That has not proved easy to achieve for such consciences are not easily to be calmed. In popular wisdom, as well as in the polished words of the intellectuals, “Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught”, noted Oscar Wilde, echoing Albert Einstein who said “This delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to rack and ruin without fail.” These tensions are not easily resolved for children needing unconditional love, not simply institutional care – however good.
* * *
In the late 1990’s it seemed that cognitive science and neurobiology had become entwined in a turf war when John Bruer, a leading and influential cognitive scientists, accused educationalists of “building a bridge too far” in assigning so much credibility to neuroscience to advice on desirable learning strategies. With what they saw as scientific evidence on their side, advocates of the need to provide ever more support to the youngest children successfully pushed early years education up the political agenda. Despite the well-argued case made by Bruer, in his book, “The Myth of the First Three Years”, he was largely unsuccessful in persuading gullible policy makers that this was not the only important stage of brain development. What Bruer was not able to do 1997 was to show that the development of the adolescent brain was an integral part of an individual’s mental development for, only half a dozen years ago, adolescent behaviour was still being explained away in terms of “raging hormones.”
In their anxiety to get action on this issue advocates of early childhood education in English speaking countries (note that this is most certainly not the case in Europe) have seen fit to link the advantages of early years education to the immediate needs of a booming economy. “Given what we now know about the experiential and environmental determinants of health and human development, we must now meld this intelligence with knowledge of the determinants of economic growth…” stated the Canadian, Dr Frazer Mustard. It seems that the General Election likely to be fought in England in 2005 will focus on a play-off between Labour’s determination to provide institutional provision for all children below the age of five – and from early in the morning to late in the evening, while the Conservatives are set to offer paid maternity leave, and tax breaks for mothers to stay at home with their children.
Into this contentious issue what guide lines can a Synthesis of the research offer? At its simplest – yet most profound – level, the advice is simple. Every child is born perfectly equipped to survive under Stone Age conditions. Sue Gerhard, in her most influential book “Why Love Matters” (2004), seeks to show how affection shapes the baby’s brain by drawing on a wide range of recently published research. “Babies are like the raw material for a self. Each one comes with a genetic blueprint and a unique range of possibilities. There is a body programmed to develop in certain ways, but by no means (is it) on automatic programming. The baby is an interactive project, not a self-powered one. The baby human organism has various systems ready to go, but many more that are incomplete and will only develop in response to other human input.”
Gerhardt goes on to say “Some writers have called the baby an ‘external foetus’ and there is a sense in which the human baby is incomplete, needing to be programmed by adult humans. This makes evolutionary sense as it enables human culture to be passed on more effectively to the next generation.” In this way each baby can be customized and tailored to fit into the circumstances and surroundings in which he or she finds him or herself. A baby born to a Hadza mother would have different cultural needs to a baby born in London or Ottawa. All this the unfinished baby is able to handle, simply because of our extraordinary evolutionary history.
Within the baby’s brain there are many loosely connected neural systems, often overlapping with each other. “These systems communicate through their chemical and electrical signals to try to keep things going within a comfortable range of arousal, by adapting to constantly changing circumstances both internally and externally. But first”, Sue Gerhard writes, “the laws have to be established.” It’s rather like a new homeowner moving from room to room programming the thermostatic controls on each radiator to come on, and go off, at the correct ambient temperature.
Like the human baby the home heating system can’t initiate programmes itself but, once properly set, it will forever work within those established norms. Hence, in biological terms, is the critical significance of the synaptic changes of both the earliest years and of adolescence.
“The basic systems that manage emotions – the stress response-systems, the responsiveness of our neurotransmitters, the neuro pathways in which our implicit understanding of how intimate relationships work – none of these are in place at birth. Nor is the vital prefrontal cortex developed. All these systems will develop rapidly in the first two years of life… the path that is trodden in very early life tends to gather its own momentum, and the harder it is to retrace our footsteps.” Below the age of two or two and a half there is no real substitute for direct maternal (and some paternal) care. The situation however changes at about the age of two and a half when between ten or twelve hours of small group interaction becomes a positive advantage. That the most effective form of learning occurs through play is demonstrated, time and again, by projects such as the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, or the vastly influential Steiner schools with those affluent-enough to afford them,
External observation of performance provides corroborative endorsement; in the Kellogg Foundation research in the state of Michigan into the predictors of success at the age of eighteen it was found that factors outside the school were four times more important in predicting subsequent success than school achievements, while the single most significant factor was the quantity and quality of dialogue in the child’s home before the age of five. A further survey in 2001 of factors that could account for variations in individuals earning capacity found that slightly more than half the variability couldn’t be accounted for by school, or academic, qualifications. Social skills such as industriousness, delayed gratification, punctuality, perseverance, leadership and adaptability were found to be more significant predictors than I.Q. tests, or years of schooling.
Commenting on Gerald Edelman’s work on Neural Darwinism (for which he gained a Nobel prize) the American educational writer Robert Sylvester said (1995) “Edelman’s model of our brain as a rich, layered, messy, unplanned jungle eco system is especially intriguing, however, because it suggests that a jungle-like brain might thrive best in a jungle-like classroom that includes many sensory, cultural, and problem layers that are closely related to the real world environment in which we live – the environment that best stimulates the neuronetworks that are genetically tuned to it.” Most children don’t experience learning like that. They live in a world carefully programmed by parents and teachers to be safe and predictable. Having to think something out for themselves becomes a rarity.
This troubles Stanley Greenspan, a highly regarded child psychiatrist in the U.S. who wrote in 1996 on the endangered nature of intelligence; “The assumption that there will be enough reflective people to maintain a free society is not to be taken for granted… if emotional experience is in fact the basis for the mind’s growth, then the growing impersonality and family stress may well be threatening mental development in a significant number of individuals.”
Don’t simply blame the parents, argues Gerhardt, opening up the whole question of how cultural priorities shape the young brain; “Criticizing parents doesn’t improve their capacity to respond positively to their children… I believe the real source of many parenting difficulties is the separation of work and home, of public and private, which has had the result of isolating mothers in their homes without strong networks of adult support. Women therefore face the artificial choice of devoting themselves to their working lives, or to their babies, when the evidence is they want both.”