Connected Learning: Early Childhood and the Importance of Identifying "Windows of Opportunity"

11/05/2016 10:33 | Updated 11 May 2016

India Vertical

The scientific and technological advances in the last 100 years or so have massively improved our understanding of the human brain and our capacity for intelligence. As a result, there has been a significant shift in the tone of the age-old "nature or nurture" debate. In the past, the argument was whether we humans were born with innate abilities (nature) or if our education and upbringing (nurture) was responsible for our intellectual capabilities. Now, scientific research seems to suggest that both nature and nurture can and do have significant impact on the development of IQ in humans.

We still don't know the exact percentage effect of environmental factors like pre-school learning, parental care, diet and socialization on the development of intelligence or IQ in growing children.

While some studies show that overall, 50% of intelligence can be attributed to environmental factors; there are other studies that peg it lower at 40%, 30 and even 20% or less. It is true, your genes are inherited by your children and they determine a lot of things: like height, complexion, eyes, hair, allergies, and their immune systems, and of course, even their brains! But that doesn't mean everything can just be left for nature to take its course. Environmental factors can and do play a significant role in the development of IQ, especially in young children.

Just think about average human IQ in our societies. It has been increasing over the years in our societies, and this rise has actually been studied and documented in the last 100 years in the highly industrialized West. This sustained increase in average IQ reported in many parts of the modern world is called the "Flynn Effect". But natural factors, like our genes, do not evolve at such rates to make humans more intelligent on average, in such short spans of time. It takes hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years for genetic evolution to show its effects.

So if nature isn't responsible for this effect, then surely, other factors have to be considered. Improved schooling, increased literacy rates, societal changes and exposure and access to modern technology have all been touted as possible reasons behind this increase in average IQ over generations. Modern technology, especially information technology deserves special mention here.

Our elders are always quick to remark that "things were different" when they were young. And even we can sense this difference as we look at the world our children have to grow up in. Surely, things were so much simpler in the past, even a decade ago. But alas, this is not the case anymore. The spread of internet and the proliferation of smart devices into all parts of professional and personal life have led to the creation of a world that would have seemed improbably futuristic just a few decades ago. Life now is incredibly more complex and complicated. We live in a smarter, more interconnected, knowledge driven society where communication skills are more important than ever before.

In such a modern society, in order to cope and thrive, our children need to be taught the right skills starting at the right age, according to Nobel laureate economist James Heckman, who researches the value of early childhood enrichment programs. And what exactly is the right age for children to start learning, you might ask. Well, right from the time they spend in the womb a human baby starts absorbing information in form or another! From the very early stages of infancy, children are constantly learning from their surroundings and their parents, absorbing knowledge like a sponge.

Our babies are born with the exact same number of neurons in their tiny brains as an adult human being, about 100 billion of them. In the first few years, as their brain size increases, these neurons make a thousand trillion interconnections, a veritable explosion of cerebral capacity. We often see this in front of our eyes, how helpless babies transform into smart little toddlers, tiny human wrecking balls running and shouting all through our homes and rooms! This early phase of brain growth, literally a "window of opportunity", this is the time when the human brain is at its most malleable and can lay the foundations for a bright and intelligent future. This is the stage when the "nurture" aspect is most potent. Once children grow out their childhood and reach adolescence, their brains start to resemble adult brains, set in their ways and with little scope for development.

The right parental care and guidance, armed with the right learning tools can make a world of difference to the rapidly growing brains of pre-school toddlers. The aim is not to pressurize them into traditional structures of rote learning. Rather, the focus has to be on innovative modern techniques of connected learning. For a holistic development of all the different parts of a brain, a multi-pronged approach is required. Learning can happen through a wide variety of activities: playing, building and creating, interacting with various materials, watching and listening to audio-visual content etc.

Modern connected learning systems are those which incorporate all these aspects using information technology into a complete and balanced package. Timely introduction of these learning systems to your toddlers can help improve all aspects of their cerebral development including proper motor skills, cognitive abilities, verbal and communication skills and social and emotional skills.

In the words of Arjun Reddy of Superbaby, "just as in the construction of a house, the pillars form the most important and basic foundation. Similarly, certain part of the formative structure of the brain needs to happen in a sequence and need to be nurtured using correct learning equipment to support the long-term development of the brain."

You can give your precious one that vital head start in life, giving him/her a competitive advantage that will hold them in good stead well into their adult lives and careers.