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:
MEANINGFUL DIFFERENCES IN THE EVERDAY
EXPERIENCE OF YOUNG AMERICAN CHILDREN
Differences in early language learning widen the ‘language gap’ that exacerbates the challenge of learning to read.
THE LANGUAGE GAP
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 a new vision of it’s central purpose.
PLEASE… We can’t sustain our efforts without your help. If you think we are on the right track, or even one that should be given consideration, please help us. Please forward our posts as widely as you can. Please contribute whatever you can, $5, $10… whatever you can (see “Donation” button in sidebar). Arrange for us to work with your school or organization. Your help can make a big difference in whether our work succeeds. Thank you.