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Re: Getting Our Kids Ready for the Competition

Re: Getting Our Kids Ready for the Competition – the Great Conversations and the 32,000,000 Missing Words! by Dick Jacobs

Your piece creates a great framework for conversation but one point needs clarification: “Cognitive science tells us that if learning our reading fundamentals doesn’t start very early and the skills aren’t in place by age nine or ten, our brain’s bank of available neurons, so necessary for our life-long ability to read and have meaningful Great Conversations, disappear, never to be retrieved.”

This statement could be misleading. Some neuroscientists once thought our brain’s went through ‘critical periods’ of development and that humans couldn’t acquire language, for example, if they didn’t learn language during preadolescence. This seemed reasonable when considering the difficulty rescued feral children had learning language. But we’ve since learned that our brain’s are plastic. They are capable of learning and changing – of adaptively rewiring themselves – throughout life. Rather than ‘critical’ periods they now describe ‘sensitive periods’. From our conversation with Dr. Jack Shonkoff, Professor of Child Health and Development and founding director of the university-wide Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University:

And we have, instead, what we might call “sensitive periods”. In critical periods, again, there is a certain period of time in the sequence of brain development where particular kinds of experiences are very important, and if you have those experiences in the right way you develop the normal architecture and if you don’t have those experiences your brain can’t develop normally. In a sensitive period, there isn’t a time when the window closes and it’s too late. But what it means is that when you pass the sensitive period, it’s harder for these things to develop in an adaptive way, or they may develop in a way that is not as efficient as it might be, and that you have to try to overcome later. Unlike a critical period where it’s too late, missing a sensitive period means that it just gets harder as you get older, it’s harder to get it right.

Sensitive Slopes not Critical Periods

So the messages that come out of that basic principle of brain development is that getting things right the first time is better than trying to fix them later, trying to adapt to something that was not developed in the best way at the time that it was supposed to be developed.

So the sobering message here is that if children don’t have the right experiences during these sensitive periods for the development of a variety of skills, including many cognitive and language capacities, that’s a burden that those kids are going to carry; the sensitive period is over, and it’s going to be harder for them. Their architecture is not as well developed in their brain as it would have been if they had had the right experiences during the sensitive period. That’s the sobering message.

Understanding the sensitive slope of early childhood brain development puts the ‘Meaningful Differences’ work in a new light:


Differences in early language learning widen the ‘language gap’ that exacerbates the challenge of learning to read.


Back to the big picture aspects of your piece, I think one of the most important challenges we face (and greatest opportunities for improvement we have) is the ‘great conversation’ about the ‘mission of education’. The most efficient path to transforming education (the fulcrum point of maximal cross leverage between political, scientific, economic, academic and public/ social change) begins with co-crafting new vision of it’s central purpose

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8 Responses to Re: Getting Our Kids Ready for the Competition

  1. Dick Jacobs April 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm #

    Thank you for the above comments. In this time of swelling single-parent families, predominately headed by women, has your organization done any research, or come to any conclusions, as to what can be done for the children, particularly during the early years, to put them on track?


    • Learning-Activist April 8, 2012 at 10:56 pm #

      Thank you for being interested Dick. I appreciate your good intentions and I think the questions you are asking are important ones. I’d would like to engage with you in an ongoing dialogue – a great conversation into the great conversation about ‘the mission of education’. By that I mean ‘mission’ from the highest level of national policy to the pedagogical principles of pre-k.

      you asked:

      “Has your organization done any research, or come to any conclusions, as to what can be done for the children, particularly during the early years, to put them on track?”

      There aren’t enough of us to be called an organization (though we are a legally formed non-profit) and we don’t do research in the normal sense. The word conclusion is bit too immutable but I would say that we are advocating, for public consideration, an overwhelmingly well supported (neuroscience, psychology, ed research, economics…), though not widely known, hypothesis for educational activism.

      What can be done for children, particularly during the early years? That’s the heart of your question and it’s a great question (let’s come back to the ‘track’ part of your question in another conversation).

