The Big IdeaThe message of the Early Years is that we are most capable of learning until the age of 6. Underpinning this message is the idea of "plasticity". This is not news. What might become news is if we find out what to do with this knowledge.
For the problem is that we have not known what to do about this knowledge. We have not known how to move from concept to action? Until now.
We believe that the research has now come together to provide us with a clear direction and a clear focus. If we focus on the acquisition of vocab by the age of 2 and its drivers the amount and quality of conversation and the amount and timing of touch we believe that we will have resolved the gigantic complexity of the early years into a field narrow enough yet powerful enough to get movement. This series of articles will explore this proposition and link the separate areas of research into a coherent and self supporting whole.
The trajectory of vocab
Our brains and our world view are open to many choices at birth but by 3 many of the alternatives and the trajectory for our future development is largely set. By the age of 2 the size of our vocabulary will indicate how we will be able to learn all the way through school.
This slide shows us a dramatic picture. Vocab is a powerful and measurable predictive factor. If we measure an infant's ability to understand vocabulary at 2 we can get a strong sense of the development trajectory for life. Much of the research now informs us that by 4 the vocab trajectory is largely set. Infants with a vocab of 150 or less will normally develop on a very shallow trajectory reaching by grade 10 an ability of grade 5. At the other end of the scale, infants with a vocab of 300 words will be on track for an exponential trajectory leading to a vocab of a 2nd year university student in grade 10.
This revelation about the predictive power of vocab attainment raises the issue of the idea of Trajectories and when they are able to be influenced. Chaos theory tells us that "Initial Conditions" are the most powerful element in how systems unfold. It is likely that vocab attainment in the Early Years represents the measure of the Initial Conditions of human development.
The impact of this ideaThis insight has huge implications for how we as a society consider our current investment in the education system that begins age 6. We have enormous faith in schools - after all we all went to them and they have become the centrepiece of how we "see" education. But as we begin to understand the idea of trajectories for learning and for behaviour School Readiness takes on a new importance. Why is this so important? Because we are finding it very difficult to alter trajectories in school once they are set. US data suggest that even the application of extraordinary resources in school cannot change the shape of the development curve. The main work has to be done before our children arrive in school.
So we have quite a shock. We have thought that our schools were going to be the key to our children's future and we find that it is our job as parents.
Our development in the Early Years is not only confined to our ability to learn. Our world view is set then as well which sets up our norms for behaviour and the boundaries for our coping skills. Consequently, many of the drivers for our future health, such as the capacity of our immune system, are also laid down in this period as well. By 4 we will have acquired life-long eating preferences that will be hard to change throughout life. By 4 our athletic skills and our desire to take exercise will largely be set.
So we are beginning to understand that the Early Years encompass issues that extend beyond literacy to include obesity and activity: in fact for a health trajectory for life as well. As with schools, we currently pour most of our society's resources into a healthcare system that does its best to fix an ever expanding litany of chronic disease such as type 2 diabetes, complications from inactivity and poor diet etc. Many of our addictive behaviours such as smoking are also strongly influenced by world view and family culture. It is clear that the trajectory for much of the chronic illness we suffer from today is set in the Early Years. Fixing poor life time habits is an exceptionally challenging job for both the individual and for the healthcare system. The only time that we are plastic enough to set habits is when we are very young.
This is the responsibility of really understanding the meaning the Early Years. Our core experiences as humans that set up these trajectories occur inside the culture of our immediate family.
It's all about culture and how and when we transmit itHumans are cultural beings. All other animals use biology to adjust to shifting environments. Humans use culture. While humans are enormously en-cultured by their larger society, we are set up as individuals on a cultural path by the powerful interactions within the culture of of family when we are infants. So the best time to intervene is very early and the best people to make the difference are parents
This is scary news for parents. Scary because, until now, we did not know how powerful our interaction with our children would be. Scary because we thought that it was school that was going to make the big difference in learning. Scary because we thought that our doctor was going to keep us well. Scary because we don't know how to respond to this challenge. We thought that if we kept our children clean and safe and taught them how to behave that would be enough - society would teach our children and keep them well.
In this context, what then do we have to know as parents to best prepare our children in the first 4 years of life? What might be the 1-3 simple things a parent could do that would help the most? It surely cannot be the 100 things. These things must be simple as well.
If we can find out what are the 1-3 things that would make a large difference in how parents interacted with their children, how could society itself get behind parents to help in this work? Then what practical things could policy makers consider when seeking to improve overall societal development outcomes? And finally what could researchers focus on that would enable them to see if what we were all doing would be worthwhile?
The social and economic context for this workHow important is it to find these answers anyway? Maybe it is just a few poor Canadians that have the problem? Regretfully not. We now know that the largest group of Canadians whose children are having development problems are middle class.
The chart shows the relationship between understanding vocab and income. We see that there are many children from poor families that are doing well and that the majority of children that are not doing well come from middle class income brackets. The "bottom line" in the slide is that fact that poor development is not confined to welfare mums. We are all involved. Wilms' great insight which is supported by Hart and Risley is that family culture is the egg and family income is the chicken. It is the behaviour and attitude of the parents that en-cultures the infant and sets the infant up on a series of trajectories.
The stakes are high and time is short. In particular for Atlantic Canada where we do not have the benefit of high immigration rates and high birth rates. On PEI 42% of adults can only read at a level 3. 17% of Islanders cannot read. Consequently most Islanders cannot participate in the complexity of the modern economy. PEI and most of Atlantic Canada do not have enough high quality human capital to solve our social and economic problems.
PEI's future, in fact the future of Atlantic Canada is irrevocably linked to our being able to raise most of our children so that they have the best potential to learn and to cope. Finding ways to improve the developmental outcomes of all our children is therefore a strategic necessity. We have a generation to shift these challenging numbers or we risk missing the chance of being viable in the 21st century
Is there hope? Do we know what might be the 1-3 things that parents could know and act upon that would make a difference. The answers to these questions are yes and yes
To be continued in the "Keys to the Kingdom"
And then in Building the NetworkTBA