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​Cute Little Aliens? Why young children don't think like adults.

Posted by. Dr Pam Jarvis
Posted on 16 May 2016

blogs, blogs:In the media

Dr Pam Jarvis is a Chartered Psychologist specialising in human development between birth and 18, and a Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Childhood Education at Leeds Trinity University.

She discusses her thoughts on the UK's education policy - and how it doesn't take into account how different children's brains are to adults.

As adults, we tend to think of young children as little versions of 'us'. However, during the 20th century, psychologists began to raise the possibility that children's modes of thinking might be quite different from adults'. As we move into the 21st century, neurological research begins to indicate that this analysis was correct. And although the child brain was incompletely modelled by early theorists, it is becoming quite clear that its construction is, in many ways quite alien to the adult's; the key difference being the much greater plasticity of the child brain.

Babies' brains have far more neurons than adults', but far fewer connections. The early development of the brain involves an extensive neuronal connection programme as children interact with their environment, and those neurons that do not connect to others during this process shrivel and eventually die. Around the time of adolescence, the brain begins its last big project: pruning superfluous neurons in the prefrontal cortex, and creating more intricate links between those that remain. This is the area of the brain which deals with impulse control and the management of social behaviour, and it is therefore likely that this finding will eventually lead to better understanding of the complex emotionality of the teenager. The human brain is not fully neuronally mature until the individual is around 25 years of age.

Some amount of plasticity remains in adult brains and neuronal development continues on a much less extravagant basis until death; however, the most dramatic changes occur within the early developmental period. An analogy that I frequently use with my students is that a newborn baby is like a brand new personal computer- it comes equipped to run certain programs in certain ways, but these programs do not yet have any contents beyond the manufacturer 'freebies'. Of course a baby's brain is infinitely more complex than a personal computer, and does not only go on to store contents, but to link concepts together in infinite networks through the intricate neuronal pathways that are built through experience within and upon the environment.

Our current understanding of how the human brain constructs itself during the developmental period suggests that this happens via what is termed 'embedded mental representation'; i.e., that we incrementally memorise and co-ordinate our experiences. This generates an increasing ability to organise thought, gradually resulting in the ability to manage incoming information and locate it within memory in increasingly sophisticated neural networks. This results in increasing 'metacognition': thinking about thinking. As we become more expert at this we become able to use such networks to focus attention without becoming distracted by the intrusion of non-relevant thoughts. This requires 'inhibitory behaviour', and the younger children are, the more difficult they find this; their thoughts are far more susceptible to interference than those of adults, due to the immature networks across which they travel.

This fundamental adult/ child difference is not always recognised in policy and practice, however. In England, the current state education system expects children in the sixth year of life (between the fifth and sixth birthday) to demonstrate phonic competency in reading, for which a statutory test is imposed. While neurologists do not yet have a complete picture of how reading develops, they have ascertained that it requires a considerable amount of inhibitory behaviour, and that it is gradually encoded at a very deep level in the brain. Magnetic Resonance Imaging shows fundamental differences in neuronal activity when novice and expert readers decode a text, and the act of reading requires the reader to simultaneously: 

  • Control the eye so it moves in the direction of the relevant language. Some languages are written left to right (e.g. English), some right to left (e.g. Arabic) and some horizontally (e.g., Chinese)
  • Convert a visual stimulus into sounds
  • Make meaning from the decoded word
  • Hold that meaning in memory sufficiently to allow the reader to make overall meaning from the text as a whole

The intricacy and depth of the neuronal activity required to simultaneously engage in such complex operations suggests that testing at such an early age is unlikely to accurately predict later reading competence. Additionally, the isolation of phonics within the testing process forces the learner to demonstrate competency in only half of the operations utilised by fluent readers; it is not yet clear how this might impact upon the way that subsequent neuronal connections may form in response to 'training to test'.

When we further consider the neuronal immaturity of young children, the quest that was recently undertaken by the British Government, to formulate a 'baseline' assessment for four year olds that could accurately predict future progress seems even more ridiculous. It is hardly surprising that after much public funding had been fruitlessly pumped into tilting at this particular developmentally ill-informed windmill, the whole project had to be abandoned.

In conclusion, the way that education policy is currently constructed for young children in England is, in analogy, rather like running an episode of 'Bake Off' where the judges are asked to adjudicate on the contestants' products two minutes after they go into the oven. Politicians do not seem to grasp (to continue the cake analogy) that children are not 'small cakes', but actually as different from the adults they will become as cake batter is from the fully baked product. This not only suggests that many contemporary early education policies are shockingly ill-informed, but in terms of children's natural neuronal difference from adults, also discriminatory and therefore contrary to their human rights. This could of course, eventually lead to claims for compensation for psychological damage suffered by a whole generation forced in early childhood into what had, at that time, already been identified as highly developmentally inappropriate situations. It is hoped that policy makers will decide to engage in appropriate consultation with developmental experts before this dystopian prospect becomes a reality.