New brain research discoveries: Keynote address by Dr. Jeremy Williams

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), famous American abolitionist, orator, author, statesman and social reformer, famously declared: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Douglass no doubt, made this comment on the basis of personal experience and his observations of the impact of slavery on US society during the 1800s.

Intuitively, one expects a grown adult to be influenced by her experiences as a child. What we know now — and didn’t know until recently — is that there is substantial scientific evidence to corroborate our inklings and instincts.

Huge strides have been made in recent times in the field of neuroscience research that demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the first few years of life can influence the career paths and life chances of adults. The significance of these findings for shaping public policy cannot be overstated, and it is these new discoveries in brain and neuroscience research that have prompted this paper.

Unfortunately, educators, policy makers and public servants around the world don’t seem aware of latest brain research studies and their momentous implications. Quite clearly, not nearly enough is being done to elevate the importance of early childhood education professionals. High quality ECE teacher education is in short supply and if resources could be mobilised to address this shortcoming, the transformative effect on societies worldwide would be huge.

The media attention given to advances in computer and genetic sciences in recent times is encouraging. Now, slowly but surely, the front pages of mainstream magazines and period-icals are beginning to acknowledge the extraordinary discoveries being made about the human brain, which has served the useful purpose of stimulating interest in brain research.

We now know, for example, that brain development happens prenatally and during the first year of life and is much more rapid than previously believed. We also know that brain development is much more vulnerable to environ-mental influences than previously suspected and that the impact of the environment on early brain development is long lasting. Further, the latest research indicates that an infant’s environment affects not only the number of brain cells and number of connections among them, but also the way these connections are ‘wired’. Thus, stimulated appropriately in early childhood, brain development will translate into intellectual development. Conversely, a stressful environment in the early years will impact brain development negatively.

A widely held but erroneous belief is that at birth, the brain is fully developed like the heart or stomach. The reality is that while most of the brain’s cells are formed before birth, the connections among cells are made during infancy and early childhood. Thus, while most people believe that a toddler’s brain is less active than the brain of a college student, the reverse is true. Indeed, the brain of a three-year-old is twice as active as an adult’s brain, doubling in size in the first year and reaching 80 percent of its adult volume by age three.

An important ramification of this information is that talking to an infant is critical for his brain development. Not talking to babies in the belief they can’t understand is a grave mistake, because early verbal interaction is vital in building the foundations for language development at a time when learning is easiest for a child. Indeed, we learn more between the ages zero to three than in any other period of our lives.

According to Patricia Kuhl and Andrew Meltzoff, professors at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, a child’s whole emotional and social development is contingent upon critical interaction with a responsive adult or set of adults. And just like it isn’t a good idea to construct a house without first carefully building its foundation, building the emotional and social foundations of children is a vital prerequisite of effective cognitive development.

So what are the essential characteristics of effective early childhood education? What needs to be done to ensure that young children get the best possible start in life?

According to Prof. Hirokazu Yoshikawa of the Harvard School of Education, the formula is quite simple, as children don’t require any special help or educational toys to develop their brainpower. Instead, they need loving care and new experiences, including talking, singing, playing and reading, all of which contribute to brain development. “It all boils down to relationships,” says Yoshikawa. This is why a responsive adult or set of adults is so critical, specifically if socio-economic circumstances deprive children of formal preschooling.

Economics Nobel laureate Prof. James Heckman has long been a proponent of public investment in ECE. In his research he has shown that the return on investment to society of a dollar invested in ECE is higher than equal investment in K-12 and tertiary education (and also the US stock market!) because it reduces juvenile delinquency and criminal activity, while increasing the prospects of improved scores in standardised tests and productive, high-income careers.

All these factors support the case for high quality ECE teacher education to bring about transformative change in societies. It’s in the public interest to raise the status and profiles of ECE professionals, and to incentivise graduates to enroll in ECE teacher programmes.

In the words of Prof. Heckman, “skills beget skills”. If we upgrade the professionalism of individuals who educate our youngest citizens, we upgrade society as a whole.

(Dr. Jeremy Williams is chief academic officer of the Asian International College & Knowledge Universe)