Coding is the New Literacy of Power
In literacy studies, we say that literacy—that is, reading and writing printed text—is power. If you know how to read and write, you have more power in society than if you don’t. Literacy is the key to democratic voice: If you can’t read and write in our society, your voice, agency, and ability to communicate and enact your will within a democratic society is compromised.
We have created enormous industries and institutions based on this premise that literacy is a cornerstone to political voice within democracy: Schools teach kids to read and write. Tests measure whether kids can read and write. International comparisons are based on how well kids can read and write. Funding formulas for jails and prisons are based on literacy data. International organizations are created for the sole purpose of increasing literacy rates across nations. Billions of dollars are spent on creating, measuring, and responding to literacy (or illiteracy, as the case may be).
"Stop SOPA montage" image by Alden Hynes
In February of 2012, I realized that political power of literacy has shifted. I sat in the audience at WordCamp in Atlanta, a gathering of WordPress fans from beginners to experts, listening to a computer scientist talk about this. He said, “Don’t f—- with us, SOPA! We write the web. We make the internet. We can take it down.”
When SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) threatened to limit the open source, free nature of the internet here in the U.S., computer programmers came together to protest on January 18, 2012. Computer scientists in large and small tech firms and independent citizens blacked out websites everywhere. SOPA would have allowed copyright holders to demand that internet service providers and search engine companies shut down sites. Critics claimed that these laws would have censored the web, proposing new powers for the government and large corporations to effectively blacklist sites on a whim. Computer programmers spoke up. And they did it by coding all of those websites to be blacked out. Even people who knew how to read and write couldn’t protest in such a powerful way.
We see similar political power and protest enacted by computer scientists in the news these days. Like them or not, people like Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning have demonstrated their power and knowledge. Similarly, computer scientists have demonstrated economic power by creating the fastest growing industries such as online retail and data mining, as well as web-based industries that did not even exist a decade ago like online gaming and social media. Regardless of your stance, pro or con, you cannot deny the computer scientists behind these efforts are politically, economically, and socially powerful.
Teaching someone to be literate has always been a political act. Now, political power is not just derived from knowing how to read and write conventional text, however. One can read and write in networked ways using technologies and gain more power through that networked landscape. This ability to convene, communicate, and understand meaning within networked digital spaces is a new literacy. We can call it coding, but the technical aspects of encoding and decoding are the bare minimum. Coding is more than technical. It’s a powerful literacy that involves technical skill as well as design knowledge.
When the computer scientists blacked out the internet on January 18, 2012, they were exercising political power in a way that I could not (yet); however, educators—an enablers of political power—are responsible to teach this new literacy. The UK has taken this challenge on with the new 2014 National Curriculum. Will we take that step in the U.S.?
See my latest research presentation of a study of young children’s literacy learning at a children’s museum on SlideShare:
This is part of my “Testing Our Children” series about how testing influences school work (and the potential for visa versa). As one child put it, “It’s not all roses and lollipops!”.
My last two posts have focused on Blooms Taxonomy and its many iterations. Bloom’s taxonomy is a common way of thinking about learning objectives. I like Bloom’s because most educators have heard of it, so the taxonomy provides a common language for talking about a range of assignments.
I also like Blooms because it shows how current iterations of standardized testing falls short of assessing the broad range of cognitive abilities children develop, even with a “classic” interpretation of learning as mostly cognitive.
However, it’s important for us to remember what’s left out of Blooms when we consider how to to create classrooms as learning spaces. We need to remember that in addition to assignments and objectives, teachers consider children’s
Sometimes these are called “non-cogntiive skills” or “soft skills.” I think it’s better just to call these various dimensions of learning. Sure, cognition is important, but so are all of these dimensions. Very important indeed. And good.
These dimensions of learning lie at the heart of The Good Project hosted by Howard Gardener and colleagues. Their project looks for “good” meaningful work that institutions and people do. Interestingly, a lot of the research of the Good Project has focused on digital media and communication among learners. Digital media and the internet are changing perspectives about what it means to do “good”—who a good citizen is, what a good learner does, how a good communicator communicates, what a good learner makes. Standardized tests don’t even begin to assess digital practices in any meaningful way. They don’t measure how learners contribute to the “good” in our world.