      Could you agree with the reformulation: How can we help children learn their way successfully through school?

      The emphasis difference here in the main point ‘done for’ is different than ‘help learn their way’.

      What can we do for children?

      There are so many things we can do. Early on we can engage them as often as possible in rich turn taking conversations about whatever it is that interests them (or us) as we encounter the world together. We can be supportive of their curiosity and experimentation and we can be careful to minimize how much unnecessary shame they feel for being ‘wrong’. We can be careful to unfold learning challenges so that they are reasonable stretches given their relevant proficiency levels. We could make a very big list with greater specificity in more tightly defined situations (i.e., compensating for phonemic awareness deficits at 5). But the key point is that unless we think of children as products on an assembly line that we must put through a protocol driven sequence of experience injections, we have to realize that the best thing we can do for them is to steward how well – how healthily – they are learning.

      The most important thing about success in school is something we can’t do for them. Only they can do it. They have to do the learning. Only they can learn well. Our job is to learn what and how to teach them in order to use what we think they should learn as an exercise environment for stewarding how well they are learning.

      ‘Helping them learn their way’ includes teaching them whatever they need to learn along the way but it never assumes that what we think they must be taught is more important than how well they are actually learning. At all times in all situations, whether we are trying to improve the vocabulary growth trajectory of a 3 year old, or help a child struggling with reading or math in the 3rd grade, nothing is ever more important than stewarding how well they are learning – stewarding the healthiness of their, right here and now, ‘live‘ learning. Nothing we do to them or for them can have a more positive effect on their life trajectory then stewarding how healthily they are learning.

      At each progression up the labyrinth of ladders in school, progress depends on how well they are learning. What they are learning is constantly changing, how well they are doing in school depends on how consistently and continuously well they are learning.

      Virtually every relevant field of social, economic, political, technological and scientific research is in implicit agreement about the central importance of healthy learning and the dangers of unhealthy learning.

      I am working on a number of ways of addressing these issues, for parents and educators. We can talk about them as well but I think the beginning of real change begins with revisioning the ‘mission of education’… when we have the right orientation we can learn our way to doing the right thing for the children. Unless we do, educational reform, will continue to be like rearranging the liter box and expecting a new kind of cat to jump out of it.

      What do you think? If this conversation seems to abstract, help me by sharing more about what specifically concerns you. I’d appreciate the opportunity to dialogue with you in any direction that interests you. If you see this differently help me understand how you see it. I’d really appreciate your thoughts.

      Thanks again and all the best,


      • Dick Jacobs April 9, 2012 at 6:33 am #

        Thank you. I look forward to our dialogue. I have come to these issues very indirectly. As I thought about “retiring” from my law practice [I will be 81 next month], I turned my focus to my true love, ecology/photography.

        I soon realized that our beliefs and attitudes clouded evidence and denied facts about our Gaia and what we should be doing about it. What followed was the further realization that beliefs and attitudes will not change absent revision in our education and learning approaches. Thus I “reorganized” my young blog into divisions, including “Thought” and “Learning.” The learning blogs are at .

        My growing understanding regarding the handicaps our belief systems have created for our education/learning systems compelled me, internally, to dig deeper and also to “do something” about the education/learning system. With that objective I have been accumulating ideas under the banner of “Young America“ to assist me in reflecting on the thought: What are we doing today that denies Young Americans their potential? From your perspective, this question might be reframed: “What are we doing as a society that blocks or distorts the “live learning” of Young America?

        • Learning-Activist April 9, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

          Thanks Dick. I appreciate your fresh lenses.

          ” the further realization that beliefs and attitudes will not change absent revision in our education and learning approaches”

          I so agree. My difference would be that the revision needed isn’t as much about our ‘approaches’ as it is about our purposes and intentions. What are we trying to bring forth in children? What are we trying to do for them? The trap is that we fall back into thinking that what we think they should learn is more important than how well they can learn. That can’t be true yet the whole system is organized as if it is. I think the revision we need is a revision in our explicit agreements about the purpose of education, in the mission of education. Yes we are handicapped by belief systems and I think what perpetuates virtually all our belief systems is our presumptuous assumption that what we have to teach is more important than how well they learn.

