It all Begins at Zero

aileenpostIf you closed your eyes for just a moment, what childhood memory would come to mind? It might be tied to a person or maybe to an event. Researchers describe a memory as our brain’s ability to reconstruct a whole from fragments. Memories are much more powerful than we realize. Researchers studying the brain are discovering that while we may not even consciously remember something, our bodies will.

There has never been a time like now to learn about how we learn. Technology is empowering advances in brain research like never before. Much of the focus of this research is on the very early years of life. It is during this period that a young child’s brain is developing at an exponential rate, with brain synapses that are firing 700 times a second. These synapses represent connections that are being made constantly, beginning at birth, and this high rate will continue for approximately 2000 days.

Connections that are used less go through a process of pruning, in which the connections wither. The circuitry that is being laid inside a child’s brain is the foundation for the rest of her life. Once it is built or left unbuilt, it cannot be undone. Dr. Shonkoff, the Director of Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, describes the most beneficial interactions of these early years as “serve and return” experiences. These experiences are more likely to occur when an adult is present, where things like imitation, talk, or motor activities are fueling the child’s attention. The more opportunities young children have in these stimulating and responsive moments, the stronger their foundation for early learning.

Such facts leave me awestruck, not just because I was a teacher, but also because I am a mother to three young daughters. Since they were born I have dedicated myself to ensuring that they have powerful and deep learning experiences. My expectations seemed high, but I was ignorant to just how great their potential really is.

The past 20 years of my career were focused on K-12 math education. This past June I had the privilege of joining The AIMS Center as a Research Associate on the Early Math team. In a way I feel like I am beginning at zero, but I am excited about what I am learning and passionate to be a part of seeing the AIMS Center fulfill their vision. In the next few weeks we will begin working at preschool sites, replicating research studies in order to more deeply understand and recognize important traits of how young children learn math. As we do this we will continue to study applicable research and I will continue to take ideas home to my personal child lab. You are invited to join the journey through this blog. Now that you know it all begins at zero, what will you do different or continue to do? Feel free to comment and share your own experiences as a teacher, parent, educator, and more.

15 Responses to It all Begins at Zero

  1. “Rocket science” of this century is an exciting framing of this subject matter! Thanks for this post and conversation.
    “…what will you do different or continue to do…”: I talk out loud to myself, passing on the habit of verbalizing ideas and assuming my voice is welcome (generally); our child mirrors back to us the importance of this habit. Overall, our child’s adoption of this habit results in his diverse vocabulary and expression of emotions (which are extremely practical and kind or cute).

  2. I, too, am surprised and concerned about early math after reading and discussing the research. I find myself encouraging family to count with their little ones…at every opportunity and quoting the, “early math ed is linked to success later in school”

    • I find myself encouraging family with young children as well. I also find myself noticing young children counting, saying numbers, etc.

  3. I find this area of study fascinating, although I confess I only have a rudimentary understanding of the topic. You mention that once connections are made or not made, it cannot be undone. Yet in stroke victims, the brain does work to develop new connections and restore some functionality that is lost due to damage to an effected area. I wonder how, or if, this is related, or is it something different altogether.

    • Carl, researchers describe this momentum of brain research as the “rocket science” of this era. From what I understand, the emphasis on these early years does not indicate that connections can never again be made, but that rate of connections will not be revisited. In the first 2,000 days the brain is laying the circuitry for the rest of life at such a high functioning speed. We can always learn new things, but never with the ease of the early years of life.

  4. I have seen this in my own daughter. Her early experience with math have helped her achieve well in all her math classes.

  5. It is exciting to see the brain research that is being done and the work that the center is doing to understand early childhood learning. I believe that this will be key to improving the learning in the upper grades as well. Once we begin understanding how children learn and better equip them with learning experiences that push them a little further, we will begin to see amazing growth in our students.

    • Brent, it has been exciting to see younger children engage in mathematics. As we follow a group of young children this year, I am interested to document their progression.

  6. I love your comment, “Since they were born I have dedicated myself to ensuring that they have powerful and deep learning experiences.” I feel very similar as I recently had a child and am a teacher myself. I hold myself at a higher standard because of that. However, I like to reserve the comment, “Just because I am a teacher, does not mean my child will be an above average student. They will be who they are, with help from their mom.”

    • I agree Cara. We do what is best for our child embracing the fact that everyone constructs their own knowledge in their own time. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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