Given that current standardized tests do not target the various Bloom’s objectives, the rest of this “good” stuff is even farther from targeted objectives in standardized tests. While Bloom’s taxonomy helps us to understand different approaches to instruction and assignments, it has limits when we consider a fuller understanding of “good” learning and teaching. Henry Levin, a Professor at Columbia’s Teachers College, wrote that if our society is really dedicated to good teaching and learning, then these “non-cognitive skills” are the most important skills for our future.
This is part of my “Testing Our Children” series about how testing influences school work (and the potential for visa versa). As one child put it, “It’s not all roses and lollipops!”.
Bloom’s taxonomy, and it’s current iterations, helps us to address a wide variety of objectives. If you haven’t read my last post about Bloom’s Taxonomy, please read that one first. Knowing about various objectives for learning will help educators and parents understand what separates good assignments from bad ones.
Here’s a list of sample assignments or questions that are representative of different objectives. You can compare your child’s or students’ assignments to this list to see how to address a variety of tasks:
(Note: I’ve included “question stems” here as well to help adults understand how to get discussion and dialogue going as we support children’s learning…)
Unfortunately, we do not have tests that can accurately measure all of these ways of knowing. We don’t have test-prep materials that do it either. In testing and test-prep, you’re usually dealing with factual knowledge, conceptual knowledge, and maybe—if you’re lucky—procedural knowledge. I have yet to see reliable tests of creativity, synthesis, evaluation, or meta-cognitive knowledge used in schools as a part of accountability or state testing mandates.
 Dalton, J. & Smith, D. (1986) “Extending Children’s Special Abilities – Strategies for primary classrooms” (pp. 36-7); cited on http://www.teachers.ash.org.au/researchskills/dalton.htm
This is part of my “Testing Our Children” series about how testing influences school work (and the potential for visa versa). As one child put it, “It’s not all roses and lollipops!”.
To understand what makes good schoolwork—beyond test prep—we need to do a quick lesson about how you could think about teaching and learning.
The story of Blooms Taxonomy is helpful to this conversation. It goes something like this:
Back in the 1950s, a little-known book was published with the title Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. The co-authors, including Benjamin Bloom, Max Englehart, Edward Furst, Walter Hill, and David Krathwohl, didn’t know at the time that they were starting a movement. Their framework, now called simply Bloom’s Taxonomy, is a central focus of many textbook writers and educators throughout the US and beyond. The nice thing about Bloom’s Taxonomy is that it is so well-known among teachers that you could go into practically any classroom and talk about it, and the teacher would (should!) know what you mean.
The original taxonomy organized objectives into six categories:
Since the 1950s, we have come up with more than a dozen alternatives to Bloom’s original taxonomy as a way to build upon it and extend it. But in the end, the original still holds sway. It’s a simple way to create a hierarchy of thinking (even though the original intent was to categories “objectives” rather than thinking).
Educators have added two important objectives to the original taxonomy: Creating and knowing oneself (also called meta-cognitive knowledge). Creating entails generating ideas, planning, and producing. Meta-cognitive knowledge is self-knowledge of what you know, what you need to know, and how you think. I think this one is most important because one of the biggest issues for learners is that they often don’t know that they don’t know.
Most recently, a group of educational researchers and teachers wrote a book that proposed a new framework for considering knowledge.  They organized their framework around:
So how do you tell a good assignment from bad ones? Well, now you know a few frameworks. As you look over the assignments, you want to see a variety of tasks laid out for your child. You don’t always want to see your kid getting work that asks him or her to repeat facts or find the details. That would be too much on the “Factual Knowledge” side of things. But you also don’t want work that always asks kids to talk about their self-knowledge—like “how did you feel about learning about division?” or “what strategies would you use to analyze this story?”
In essence, you’re looking for balance. As they’re currently constructed, standardized tests are not balanced across these objectives.
 Anderson, L. W. & Krathwohl, D. R. (Eds.) (2000). Taxonomy for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment. NY: Allyn & Bacon.
