Kids, Language & Brains


Tools of the Mind: 1

The title above represents the expression Adele Diamond uses to name the skill-centered approach to children's education she favors along with many of her colleagues attuned to the latest research on children's learning. Interviewed by Krista Tippett in the August 07, 2014 On Being (, Dr. Diamond, a professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, focuses on executive function as an umbrella term to identify key skills children can learn and use to their advantage.  Central among them are inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility.  She argues that learning skills is more important than learning content because content is so easily forgotten and yet so easy to look up when needed.  Also more important than mere content are the desire to learn, the knowledge of how to find information when you need it, and how to problem solve and actually put the information to use.  Inhibitory control allows children to delay responding, to stay on task, and to focus despite distractions.  Working memory allows children to hold information in mind and play with it, letting it unfold over time and so tap into their creativity. Cognitive flexibility, also related to children's creativity, makes it possible for them to switch their way of thinking about something, also known as thinking outside the box. Mastering these skills naturally leads children to developing more sophisticated executive functions like planning and problem solving.  It's pretty clear from her perspective that the current focus on academic content--the obvious target of end-of-the-year testing--is out of step with what's really important in children's learning.


Testing, 1,2,3

Arguing "The Scores Will Not Tell You Everything," Parker J. Palmer in his On blog of 11/4/15 joins with all those eager to find a better way of evaluating children's achievement than the current, test-centered approach which seems to be doing more harm than good.  In this letter some elementary school principals share their views of our testing mania: We are concerned that these tests do not assess all of what it is that makes each of you unique.  The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you the way your teachers do....They do not know that many of you speak two languages.  They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school.  They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends.  They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best.  The scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything.  There are many ways of being smart.


How Language Shapes Children

In her recent On Being session with Krista Tippitt (Feb. 4, 2016) Jean Berko Gleason, Professor Emerita of the Dept. of Psychological and Brain science at Boston University, reminds us of the tragedy of the Romanian orphan babies who, while awaiting adoption, were provided with food and shelter but no systematic exposure to language.  Robbed of this vital verbal contact, their brains failed to develop.  She also spoke of children's natural resistance to adults' corrections of their evolving language choices.  From the outside, where adults tend to see only grammar errors that could easily be modified to conform to the "rules," children, bent on developing their own inner systems, ignore the adults' well-intended corrections to find their own path to accurate communication.  These examples bring to mind an anecdote shared by the mother of a very young and highly verbal child who stopped speaking altogether when she, her mom and dad relocated to Chicago from South America for dad's post-doctoral studies. Needless to say, as confident bilinguals, these parents were very concerned and even fearful they had done irreparable damage to their child by uprooting her from her native context.   But their concerns were soon dispelled when they witnessed their child moving easily from fluent English to fluent Spanish, English with her peers and teachers at school, Spanish with mom and dad at home.  She just needed some time to get things organized!


Speech, an Ancient Technology

In the World of TED episode on PBS's Open Mind telecast of 2/20/16, Chris Anderson, Curator of TED, compared speech to writing, calling the former a far older technology.  Disseminating ideas in print is routinely dated from the time of Gutenberg, but human speech, until the current era, has been far more limited in its reach.  No more.  With the advent of the internet, what took months for the lucky few to encounter first hand, is now accessible globally almost instantaneously. And for Anderson, there is no comparison between the power of the written word and the spoken word with its ability to trigger things in people's minds that writing alone rarely does.  He's even produced a book, TED Talks:  the Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, to help others learn how to maximize this connection. Anderson says with speech you begin to share the emotions of the speaker because of the tools you have at your disposal.  Listeners quickly and easily judge speakers' authenticity, become inspired, motivated. Insisting that the fact you can amplify this now across the planet is a really big deal, Anderson even predicts that with a hand-held smart device, every child on the planet will be able to summon the world's best teachers.  The picture of the future he sees as a result of such connections is quite hopeful.  Calling it something of a miracle that the tangled patterns of neurons can be transferred from a speaker's mind to a listener's in 18 minutes or less via the magic of language and careful explanation, Anderson sees the potential of such efforts as a means of helping people make a contribution to the world rather than be mere consumers. The key is having an idea worth sharing.