          “do something”

          That’s what we are talking about. Where do we focus our energy and attention where it has the most fulcrum like advantage in tipping the system towards becoming what will actually serve well the children and the future of us all. For me, right now, it’s about making the ‘case’, in a way that crosses disciplines, ideologies and parties, for ‘stewarding the health of our children’s learning. And yes, just like the health of our bodies is always ‘live’ – always about what is actually happening in the flow of now – so to is healthy learning.

          We are a society that in the name of educating children is doing wholesale harm to how well they learn. Not intentionally but nonetheless.

          Eventually, how well children learn will determine everything. We need a Copernican like inversion in how we think about education.


          • Dick Jacobs April 10, 2012 at 10:40 am #

            When I reference a change in our education and learning approach, I do include reconsideration of the purpose of teaching, whether it is to convey factual information that doesn’t contradict the status quo, and is soon forgotten; or whether it is to bring forth creativity, curiosity, and the skills important for problem-identification and problem solving, as well as life-long learning.

            I was raised during the depression in an anti-intellectual environment, in a small northern Wisconsin town known for its iron ore docks, and attended a high school that graduated 83 students. I remember in freshman science writing a short report on atoms, protons, electrons, & neutrons. Instead of encouraging curiosity, my science teacher criticized my writing a report on something I “couldn’t possibly know anything about.”

            I was reminded of this early experience by your article, “The Insidious Curriculum:”

            “Over the educational span which begins in Kindergarten and ends in the 8th grade, our educational system is converting millions of highly energized, curious, eager and alive children, into comparatively tired, disinterested, uneasy and curiosity dampened students. This appears to be true regardless of the socio-economic family context. What I am proposing is that while many complex issues play a part in this transformation, the major player is the “corridor” itself, the insidious curriculum.”

            At the University of Wisconsin [playing football was my initial objective], my worldview began to change and ultimately, after my undergraduate years, broadened, encouraging me in my mid-thirties to go to law school [with the welcome challenge of Socratic teaching], and further putting me on a path of lifelong learning. Thank goodness for the brain’s plasticity you discuss! And thank goodness for a couple of professors who took me under their wing at just the right time.

            I agree with your conclusion that we need a Copernican-like inversion about how we think about education.

            BUT …

            Our human ability to think Copernican is blocked by our propensity to accept only evidence supporting our underlying beliefs. Beliefs trump reality, particularly our spiritual beliefs, which I have touched on in several blogs, most recently, Galileo’s Moon,, where Galileo is quoted:

            “In this respect the pursuit of science seems to me to require particular courage. It is concerned with knowledge, achieved through doubt. Making knowledge about everything available for everybody, science strives to make skeptics of them all. Now the greater part of the population is kept permanently by their princes, landlords and priests in a nacreous haze of superstition and outmoded words, which obscure the machinations of these characters.”

            For me, the prime challenge is to figure out how to encourage each of us to open our minds to exciting, challenging, and precious revelations available to the “Inquiring Mind” in the face of the pressures of emotional, political, and spiritual beliefs that architect us to accept only facts that support pre-existing beliefs rather than reality.

          • Learning-Activist April 10, 2012 at 1:00 pm #

            Thank you Dick for your beautiful response.

            I love the Galileo quote. All the great scientists have realized something about learning that science as a community can’t seem to get (yet). Yes, beliefs trump reality and not just among the educationally less advantaged, in our most influential and supposedly scientific institutions. We live in a very learning-disabled society. If you haven’t seen it, I think you’d really appreciate the “Unscientific Learning: Paradigm Inertia” video (near the bottom of “Unhealthy Learning” and on it’s own page on YouTube. In this video Dr. William Glen, a Historian of Science and an “Editor-at-Large” of the Stanford University Press, discusses his research into how “how science learns in a crisis”. Science itself is learning disabled by its own kind of unhealthy learning. An even more important example of this ‘paradigm inertia’ is revealed in the ‘belief trumps learning’ biases exhibited by the heavyweights of ‘learning to read’ science.

