Children’s brains develop connections within and between areas depending on the type of exercise they get. A “good” brain for learning develops strong and widespread neural highways that can quickly and efficiently assign different aspects of a task to the most efficient system. Such a brain is able to “talk” to itself, instantly sending messages from one area to another. Such efficiency is developed only by active practice in thinking and learning which, in turn, builds increasingly stronger connections.
The worst thing about Sesame Street is that people believe it is educationally valuable. It stands as a symbol of “good” programming, an institutionalized excuse for “boob tube” as baby-sitter. Well-intentioned parents earnestly swallow the dictum: “It helps children learn.”
Many of the upcoming generation of teachers dislike reading and avoid it whenever possible. One study conducted by two Kent State University education professors in a children’s literature course found surprising changes in prospective teachers’ attitudes. “Many students enter our courses with negative attitudes toward reading in general and, more specifically, toward the types of literature that make up the main content of our courses” (i.e., “good” books for children and adolescents). More than one-fourth of these potential teachers confessed to a “lifelong discomfort with print,” and many acknowledged that they made it through English courses by relying on “Cliff Notes, book jackets, or cursory reading to supply them with just enough information to pass tests or to prepare book reports.” Others of us who are teaching teachers can unfortunately confirm that this observation is not an isolated one.
…children need to talk as well as to hear. They need to play with words and reason with them. They need to practice talking about problems to learn to plan and organize their behavior. They need to respond to new words and stories to build a broad personal base of semantic meaning . They need personal adult guides to provide good examples of grammar— not primarily so they will sound “intelligent,” but because word order, or syntax, is the means by which they will learn to analyze ideas and reason about abstract relationships. They need to hear and speak the tiny units of language— such as ed, ing, ment—that convey fine-grained differences between what happened yesterday and what will happen tomorrow , between actions and things, between the shades of meaning that give clarity to mental operations.
In order to analyze problems and evaluate alternatives, children need active practice asking and attempting to answer their own questions. Too much “teacher talk” gets in the way of such higher-level reasoning because it prevents children from doing their own thinking!
Neuroanatomist Dr. Arnold Scheibel once described the immature brain as somewhat like a large tree crowded with many little birds, all singing weakly at the same time so that no individual song can clearly be heard. As the brain matures, gradually eliminating some connections and retaining others, the tree contains fewer but larger birds with strong, clear songs, well separated so that each can distinctly be heard.
The ideas, values, and priorities of a culture are borne along on the stream of language that flows between generations.
…any learning that has to be “pushed” into a child may end up doing more harm than good…
Although research about the two sides of the cerebral cortex sheds considerable light on different ways in which people learn, it has frequently been oversimplified— mainly by the notion that people are either “right-brained” or “left-brained.” Yes, the two halves of the brain have different modes of responding to experience. Yes, individual people have different ways of using them. Yes, many of our emotional, intellectual, and social differences are related to their intricate balance. But only major surgery can make anyone “right-” or “left-brained.”
Young brains are particularly sensitive because they haven’t yet developed automatic screening devices. The normal human brain has built-in mechanisms for moderating incoming sensory stimulation to levels that keep it sufficiently “aroused” without becoming overwhelmed. Children’s brains, however, have not had time to refine these filtering systems; when overwhelmed, they either “tune out” or their behavior becomes unmanageable.
According to Vygotsky, inner speech develops as the child learns to use language, first to think out loud and then to reason inside his own mind. Eventually, it becomes an instinctive tool with which to think and also to communicate thoughts by speech and writing. I am convinced that a major reason so many students today have difficulty with problem solving, abstract reasoning, and writing coherently is that they have insufficiently developed mechanisms of inner speech.
I was surprised to learn how much a part of young children’s lives TV has become. American youngsters, on average, now spend more hours in front of the set than at any other activity except sleeping. Sesame Street has helped institutionalize the viewing habit for preschoolers, many of whom begin watching several hours a day of varied programming at about age two. By ages three to five— the height of the brain’s critical period for cognitive and language development— estimates place viewing time of the average child at twenty-eight hours a week. For many children, extended hours in front of the set have drastically curtailed active playtime.