This is part of my “Testing Our Children” series about how testing influences school work (and the potential for visa versa). As one child put it, “It’s not all roses and lollipops!”
When my son started third grade, he came home on day one with a ton of worksheets.
“She’s just trying to get the kids into the flow of the day,” I told myself, “A little busy-work doesn’t hurt so long as it doesn’t last.”
But day two came, and sure enough, he produced more worksheets from his backpack.
Day three was a reprieve—no worksheets. “No worksheets, I see,” I said hopefully, “Did you all do something exciting today?”
“No,” he said. “We were just supposed to put the worksheets in our folders so they can come home on Thursday.”
I sighed. He was referring to the large manila envelope that comes home each Thursday with their weekly work stuffed inside.
As the first weeks of school went by, I collected all of the worksheets. By the end of the third week, I could barely grip the stack in one hand.
“This has got to stop,” I complained to my husband, “There is no reason for 9- and 10-year olds to be sitting there filling in worksheets all day!” My husband shrugged. By now, he’s gotten so used to my rants and—to be honest—I don’t think he knows what to do with me.
I decided to talk to my son’s teacher, thinking that maybe she might not realize that she’s been relying on worksheets so much lately.
I jumped to the heart of the matter. “My son has been in your class for three weeks and he’s brought home so many worksheets I can barely fit them in the drawer where I keep his school work.”
She told me that the class was going to study plants soon. She told me she and the class had even gone for a walk in the nearby woods to begin learning about the plants around them just that day. That all sounded great. But she didn’t promise to reduce the worksheets.
I knew I had approached her the wrong way—likely putting her on the defensive because of my anger. But I was still angry that she hadn’t made any changes in the next week—the worksheets still flowed in. So I contacted the principal.
A week later, I came to our meeting with the actual 4” stack of worksheets. After the usual introductions with the principal and the assistant principal in charge of curriculum, I got right to it. I’ve never seen this many worksheets come home. And the work is meaningless. Focusing on ‘what’s a verb,’ ‘what’s a noun,’—my kid knew that stuff when he was three. Why does he need to fill out a bunch of worksheets to prove he knows it now?”
“Well,” the assistant principal gathered herself upright, ready for a fight. “Third grade is an important grade for testing. And Ms. X likes to be sure that all the kids know what’s going to be on the test early on so she can focus on the other stuff later on in the school year. This will only last for a few more weeks, and then she’ll move on.”
My mind spun. My heart raced. I wanted to reach across the table and shake her—“Don’t you realize that these worksheets are such a waste of time and energy—not to mention paper and trees? Don’t you realize that you’re killing my son’s love of learning? Don’t you realize that you’re taking a kid who has only been on this earth for eight years and making him sit for hours and answer question after question by filling in dots? He will only have one chance at third grade and you are making it miserable!” I wanted to shout these words!
But the words that came out were, “I understand the pressures of third grade. And I understand that the school needs to ensure that kids pass the test. But I don’t think that these worksheets are a necessary or meaningful way to ensure that kids pass a test that will take place eight months from now.”
I went on to explain that studies demonstrate that test prep and pressure to pass tests do not help pass-rates, and they can hurt pass rates (not to mention children!). They teacher and administrators nodded agreeably, bemoaning the pressure they felt. But in the end, there were no promises to reduce the worksheets.
Notably, that teacher retired at the end of the year.
Not all worksheets are bad. But lots of them are. If I had it my way, I’d have my kids reading, writing, doing projects, and solving actual mathematical problems. The more closely the work of school mimics real-world activities, the better.
I wish I had studies and resources on the tip of my tongue then. So I’m laying it out now so that some other mother (or father—or some teacher for that matter) can say “no more!” No more meaningless worksheets! No more worksheets for the sake of test prep instead of real-life learning! No more busy work! Let kids LEARN!
