I often think about how a baby’s brain is fully driven by learning, not development as we once thought. Brain research has given us insights that we could only surmise and guess at 30 or more years ago. And the research shows this baby’s learning can only be realised through relationship with a dyad, an incredibly strong relationship with a main adult, where a dance partnership unfolds. The very beginnings of conversation, of respect and mutual trust happen here through skin to skin contact and eye to eye connection – and love ensues. The adult and baby listen to each other’s voice, their emotions, their heart beats and the biggest learning leap that will ever happen in a person’s life, in the space of one year, unfolds. The brain map begins its relentless drive for connection, for understanding, for knowledge. So too does the notion of developing working theories which ever after we constantly review, adapt, rethink, modify, query, firm up and then reconsider. The process in fact is like that of a scientist researcher as Alison Gopnik describes babies’ brain processes in her book The Philosophical Baby.
Now fast forward a few years and where is that brain? I think we might need to take a big breath here because we all know deep in our own emotional brains/hearts that many things have happened on the way to being around 5 or 6. Many good things and many less than ideal connections with adults who have enormous power in the shaping of those brains. Babies, toddlers (who I have to say are the most relentless researchers ever!!) and young children negotiate a world that they are just beginning to understand, sadly sometimes with adults who have forgotten about wonder and awe. That has to be tragic. Imagine being in an early learning setting for example, where institutionalising babies is disguised as routines and rosters and the uniqueness of those unfolding lives is sublimated inside expectations for the group. Ratios are often the root cause for this and adults who actually like order and orderliness. Oh, heading into deficit feels uncomfortable, so let’s think about the fabulous side of being connected to adults who care deeply for those babies. A baby cries, there is a listening adult who responds to the cue within seconds and the baby learns that this world is a place that cares. A growing child has ideas and plans, that perhaps they can’t as yet articulate verbally but deep inside, they are driven to experiment, pursue with depth and personal investment and find answers. Adults who enable this to happen, nurture learning intensity, offer curious environments, time and space and help to shape those brains in ways that communities long term; the world long term, celebrates as innovative, creative, hard working, diligent, socially ethical learners (how long could that list be?) who contribute to their communities and beyond. And yet we can see these characteristics, those we generally call curiosity, creativity, determination and persistence, as two edged swords because when a child is relentlessly pursuing an idea and an adult is trying to corral them, limit this exploration in some way – well good luck with that!
Much of this learning happens inside a social world where learning to work with and alongside others is a growing ability. Adults who understand this, work in partnership with children, modelling prosocial behaviour, rather than offering bribes, rewards or punishments to modify behaviour. Barbara Coloroso (Her book ‘Kids are Worth It) thinks of rewards, punishments and bribes as the same thing, all limiting the notion of intrinsically doing something because it is the right, fair, reasonable, family thing to do. Nathan Mikaere -Wallis has talked at length about growing learners and fabulously so.
What 3 to 7 year olds need to learn – Nathan Mikaere-Wallis
Radio New Zealand Nine to Noon will take you into these talks and I promise, you will keep looking for more because they are engaging, funny, and make so much sense. Of course we ought to create the thinker, not the skilled rote learner who can parrot 1 to 100 and then feel inadequate when asked “and what comes next?” Instead, consider the learner who gives things a go, will take some thoughtful risks building on past learning, asks for help, gets on with his mates and relishes the tricky hard things that take you out of your comfort zone yet feel so satisfying. Learning to learn in essence. And then these learners are at school! What happens next? Parents, early childhood teachers, primary school teachers – we’re all in this together because children’s learning should never be about what we’ve always done, how we were brought up, what the tests say we ought to be teaching. Surely, we ought to use research and theory to think about possibilities. What do modern learning environments at their very best look like? What are the Principles of Te Whāriki and the Key Competencies in the New Zealand Curriculum offering us? Enjoy the attached Learning Story and decide.
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