My First Post on the Science of the Early Years

Monday, May 12, 2003

I spent two days last week with Dr Doug Wilms, one of the top researchers in the world on the topic of child development.

There were many aha’s – here is one of them. Human development is linked to trajectories. When we are 2, small differences in vocabulary, of only 150 words, will drive the type of trajectories that my poor diagram tries to show you. This small difference at 2 spreads out by 15 to a 10 year spread in grade 10. The upper quartiles will have the cognitive ability to work at second year university. The lower quartile will be at the grade 5 level. Those in the middle will be therefore 5-7 years off the extreme at both ends. The same is true say for journeys. If Columbus’s three ships stated off from Spain with a 3 degree difference. One would have landed in Greenland. One in Hispaniola and the other in Argentina. Small differences over time slope out to be large and not fixable.

Some conclusions:

  • In Chaos Theory, we know that “Initial Conditions” are important. This graph shows us why. Only 150 word difference at 2 drives over time a huge differential. The effort to change these trajectories builds on a log scale. We can do a lot with a little when we are very young but by the time we are about 15 we are locked in. Most of the remedial work is done at school where it will have little effect. Especially by grade 4. The optimal time to ensure that your kids will do well is to read a lot to them from 4 MONTHS ONWARDS. You might say that this is ridiculous. A Baby can’t comprehend at 4 months. But they build pattern recognition. Their vocab is built as a direct result of the vocab that you use with them. So read up a level all the time.
  • To read to a 4 month old demands that you hold the baby as well. Touch is the other driver for development. We know that monkeys that are not touched and we know that orphans that are not touched develop very poorly. So reading to babies hits the two big drivers – vocab and touch.
  • The revolution in development will come less from a revolution at school and more from our recognition that the optimal time to learn is before 6!
  • Infants and young children learn only one way – from play based experience – the opposite from how we teach at school.
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