Monday, July 15, 2013

Early Education and Educators

Ever tried learning a new language in adulthood ? Yes, I tried learning French when I was in college along with a bunch of my wing-mates. Despite the brilliant teacher, after only one month into it all of us discontinued the course. However, it is not that people do not learn new languages but amongst the perseverant ones who do, every single one of them would vouch how difficult it is to master or even learn them.

Why is this so ?

Language is a phonological system of complex communication which involves a combination of auditory, visual and tactile stimuli to learn, comprehend and correspond. It has a set of never ending rules, signs, symbols which defines this system. Learning such a complex system requires lots of efforts, large portions of brains and of course, a good teacher. Notwithstanding how well the course is designed, structured, paced, enforced - even the brightest of the minds still find it very challenging to learn.

However, ever wondered how did we learn our mother tongue when we were a 'mere' infant or a toddler. Was there any dedicated tutor hired who delivered structured instructions with a set of chapters, assignments and tests using power-point presentations ? Come to think of it, we didn't even know to read then, did we ? We couldn't even ask questions to clarify our doubts.Yet, we gathered grammar, structure, every nuances of the language seemingly without any effort. What's more, if there is a multilingual environment around, children learn even those languages.

Doesn't this sound some sort of a paradox that something which is so difficult to learn at an age of wisdom even after training is so easy to acquire at an oh-she-is-just-a-kid age that too without any formal training ? It is in fact no paradox - it is rather a case of wrong assumptions.

The first assumption is about the learning capacity of a child. Human lives are bound with lots of age-old beliefs and traditions many of which are not logical and whenever we do attribute a logic to them, we usually attach it to an unrelated phenomenon. We believe that since an infant/toddler cannot speak, sit or walk properly, therefore physically undeveloped then even her mental faculties must be at similar rudimentary level. So as we do not burden the child with things like carrying weight, we also exempt the child from the burden of knowledge & learning and with this statement comes the second wrongful assumption.

Is it really true that a child's learning is not happening ? A child's learning is continuously happening through the environment around her and we, unwittingly, are the biggest influence to that environment. The languages which children learn to understand and later speak is from us parents and other people around them. My son picked his Hindi from us while his Marathi from neighbourhood and school kids. And the fact that no one sits with them giving formal lessons and yet they learn several languages with ease significantly shows that even though these little ones may not be physically developed, their mental capacity to learn is are far superior than when they are adults.

This brings an opportunity to ponder about what would happen if parents took effort to teach language to young children in a planned manner contrary to what happens now. My next post will talk more about this thought and it will also lay rest to the case that the parents are the most important teachers of a child and their proactive involvement right from the infancy may chart a different course altogether for their kids.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Intelligence May Not Be Inherited, But Dumbness Can Certainly Be

A few years ago, Discovery Channel was running a month long series called Understanding the Brain which also talked about effect of environment on brain development. Whole series itself was quite informative but there was one particular documentary which impressed me the most.    

They talked about a slum in Louisiana, USA with predominantly Afro-American population. The area was infested with poverty, illiteracy, unemployment and crime. Children born there grew up in the same environment, hardly attended any school and became an extension of their parents. This vicious circle of poverty->illiteracy->unemployment->crime->poverty had continued for generations till about thirty years ago a group of educationists together with US government decided to do something very drastic about it.

They believed that the kids there were growing up to become what they were because of the environment around them and if somehow, they were able to get an environment which could stimulate their intellectual development - their lives would change forever.  

They started a program where they decided to take in kids as young as 2.5 years who belonged to this impoverished community. These kids were to be taken away from their home in a separate facility where they would stay, learn, think, play and do various engaging activities both individually and as a group. Initially, parents were reluctant but pretty soon that facility had at least one little kid from each of the family there.

As the programme began, educationists and scientists started observing children's behaviour and response. Initially, most of these children were either very aggressive or loners. Over the period of time, when scars and memories of abusive, neglected households were replaced with that of love and care, children normalized. They became happy, playful and chirpy like other toddlers typical of their age.

The group's average IQ was 60 to begin with which in just one year climbed to 80 and by the time they turned 10, every kid had an IQ upwards of 120. Later when these kids got admitted to community schools, many of them were judged "brighter" or "smarter" than the rest of the lot and their performance always remained exemplary for the rest of their academic lives. Many of the them went on to become scientists, lawyers, doctors, engineers, and some of them teachers themselves.

The episode featured interviews of those grown-ups who were beneficiary of this unique programme talking about their experiences in schools and workplace where they derived great respect for their achievements. They also showed interviews of co-workers, classmates talking about these achievers - how all these individuals were highly regarded for their performance and behaviour.

Years later, this programme was abandoned in that area because it was no more required. A group of enthusiastic, fastidious group of educationists and scientists were able to break the vicious circle forever which had trapped that community.

This effort has clearly shown that the right kind of involved and stimulating environment can set kids on the path of intellectual development whereas if they had still relied on genes, people would have continued to rot in hell over there.

Genius are not born, they are made, and made early.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Art of Teaching

About an year and a half ago, I was attending my child's annual day at his school with a friend whose son too attended the same school. They were showing a presentation listing out English Literature books they intended to introduce in primary grades. I was impressed to see the likes of R K Laxman, Roald Dahl, and Ruskin Bond in primary section itself and commented something about it to my friend. Surprisingly, he asked me whether the school will take care of everything about the studies or we parents would have to step-in as well.

The other common remark one would keep hearing during regular dinner table discussions is about some xyz child being "very gifted" and how intelligence is genetic implying hereby it is as readily bequeathed from parents to children as is our jaw-line.  

As much I was disappointed by the ignorance of my friend about the role of parents in a child's education, I am equally saddened by the "gifted" argument which in a way silences any investigation as to why a child might be showing the evidence of intelligence which we have typically attributed  either to the quirk of fate or to the line of succession.

I don't blame them - even I was the part of this school of thought like the rest of the planet but luckily for me, I stopped being ignorant as soon as I became a father.

This blog intends to play the role of a myth buster about several misconceptions which we have harboured about the learning potential of kids. It will also provide some insight on how a proactive parental involvement in upbringing can change the course of life of our kids. And most importantly, it will lay out a structure, resources, ideas for teaching which parents can readily use with their children.