Use it or lose it? Practical considerations for how to apply principles of neural plasticity.
Understanding the way that human brains develop both physically and cognitively is important especially when determining a curriculum for young kids. The brains of preschool aged children are extremely plastic so what they experience in and out of the classroom plays a significant role in their cognitive trajectories. Recognizing how critical this time period is for cognitive development, there is a debate on whether the early introduction of skills like basic numeracy and literacy should be in the curriculum since the brain is very plastic and receptive to experiences or, if despite the high plasticity, early introduction of skills like basic numeracy and literacy could potentially backfire in the broader picture of cognitive development.
This is an important debate to have because proper cognitive development is related to both genes and environment so the environment in which we put children should provide them with experiences that parallel cognitive development goals and milestones that have been set. This idea can also be described as the nature versus nurture debate. In order to do that, however, there has to be an understanding of how cognition develops so that the right actions are being taken at the right times. Similarly, we have some control over the curriculum and what experiences we can try to provide preschool aged kids to give them their best chance at properly developing as an individual and as a member of our society. Stakeholders such as educators, parents, and developmental psychologists should care about this debate and the research that surrounds it so that their actions as role models and caretakers of children can give them everything they need to develop properly.
The first side of the debate argues that at this age, children, neurologically speaking, are in the “blooming phase” therefore, there should be early introduction to skills such as basic numeracy and literacy to take advantage of the fact that the brain is very plastic at this point in its development. Part of this argument comes from the idea that an enriched environment adds to how quickly and effectively cognition develops. Synaptogenesis, bidirectionality, and plasticity all play a role in this side of the debate. Synaptogenesis refers to the part of brain formation in which synapses, or connections between neurons, are being created to begin organizing the information that an individual is receiving and processing. The formation of these synapses relies on the concept of bidirectionality. Bidirectionality is the interaction between a structure and a function that goes both ways in order for both to develop. The idea of bidirectionality states that the “connections among neurons are made that reflect the unique experiences of the individual” so the experiences that adults can give children on an individual level heavily impact their cognitive development.
Bidirectionality leads to another synaptic development process called the experience-dependent process, making enrichment a crucial part of bidirectionality. Kelly Lampert conducted a study that showed the importance of enrichment by placing rats in an enriched environment and then teaching them to drive cars. Her study showed that the rats who were placed in the enriched environment opposed to the rats in the controlled environment were able to learn how to drive the cars more efficiently. On top of synaptogenesis and bidirectionality, the brain, at this young age, is extremely plastic and inefficient in processing information so it takes much longer than it would for an adult however, this forces their cognitive development to develop in such a way that they are “better prepared to adapt, cognitively, to the other environments.”
All three of these ideas correspond with the concept that experience has a strong influence on cognition. One reason for believing that introducing numeracy and literacy earlier could be because when experiences occur earlier, learning patterns and behaviors are established especially if the skills are learned in the critical period. Based on enrichment and the experience-dependent process, caretakers, educators, and developmental psychologists could believe that adding numeracy and literacy into curriculums earlier could be beneficial to their cognitive development. Experiences with these skills must also be had because when neurons are not creating synapses due to a lack of experience, the process of selective cell death could cause the neurons associated with those specialized skills to die preventing proper development. Finally, the Core Knowledge Theory states that individuals come prepared with certain skill sets, one of those being the ability to think about quantities. Based on this theory, and the other concepts discussed above, some argue that introducing education in numeracy and literacy is wise because it promotes proper cognitive development since the brain is in a plastic state.
Even if those concepts lend themselves to the idea that early education is correct, they can also lend themselves to the other side of the debate. The other side of the debate argues that even if the brain is in a very plastic state, there has to be specific conditions in which an individual is able to properly develop while learning more difficult tasks like numeracy and literacy or else it is more detrimental when considering cognitive development as a whole. Through this view on the debate, concepts such as bidirectionality, synaptogenesis, developmental asymmetries, and others show how early education on numeracy and literacy may not always be the best choice in the long run. With bidirectionality, experience is crucial because numeracy and literacy are biologically secondary skills meaning that they require experience and intentional work to master because they are not innate skills. Biologically secondary skills have to build off of biologically primary skills so there are bound to be asymmetries in development. These asymmetries in development mean that one skill will develop before another because synaptogenesis and critical periods will determine where energy goes to and “what’s available in mind at any one point in time” for development. Biologically secondary skills are determined not only by asymmetries in development, but also by the social context in which they exist.
Taking all of those concepts into consideration, this side of the debate would argue that it would be detrimental to introduce literacy and numeracy early because those are biologically secondary skills that should be built on from primary skills and the social context, being the curriculum, can be influenced. If primary skills are not developed before secondary skills, the critical period for the primary skills will close which could prevent the skill from being fully developed. If skills are introduced too early without a basis in the primary skills, the process of learning will be too complex resulting in a lack of attention in learning that particular skill. The Goldilocks Effect states that if something is too complex or too simple, an individual will not give it any attention. Richard Aslin has shown that when infants are faced with stimuli in their environment, they have preferences that allow them to decide what types of stimuli have important information that they should pay attention to because they only have so much mental capacity at that point in their cognitive development. One of these preferences is to stimuli that represent facial structure, however if a stimulus is too simple or too complex, an infant will not pay attention to it because they do not believe it holds any significance. With all of these concepts taken into consideration, this side of the debate would argue that the early introduction of these skills will actually hinder cognitive development.
I agree with the side of the debate that argues that early introduction of literacy and numeracy in preschool aged children will hinder proper cognitive development. Due to the concepts of critical periods and primary or secondary skills, if those skills are forced on a child too early, the part of their cognitive development that should be developing at that age is not going to develop properly and those are the skills that every other skill later learned and developed will build upon. There needs to be a solid foundation of previous development for development to progress through the ages that have critical periods. On top of that, the Goldilocks Effect can be extended to education for older children. The types of information they are exposed to need to be in what Vygotsky called the Zone of Proximal Development this is the area of learning that is possible for the child with help from an adult. The information has to be in the child’s reach with the help of an adult, but not too simple or complex as to where they do not believe it to be significant enough to pay attention to it. This side of the debate proves to be more meritorious than the previous one because it does not consider that there must be a strong cognitive basis for more complex cognitive abilities to develop and that biologically, there is a reason that some things develop before others.
This is an important discussion to have because it is centered around something that can be changed; education and curriculum. Caretakers, educators, and developmental psychologists should take these viewpoints into consideration when deciding the best way to educate children so they can cognitively develop in the best way possible. Even though the idea of enrichment could lead to deciding that introduction of numeracy and literacy earlier would prove to be beneficial, the Goldilocks’ Effect shows that if the information is introduced too early, the developing brain would simply ignore it. I agree that enrichment is a crucial part to development, but what to put in an enriching environment and when could drastically affect development. I would recommend being more aware of the cognitive development process, especially for preschool aged children and building a curriculum that allows them to continue to develop but not introducing difficult material too early so that development increases with age rather than plateaus.
Bjorklund, D. F., & Causey K. B. (2018). Children’s thinking: Cognitive development and