I just picked up the special edition of Time Magazine titled, “The Science of Childhood”. I cannot recommend it enough and encourage all of you to pick up a copy right away. It is speaking to me on so many different levels: as a parent, as an educator, as an administrator and as a life-long learner. It starts from inside the mindset of an infant, going all the way up to the brain of a teenager. Our community at TFC work with and have children of all ages, so this strikes me as a piece that will probably speak to many of you as well.
The article that I am immediately struck by and drawn to is one by Alison Gopnik called “The Start of Thinking”. She talks about the evolution of childhood, and how there has been a revolution in the scientific understanding of babies and children. Biologists have found that human beings have a longer period of childhood than any other species, and that the result of this longer period of “immaturity” has a direct correlation with the human brain’s capacity of imagination and learning. The longer period of childhood for humans also has a direct correlation with the fact that humans have the largest brains with the greatest capacities. While children are typically viewed as “adults in training”, Alison argues that, in fact, it is children who are the experts in certain areas, and the adults who are in need of some training. The plasticity of a baby and child’s brain, in particular the distinctive capacity for change, is far greater than that of an adult. Childhood is a prime time for learning and imagination, in fact it is actually designed for it. I love Gopnik’s reference to children as the “R&D department of the human species” and the adults as “production and marketing”. She explains that it is children who think up the ideas and brainstorm, while the adults take a couple of them and make them come to life. She goes on to explain that the neural pathways of a baby’s brain are far more connected, while an adult’s brain begins to weed out some of the weaker pathways and only strengthen the ones that are used often. The most interesting part that I found was that most of these changes occur in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that most scientists believe controls the “rational” behaviors and the act of “inhibition”. This lack of prefrontal control is actually what allows children to remain open to all the possibilities of their imagination. It is what allows them to play and dream in the freest possible way.
The most glaring message I got from Alison’s article was that children are not in desperate need of developing skills (like an empty vessel to be filled), but are already experts in their own right. Childhood is something we all have in common, everyone has been through it. And yet how quickly we forget the anxiety of a first day of school, the frustration of not being able to communicate needs, the chaos of not knowing what is coming up next in the day and the pure joy of making a new discovery or being accepted by a new friend. At TFC, we always say that we are a community of learners. And to me this means that the teachers are as much learners as the children. In fact, it is the children that we are learning from every day. As adults, some things we could stand to learn from children include friendship without expectations, forgiveness with no grudges, boundless love, acceptance without hesitation, humor in the littlest things, an honest expression of emotions, a fearless confidence in who we are, or an imagination of possibilities with no limits. Have you ever said to yourself, “I just wish I could be a kid again, to see the world in that way.” How lucky are we that we get to do that every single day, to spend our day with children and view the world through their eyes. Even if just temporarily or in that moment, we get to imagine what that baby or that preschooler is imagining and try our hardest to be part of that world. To me this is what it means when we say we “nurture our community of inspired teacher-learners”. We see the children as more than capable, we see them as beings that we can learn from. We are all teachers, we are all learners, and we continue to inspire each other every single day.