FairTest.org is the biggest anti-testing group that I know of. They have information and track media about testing: http://www.fairtest.org/fact%20sheets
In my own research, the Civil Rights Project (formerly at Harvard, now at UCLA) also provided some rich research about how testing affects schooling. (An interesting side-note is that we so often consider testing as a measure of schools without considering how tests change schools—but ask any teacher…testing changes schools! And not always for the better!)http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/
Most recently, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution started looking at the tests themselves and questioned their validity and reliability: http://www.edweek.org/ew/index.html
There’s lots more. I have a stack of books on this in my office. Look for the following authors:
Jessica Zacher Pandya
My next few posts will be about testing in our schools. I’ve written about this in my own research (see cites below). But this blog is a more personal take on this topic. I am hoping to help teachers and parents navigate the dangerous waters of our test-crazed educational systems.
Full disclosure: I used to write standardized tests for the Texas State Dept. of Education under then Gov. Bush. I believed in the Standards movement of the 1980s and 90s. I believed that tests should assess learning of those Standards. The TX model went on to become the model for the national testing policy called No Child Left Behind.
I changed my mind about the value of standardized tests after learning about how current tests are developed, the statistics undergirding them, the caveats of psychometricians themselves (that’s what we call test-makers), and the real stories teachers told me about how testing had perverted their instruction. I have turned full circle. I’m not alone. Diane Ratvitch is perhaps the most outspoken and recognizable turn-coat (see her blog here: http://dianeravitch.com/).
Here are a few of my studies on testing:
Dooley, C. M. & Assaf, L. C. (2009a). Context Matters: Two teachers’ knowledge about Language Arts instruction in this high-stakes era. Journal of Literacy Research, 41(3), 354-391.
Dooley, C. M., & Assaf, L. C. (2009b). Compromising curricula: Inequity in literacy instruction. In M. Dyson & D. Weddle (Eds.), Our promise: Achieving educational equity for America’s children, pp. 567-580. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
Dooley, C. M. (2005). One teacher’s resistance to the pressures of test mentality. Language Arts, 82(3), 177-185.
Academic Redshirting. The Begin-dergarten Dilemma. Voluntary Retention. I’ve even seen the headline: “The Greying of Kindergarten.”
I often am asked this perennial question: Should I redshirt my kindergartener? The question was recently revisited by Daphna Bassok and Sean Reardon in their article titled, “‘Academic Redshirting’ in Kindergarten: Prevalence, Patterns, and Implications,” published in the Sept. 2013 issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(3), pp. 283-297). This post answers that perennial question based on Bassok and Reardon’s study as well as many more.
Redshirting is derived from collegiate sports—when a student athlete is enrolled in college and can acclimate to the academic rigor during year one without competing on a team. Then the student-athlete can play for four more years with both a physical and academic advantage over in-coming freshman from competing teams (NCAA guidelines allow only 4 years of collegiate play).
I’ll give it to you straight: In most circumstances, redshirting will not benefit your child. And in some cases, it could hurt your child.
Here’s the research:
When “redshirting” Kindergarten is talked about on 60 Minutes or the Today Show, the moderators usually present it as a middle- to upper-middle class phenomenon. School-district and the National Center for Educational Statistics data from the 1990s show that White males are most likely to be redshirted, regardless of their family’s income level.
Redshirting was touted in the 1970s and 80s as a way to allow a child (especially boys) to grow a little more physically and socially, providing a competitive advantage on sports teams as well as in the classroom.
Most recently, Bassok and Reardon’s study published in Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis suggests that redshirting may be more popular among upper-income families simply because of parents’ concerns that their child’s position in a class of kids. Also, lower income families may be more anxious to be relieved of the cost of childcare.
Jane Arnold Lincove and Gary Painter, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Southern California, inquired “does the age that children start Kindergarten matter?” They looked at eighth graders’ performance data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988. They compared three groups of kids: (a) kids who were “young” at the start of Kindergarten (just turned 5); (b) kids who were “old” at the start of Kindergarten (already 5 ½ or older); and (c) kids who were “redshirted” (at least 6 at entry). By controlling for other variables (such as family income levels, family size, gender, family structure, etc.), they matched “redshirted” kids to their peers. They found no differences in the academic success between “young” students and their “redshirted” peers when looking at 8th grade assessment results. And, contrary to what you might expect, the “young” students outperformed the “redshirted” group in their 10th grade assessments and were more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by age 26. The two groups were equally likely to drop-out of school and to attend college. Bassok and Reardon’s study also confirmed that kids who were redshirted do not show any academic advantages over their same-grade-peers.
