder if they'd miss out on some of the classic childhood experiences, like playing with Legos and just sitting around daydreaming.

Now I doubt that this little girl in the article does flashcards and academics every minute of every day. But it does seem to take up a fair amount of time--what is the trade off? And what is the pay out? I wonder if kids who are pushed so young never get a chance to discover the joy of learning something because you want to. Do they even have that ability? Or are they conditioned to wait for someone else to decide what is important enough to learn and when to learn it?

I think there will be time for academics. Little kids need time for their bodies and brains to mature before great masterpieces of art become meaningful to them, before multiplication tables are relevant. Childhood is but a brief period in a person's life. Forcing academics on otherwise uninterested children may not only be detrimental as some of the studies in this article suggest, but seems to be a way of cutting even shorter such a short precious time. First things first.


Hetty Fauxvert said...

I totally agree with you about not pushing academics too early. My parents purposely did not teach me to read, though they read great stories to me (such as Kipling's JUNGLE BOOK, THE HOBBIT, etc.) and when I hit first grade, I was rarin' to go! Luckily I had an awsome teacher. I learned to read in a week at age 6, and by the time I hit second grade, I was re-reading THE HOBBIT by myself. (I think I was reading about 400 wpm by that time.) It's best not to rush.

Rational Jenn said...

Thanks for your comments, Hetty! I know of many families with children who struggled to read before the age of six and then once the child got closer to seven, something clicked and off they went. I think there really is something to allowing the brain to mature to a certain level before pushing formal learning.