"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Focus First on the Early Years

Educational research faces similar challenges as clinical studies of a drug. There are ethical concerns, for example. If a drug is indeed capable of curing cancer, why should a study be designed such that one group receives the experimental drug while another set gets placebo. Research on learning can raise similar questions. If a method is indeed promising, why not expose all the pupils to the new scheme then? The challenges, however, even go farther than these. Medical research can go as detailed as designing molecules for targets on a computer simulation. Potential drugs can be screened and an atomic resolution of the interactions responsible can be obtained. The mechanism of how exactly a drug works can be elucidated. And slowly but surely, these studies can go from a computer screen, to a test tube, a petri dish, a mouse model, and up to primates to mimic as closely as possible the environment and circumstances. Education occurs in the real world so educational research demands real world conditions.

Nevertheless, there have been advances in social science research. The ethical issues remain but one example illustrates a fully randomized approach. Thus, on pure science grounds, the study is reliable and conclusions can be safely drawn. The study is the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, started twelve years ago, which followed more than a hundred orphans. One of the findings of the study is shown below:

Downloaded from  http://www.unicef.bg/public/images/tinybrowser/upload/PPT%20BEIP%20Group%20for%20website.pdf
Jon Bardin of the Los Angeles Times summarizes one of the studies published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Margaret A. Sheridan, Nathan A. Fox, Charles H. Zeanah, Katie A. McLaughlin, and Charles A. Nelson III. Variation in neural development as a result of exposure to institutionalization early in childhood. PNAS, July 23, 2012 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1200041109):
...The project is unique because it is the first to randomly assign children either to foster care or to the institutional care of orphanages.

Such randomization — ethically possible because all the children would otherwise have remained in institutions — has allowed the scientists to ensure that other factors, such as physical appearance or personality, did not affect whether children were chosen to join a family or remained in an institution...

...Brains of children who had remained in institutions had less white matter — the type of tissue that connects different regions of the brain — than orphans who were placed in foster care or children living with their own families...

..."The brain needs stimulation to grow and develop, and we know the Romanian orphans are not getting that stimulation," Nelson said....
With these findings, kindergarten seems late. It emphasizes the significance of the  quality of care an infant or toddler receives, and the fact that this has long lasting consequences. In any construction, the foundation is key. Everything else that comes later rely on this first step. The education of a child is no different. 

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones takes the above one step farther:
...Here you go. There are two big things we could do if we really wanted to improve our childrens' future: aggressively get rid of all the remaining lead in our soil and in old houses — all of it — and spend a bunch of money on high-quality early childhood interventions among poor and working-class families. If we don't think we have the money — an argument I'll put off to another day — we should take it out of the K-12 budgets. We'd be better off with 100% more pre-K and 20% less K-12 than we are with our current funding priorities....
DepEd's K to 12, with its introduction of kindergarten, is a step in this direction. However, its lack of focus on the early years, its poor treatment of kindergarten teachers, and its gargantuan yet diffused programs takes us several steps back. 

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