Some parents might consider redshirting as a way to allow their children to mature, perhaps trying to avoid having their children retained in later grades. Lincove and Painter used their data to inquire whether redshirting is useful to prevent retention later on. They compared kids who were redshirted to kids who had been retained after Kindergarten. Keep in mind that these are kids who are the same age and in the same grade—just that one group started Kinder late and the other group got held back somewhere between grades 1 and 11. Lincove and Painter found that kids who were retained were more likely than their redshirted peers to drop out and slightly less likely to go to college. But kids who were retained had higher grades and higher earnings than their peers who were redshirted. They concluded that redshirting did not provide benefits that outweighed the potential harms.
Redshirting has varied in popularity over the years and across communities. This latest study, by Bassok and Reardon, suggests that 4-5.5% of children delay entry to school. A 1991 survey of state education administrators by Gnezda, Garduque, and Schultz estimated that anywhere from 10% to 50% of Kindergarteners were redshirted. One study that surveyed administrators in one Wisconsin school districts found the redshirt rate to be 94%! I really doubt that most districts have more than 50% of Kindergarteners redshirted. Lincove and Painter estimated the number to be closer to about 10%. But the fact that state-level administrators suggested such a high number was tells me that redshirting is a vastly popular alternative for some communities, although perhaps not as popular a practice. Communities can have vast differences in what’s accepted as “normal” with regard to entering ages for Kindergarten.
The age of Kindergarten entry has little effect on the academic and social success of a child by high school—Bassok and Reardon’s study confirmed this too. It is true that giving one extra year before starting kindergarten may give a kid a physical advantage through most of their K-12 years—I’m no sports expert, so I’ll leave that alone. However, giving the kid an extra year to “mature” may not give any academic or social advantages.
I think the bigger issue here—the reason so many parents even consider redshirting—is that Kindergarten has changed over the past couple decades. With the introduction of the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, under the leadership of President George W. Bush, and the introduction of the Common Core State Standards in 2012, under President Barack Obama, Kindergarten is viewed as the entry point to “college and career readiness.” Kindergarten classes are more conventionally academic than ever—requiring children to sit for longer periods, practice conventional academic skills more, and play less. When parents see Kindergarten classes changing, and then look at their five or six year old’s playful curiosity, they may wonder “is my child ready?” When more parents redshirt their kids, we see what has been called “the greying of Kindergarten.”
So if you’re wondering what’s worth fighting for, add this to your list: Kindergarten should be for five year olds! The kids will do better in the long run if we all agree to keep it that way. Otherwise the average age of kindergarteners will creep upward, and the natural diversity of the classroom will continue to get narrowed to meet standards of sameness. Play is relegated to shorter and shorter periods as Kindergarten schedules make way for formal academic learning. All of this happens even though we researchers know—and have plenty of studies to show—that play is the most effective catalyst for “academic” learning at this age.
 Zill, Loomis, & West (1997). National Household Education Survey 1992, 1995. Washington, D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics.
 For example, books like School Can Wait by Moore (1979) popularized theories that suggested that kids need to mature before entering Kindergarten.
 Bassok, D., & Reardon, S. F. (2013). “Academic redshirting” in kindergarten: Prevalence, patterns, and implications. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 35(3), 283-297.
 Lincove, J. A. & Painter, G. (2006). Does the age that children start Kindergarten matter? Evidence of long-term educational and social outcomes. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 28(2), 153-179.
 Graue, M. E., & DiPenna, J. (2000). Redshirting and early retention: Who gets the “gift of time” and what are its outcomes? American Educational Research Journal, 37, 509-534.
 Frey, N. (2005). Retention, social promotion, and academic redshirting: What do we know and need to know? Remedial and Special Education, 26(6), 332-346
 Bracey, G. W. (2000). A children’s garden no more. Phi Delta Kappan, 81, 712-13.
