The Science of Learning
Anyone who read the recent front page New York Times article by Alan Schwarz, “Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill,” (June 10, 2012) regarding the use of stimulants by teens to improve their test scores, has to be concerned about the well being of our youth and the factors which lead to such behavior. And to better understand the science behind our natural response to intense pressure and anxiety, one need go no further than an article in that same publication’s “Review” section by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiology professor at U.C.L.A., and writer Kathryn Bowers. Their piece, “Our Animal Natures,” examines human medicine as it relates to the animal kingdom.
While neither story deals directly with early childhood education, both contain core elements of human biology that provide insight into current early education practices and—even more compelling—how a generation of parents raise their children. Children can be encouraged to excel, even pressured, but not at such early ages that could lead to health problems, depression and even drug reliance.
Rooted in human evolution is a deep-seated pleasure principle, which is evident in the understanding of our relationship to stimulants such as drugs, food and sex. Many of the things we need to survive—food, water, shelter and procreation—are associated with pursuits from which we derive pleasure. Cognitive science tells us that habits are formed early in life and that the associations between pleasure and reward are wired in our DNA.
The use of drugs by humans and animals (the Natterson-Horowitz and Bowers article cites such chronic drug seeking behavior as “Bighorn sheep grind their teeth to the gums scraping hallucinogenic lichen off boulders in the Canadian Rockies; some Siberian reindeer seek out magic mushrooms…” changes the normal patterns of positive reinforcement. Such changes can lead both humans and animals to abandon the behaviors that lead to success in favor of a short-term fix or short cut.
Over the past 15 years, we’ve demanded more and more from children at an even earlier age. The pressure to study, learn and achieve in more organized and rigorous way is now infused in our culture by pre-school. This pressure places an inordinate and inappropriate stress on young children. As the demands for high achievement increase with age, teenagers look for an advantage—a short cut to—the success that is demanded of them.
The results have been evident for over a decade in terms of the use of drugs to enhance academic performance, many of which are addictive and all of which skew test results. Drugs, such as Adderall and Ritalin, and other drugs prescribed for ADHD are classified as Class 2 controlled substances—meaning they are extremely addictive. What is a savior for children with real behavioral disorders is a growing danger for others whose main goal is simply to excel in school.
Where does this leave us? We know that not all children develop at the same pace. We also know that placing undue pressure on a child seldom renders the results being sought. Raising our educational standards is important, but not swaddled in intense pressure that ignores the biology of how children learn. And not at the expense of their mental and physical well-being.
The more we fight our own biology and natural mechanisms for learning, the greater the fallout will be. Some children will push through and thrive; others will give up or turn inward. Some will turn to drugs in an attempt to meet the pressurized standards set by both parents and schools.
Creative play is the primary method of learning for young children, the natural way they engage with the world and make discoveries. Whether its roleplay, make-believe or engaging in creative arts such as drawing, dance or music, self-directed play provides an essential foundation upon which future learning and critical thought take place. As parents, we need to nurture our child’s natural curiosity, imagination and sense of discovery. We also need to instill in them the notion that they it is ok to sometimes fail, as that is a way to learn as well. More often than not, a scientific break-through, a new invention or a creative solution to an entrenched problem are a result of trial and error.
Pre-school and kindergarten used to be a time for play, a time to encourage a child’s natural curiosity, sense of adventure and wonder. Now children are spending more time at their desks, completing worksheets. Unfortunately, we are now seeing the results of abandoning such natural ways of learning and instead pushing children in ways contrary to their own biology. The price we will pay for such actions is very steep.
posted at 1:29pm on June 20, 2012