Friday, July 21, 2006

How did you learn to think?

Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an
injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are
aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily; and why older persons,
especially if vain or important, cannot learn at all.
- Thomas Szasz, author, professor of psychiatry (1920- )

I have great respect for Professor Szasz (and not because he can pronounce his own name and I have no idea how to say it). He is a wise man and has provided people with much good advice.

However, this quotation is an example of a man who is very knowledgeable in one discipline believing that his opinion is valuable in all others. In this matter, that of childhood learning, Professor Szasz doesn't have a clue.

He is correct in that some adults feel it beneath them to have to learn something new in order to repair a broken device in their home, for example. Rather than admit that they know nothing about the device, they maintian their feeling of superiority (not needing to know) and pay someone to come in to fix it. The someone has no pangs of guilt about overcharging such a homeowner in order to help him feel better about himself.

Children don't learn just because they have little concept of their own self importance. On the contrary, most children learn very young the level of importance they hold in their family.

Kids learn because that is what they were programmed to do. Every animal and plant is programmed to learn what it must in its early days in order to survive. Professor Szasz has apparently not heard of the survival instinct. Every living thing has it.

While the brain of a young child is not its full size, it is disproportionately large for the size of its body. Even at birth, the brain has unbelievable potential. (Its final growth spurt is in the late teens when the frontal lobes--the part that determines right from wrong, good from bad--develops.) The brain is programmed to suck in information (especially in the first five years) at an astounding rate. Most children, for example, learn about half of what they know in their entire lifetimes by the age of five years.

Languages are relatively easy for a child to learn up to the age of 11 years. The language part of the brain is programmed to soak up language like a sponge. As the brain is not programmed to differentiate between languages, a child may learn any number of languages during this period. He may even cross them with each other when speaking to a parent or whoever else is teaching them languages. It's more difficult for a young child who is learning several languages to keep within the confines of one language than it is to learn several languages.

Around the age of 11 years, a change occurs in the brain, a change that allows the brain to use what language(s) it has learned in ways that will benefit it as an adult. In other words, the brain develops its first adult functions around age 11. This conforms to the age at which boys and girls in our prehistoric past reached adolescence and were required to adopt adult responsibilities. They often became parents by age 13.

By age 11 and after, people have much more difficulty learning a new language. The reason is because the brain changes, physically and functionally.

Here is where Professor Szasz and I differ. I believe, and my teaching and sociological studies support this, that children learn how to think in depth before the age of 11 years. After age 11, they learn information they process through the machinery they have built in their heads to produce the level of thought they will have as adults. Of course adolescents and adults will improve upon and refine their thinking processes, but thinking itself is as hard to come by after age 11 as is new language if these have not been learned before age 11.

Children in their first decade of life don't have much knowledge accumulated with which to think in depth. What they have is learned from parents (about 85 percent, including their teachers), from family, peers, their community and their various other associations. They learn to sort through and process what they do know so that they can reach conclusions that serve them at the time.

Those children who are given little op[portunity to think at any depth beyond that of basic needs, including in school, become adults who are incapable of thinking beyond the depth of basic needs of the present. Kids who are given opportunities at home and in school to think about what is happening around them, including the preconditions for it (history) and the consequences of what they do today as life unfolds in their future will become that small percentage of adults who can think at the level for which humans received their scientific name, homo spapiens sapiens. (Yes, two "sapiens" is technically correct.)

Keeping important subjects away from young children harms them not only because they don't know anything about topics that may be critical to their lives as teens and adults, but also because they will not have the knowledge on which to base thought that will form the thinking processes they will have for the rest of their lives.

Anything about childhood learning that disagrees with this is old and out of date. My "theses" will not be proven here simply because they are an assembly of the work of many current sociologists. And because this is not a book.

Bill Allin
'Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today's Epidemic Social Problems,' striving to give children the opportunities they need to become thinking adults.
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