No. Babies aren’t smarter than babies were years ago. We adults are just stupider than our babies. At least our brains are stupider. Always have been.
Brain Development (or Your Baby’s Brain is Better than Yours)
Prior to age three, children’s brains are learning machines! There is some truth to the idea that a baby’s brain is doing more work than most adults’ brains. That time between birth and age three is considered a “critical period”—a time when the brain is primed to learn through social and emotional interactions.
Let me back up a bit and explain something about brains: You can imagine a brain to be like a bunch of nodes and links. The nodes are called neurons (or nerve cells) and the links are called synapses. The brain has different regions—each with specific functions. Each region has millions of neurons that send messages across the synapses. In most regions, no new neurons are formed after birth. So when we talk about critical periods for brain development, we’re talking the period in which synapses are grown—those important connections that allow for everything from speech, to eyesight, to feelings, to complex understandings.
So you might wonder, what’s a “critical period”? Well, there are some times when learning was more likely to occur than others. Put in brain-talk, critical periods are when certain synapses grow—and if time passes without them growing, well, they just won’t grow later. So, the thinking goes, if someone doesn’t learn what was needed during that critical time, then he or she might not ever learn it.
The idea of critical periods was just a hypothesis—a good guess—back in the mid-1900s. Low and behold, the “critical period” hypothesis was proven true in the late 1950s and 1960s by David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel, researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Hubel and Torsten set out to prove that the brain did indeed have critical periods during which the circuitry of neurons would be irreversibly constructed.
Hubel and Torsten wanted to prove that synaptic connections underwent critical periods. So the researchers worked with kittens during the start of their lives. (Kittens, rats, mice—they’re all used to demonstrate what happens in humans because their biology is so similar to ours). Hubel and Torsten deprived the kittens of eyesight by suturing one eye shut. At six months (when a kitten had grown into an adult cat), the researchers opened the cat’s eye. They found that the brain activity reacting to the eye that had been sutured was much lower than the eye that had been open. And when they looked ocular dominance columns in the eye (those are the stripes of neurons that seem to prefer input from one eye or the other), those for the open eye were much larger and for the shut eye were much smaller. Their feline discovery was the evidence needed to prove that brains had critical periods for development. And depriving a baby during that critical period would have lasting devastating effects on brain development.
Hubel and Torsten also demonstrated that being deprived of something during development—especially during critical periods—is much more catastrophic than being deprived as an adult. They compared the grown kittens to adult cats that had their eye sutured for a year in adulthood, but found no difference among the adult cats’ brains. While deprivation of eyesight in adult cats had minimal effects on visual cortex cells, even a week of eyesight deprivation during the kitten’s most sensitive period could have life-long disastrous effects. Those synapses never recovered—the connections were never made.
Enough about cats, already! What about human babies?
Like Hubel and Torsten’s famous kitties, human babies have critical periods for development. For humans, the time between birth to age three is so important. A baby’s brain will build over 1,000 trillion synapses—more than that baby will ever need as an adult—and more than any adult can even hope for.
Our human babies can suffer detrimental effects if they’re deprived of nurturing and love that is so important to this critical period for brain development. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Joan Luby from Washington University School of Medicine and her colleagues observed 93 sets of children and their parent (usually the mother) as they coped with a stressful task in a lab. The parents’ nurturing ability was rated by observers who knew nothing about the children beyond the lab video. Several years later, the researchers took an MRI image of the children’s brains. They found that the children who had very nurturing parents were more likely to have larger hippocampi (the part of the brain that helps with memory and spatial orientation; you have one on each side of your brain). The kids with average or non-nuturing parents had smaller hippocampi. This is important because having smaller hippocampi increases risks for things like post-tramatic stress, depression, and Alzheimer’s disease.
The hippocampus region of the brain is credited with helping us deal with stress and create memories from experiences. So finding that nurturing mothers (and fathers) can actually grow a brain—well—Wow! All you parents out there: Kudos to you. Put “Brain Grower” on your resume!
