This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
2003 First Paper
America has many programs for graduating students that are involved with education and children. While any college student can appreciate education, I suspect that few understand the importance of early childhood development. Having committed to apply for a position in Teach for America, I want to better understand why it is so important to "get 'em while they're young."
In 2001, the US Department of Education, Academy of the Sciences, and the Foundation for Child Development conducted a study on early childhood development. Several interesting, scientific ideas and trends on childhood development emerged from the study. The questions surrounding this research were: how important is the early life of a child? What early years are most important? Why are later years not more important? In order to better plan education policy, discussing these questions is necessary.
The portion of the study I find most convincing is that regarding neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity, is the brain's ability to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences. (1) Simply put, every day we experience and learn new things. In order to incorporate this new information into our brains, the brain must reorganize the way it processes that information. Thus, as we learn things, the brain changes.
Neuroplasticity is important because, while it continues throughout the life of every individual, it is closely linked to the rate of brain development/growth. During rapid periods of brain growth, synaptic pruning occurs. Synaptic pruning is the elimination of synapses in the brain that are weaker facilitating growth of a stronger, more efficient brain. (2)As the brain grows, starting with a newborn, its neurons will develop synapses, which link neurons to neurons and transmit information through one another. At first this growth is uninhibited. However, as the infant reaches toddler age, the brain begins to eliminate some synapses between neurons in order to help the brain transmit information more efficiently. The synapses and neurons that were activated most during growth are the ones that will be preserved. This process helps to create a brain better equipped to absorb knowledge. (1) To optimize synaptic pruning, some studies show that "a specific learning process" may help the brain form itself into a more useful tool. (2)
The Eagar to Learn study found five criteria that are based on neuroplasticity. The first, attention, stresses the need to hone the development of this skill during the first five years of life- the years with the most rapid brain growth. Second, priming, or the acquisition of knowledge through sight and sound, may reshape the synapses of the brain based on stimulus. Practice, the fourth criterion, also uses neuroplasticity to absorb knowledge into the brain. The fourth and fifth criteria are related to language. Learning and rule learning both demonstrate that the sooner these elements of education are specified and controlled, the more likely the brain will have a better synaptic pruning process. In other words, the more weak synapses will be eliminated. Eagar to Learn reports that once English orthography, a component of rule learning, is set in the brain, the brain may become "strongly resistant to change." (3)
Based on these criteria, in combination with the understanding of the process of neuroplasticity and synaptic pruning, several observations may be made. First, we understand that the greatest amount of synaptic pruning occurs during the most rapid period of growth for the brain, or during the earliest years of a child's life. Second, when "a specific learning process" is provided for a child, the more successful synaptic pruning becomes. Thus, we may conclude that in order to prepare the brain of a child for the most proper education, it is best to develop programs that educate children during the earliest years of life.
This conclusion has been acknowledged in education policy. President Bush, in his education campaign No Child Left Behind, has acknowledged the importance of early childhood cognitive development. (4)Additionally, his criteria for reading education and tutoring focus on many of the criteria presented by the Eager to Learn foundation. Judging from these studies, my observations, I feel that one may confidently conclude that addressing education of children while they are youngest is most beneficial not only for their education, but also for the physical development of their brains. This information is useful in many fields of study- the sciences, sociology, political science, law, etc. Neurosciences still have much to develop on early childhood cognitive development. However, presently, the information seems to facilitate the creation of a proper education for young children.
1)Neuroscience Consultant, Prepared by Erin Hoiland
2)Synaptic Pruning in Development, Online Version of a Text
3)Eager To Learn , Study, Online Version of Text
4)US Department of Education , President Bush's Initiatives
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