            [youtube=]PARADIGM INERTIA

            Both the “Challenge of Change” and “Orientation and Caveats” discuss other dimensions of this inertia.

            We are tracking Dick. There is enormous inertia resisting change. The obstacle to any kind of real change is this inertia. But on what basis, how do we learn our way free of the unhealthy learning that is perpetuating this ‘belief trumps reality’ inertia. This takes us to your question:

            “the prime challenge is to figure out how to encourage each of us to open our minds to exciting, challenging, and precious revelations available to the “Inquiring Mind” in the face of the pressures of emotional, political, and spiritual beliefs that architect us to accept only facts that support pre-existing beliefs rather than reality”


            And, two points:

            1) we don’t have to encourage each of us to open our minds to exciting, challenging, and (the rest of your adjectives). WE COME THAT WAY. Have you ever met a healthy infant-toddler that wasn’t open in exactly the ways you are describing? We don’t have to learn to be that way WE NEED HELP IN LEARNING NOT TO BE THAT WAY. We are born learning oriented. We learn to distrust the inner compass of our innate learning. We learn to be disabled learners in the environments intended to be guiding and educating us. This continues generation and after generation because each adult generation thinks that what is has to teach is more important than how well the children learn. Our conversations about education are about ‘what and how to teach and measure’ – we are paying attention to the wrong attributes and arguing about how to get better at it. The machinery needs to be turned inside-out so as to use ‘how well children are learning’ as the ‘center reference’ instead of how well they measurably retain what we think they should be taught. I’d argue that such an inversion in orientation is actually the best possible way to be successful in teaching them what must be taught. We need to sync up and track with how well they are participating from the inside out in their learning – how healithly they are learning in general. By syncing up with them there we have the reference we need for differentially unfolding learning challenges in the most effective way.
            Cycle of Engagement Miraculous Intersections

            2) “beliefs trump reality”

            This points right at the central issue but the way the word ‘reality’ frames the issue misdirects us. “Reality” is too subjective. We all live in interrelated but profoundly different realities and we can’t help but form beliefs about them that are going to be very different and self-deceptively well defended. I think we change this by focusing instead on ‘beliefs trump learning’. Instead of arguing about our differing certainties, our conversation becomes agreeing on how to learn forward together. The wonderful thing about that is that while people can come up with all kinds of elaborate defenses for whatever they believe, its much harder to argue that one’s beliefs make learning irrelevant. Like I asked many scientists and policy makers: what’s more important than stewarding the health of our children’s learning? No one could trump it. Everything else is obviously presumptuous. Point being, which shall we trust:

            arguing about whose certainty is righter

            agreeing that learning is generally relevant to everything,
            knowledge is limited in relevance to particular things,

            because learning is implicate in everything, caring for (stewarding) the quality and health of our learning is the most efficient path possible to improving anything and everything

  2. Lynn April 9, 2012 at 8:08 am #

    I wholeheartedly agree. My son suffers from dyslexia, but I am a special education teacher and began intensive interventions (one/one) very early on. He is also extremely bright (so that coupled with my help ended up in the school not believing me), but he now (3rd grade)has above average reading achievement (terrible spelling though). The early and intensive intervention paid off!! I have since had him tested and sure enough he has significant visual processing deficits.

    My father however, did not get the same help and did not learn to read until he was 30. But let me tell you, when he did, he started with Henry David Thoreau. He decided he needed to be able to read to me and my brother and with my mother’s help achieved the seemingly impossible.


  1. Getting the Kids Ready for the Competition: A Matter of Leadership - - July 13, 2014

    […] for the Competition: Great Conversations and the 32,000,000 Missing Words, I had a dialogue with David Boulton of the Learning Stewards about the purpose of education, where he questioned and […]

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