But parents don’t get off scott-free on this one. The nurturing effect is one of those critical periods. Nurturing has to happen in early childhood so that the brain—and the person it belongs to—can experience the benefits later in life.
Nurturing is the KEY to Learning in Babies!
Babies come with a basic need to be with caregivers. Babies are inherently interested in human faces. Their brains are alert to newness and sameness. They can recognize familiar faces as early within a few weeks of birth. Babies will follow familiar voices with their eyes even before they can move their necks. They will reach out to a familiar caregiver before they can even crawl. Plus, babies come with big heads and big eyes. And adults are drawn to—guess what?—big heads and big eyes. It’s a perfect match!
…and so the nurturing relationship is born… (Cue the music here).
We can think of baby’s learning as the result nurturing. Thus, learning encompasses a process of growing and pruning synapses and neural networks that are stimulated through relationships with caregivers. Put simply, through comfort and stimulation, babies’ brains get smarter.
Even before the first year of life, a baby’s brain already starting to become more efficient by taking in what’s useful and leaving the rest alone. For example, babies learn to distinguish more than 3000 sounds between birth to eight months—many more sounds than one language can even contain. Yet, after eight months, this ability begins to decline as the baby begins to take on the family’s language. Over the course of childhood, the brain will prune synapses down to only those that are most necessary. In essence, the brain uses a “use it or lose it” functionality to become more efficient.
So, you might ask, how do you ensure that your baby is “using it”? And, in case the reality TV cameras stop by, how might you show that you’re nurturing care giver? Some of the things a caregiver can do to build a baby’s brain between ages 0-3 include:
· Talk to the baby. Name things. Tell about your activities. Even when a baby isn’t talking back to you, that baby is listening and learning from your words.
· Observe the baby’s reactions and comment on them. Give your baby feedback and lay the language on to your baby’s actions and expressions—like, “oh, you like that, huh?” and “You are holding a cup. That’s a cup” and “I see. Yes. But please put down mommy’s wine. ”
· Make sure your baby gets proper nutrition needed to build healthy bodies (and brains!).
· Help your baby get good sleep. After age 1, nighttime sleep is especially important (more so than naps). So create a bedtime routine that is comforting and relaxing. And if your baby gets up in the night, don’t confuse entertainment with comforting—you can simply hold your baby or lie down next to him or her. There’s no need for videos, books, or any other stimulation. Boring is good in those wee hours.
· Care. Be caring. Be affectionate. Hug. Hold. Cuddle. Build a stable emotional attachment with your kid—that will help learning now and later.
· Use your words to describe your emotions and ask your baby to describe his or hers as soon as talking starts. Talking about feelings and emotions will not only help your kid deal with the world in healthy ways, but also help to build a way for your family to express love, anger, frustrations, and other emotions in ways that are healthier than hitting and shouting.
· Encourage exploration and curiosity. Ask questions like: What do you notice? Where do you want to go? What do you think of that? It doesn’t matter here if your baby isn’t answering the questions. The point is: You need to ask them. Answers might come later on.
What you do not need to do to help your baby learn:
· Buy lots of stuff to “stimulate” learning—like Bach for Babies or light-up-alphabet soup or special brain-building books. They won’t help.
· Put baby in front of TV, videos, or computer screens to “stimulate” learning. Won’t help. May hurt.
· Take “mommy- (and/or daddy-)-and-me classes in music/gymnastics/soccer/cooking/cheerleading/mountain climbing/you-name-it. These might be fun for the parent and the child, so I’m not knocking these classes. But you could simply interact with your kid at a park or library or restaurant or home and the kid would be just as happy. And you wouldn’t be nearly as broke.
Before age three, your kid is a learning machine, but these basics of learning are not necessarily “academic.” In other words, this important learning before age three has never been specifically linked to reading, mathematics, or musical knowledge later on. Child developmental psychologists consider ages 1-3 to be an essential time for brain development—but think of this time as laying the groundwork for later pathways of academic learning.
If you want to learn more about the period between zero and three, visit www.zerotothree.org
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 Bruer, J. T. (1999). The myth of the first three years: A new understanding of early brain development and lifelong learning. New York: Free Press.