Foundations of Intelligence

Queen Victoria created a most dangerous myth when she told the English that “little children should be seen and not heard”.  That myth lives on today in school budgets which allocate more money to older children than younger children so resulting in larger classes for the youngest, and smaller classes in the upper years of secondary school.

I was working in America in the mid ‘90s when powerful research showed the significance of early-years nurture, which challenged the pre-imminent assumption that intelligence was mainly due to inheritance.  First it was the book, Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children, which showed that professional parents addressed 482 ‘utterances’ every hour to their babies at the age of 18 months; that fell to 321 utterances amongst medium income parents, and to 197 for parents on welfare.  By the age of three children of professional parents would have heard more than 30 million words, working class children 20 million and children of parents on welfare only 10 million.  A further Report from the Kellogg Foundation showed that the biggest predictor of success at the age of eighteen was the quantity and quality of dialogue in the child’s home before the fifth birthday.

It was with this knowledge that Jesse Jackson told the Principals of America “Go to every city, farm and town and say ‘no parent is too poor not to turn off the television set and sit down and labour alongside their child every evening’.”

Returning to England ten years ago I was horrified to discover that here, as in the States, early child caring facilities originally set up to enable poor parents to enter employment were now being taken over as a resource to enable parents, already rich, to work even harder by leaving their children in the care of other people.

Now, in 2009, Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby takes the most recent findings from neurobiology and cognitive science to explain what an expanded understanding of children’s minds tell us about “truth, love and (ultimately) the meaning of life.”  Is that a wildly ambitious claim?  Not really.  The research of ten years ago about the use of language was only the tip of the iceberg – while children hear and internalise the words they hear us speak, at a much deeper level evolution has equipped them to so study us that what they are really learning is how our minds work.

The more opportunity they have to do this the quicker the brain grows.  “An American child learns what American minds are like and a Japanese child learns what Japanese minds are like”, Gopnik wrote, “ just as they learn what American and Japanese tables and chairs and landscape are like.”  It is why I was treated to such an interesting description of the fossils of middle Dorset two weeks ago by 12-year-old Louis, the only child of two highly successful journalists.  While both parents probably had good genes it was the way that the boy had studied the way his parents’ brains worked that actually mattered.  510

SeePart Eight and Actions 1 and 2 of the Briefing Paper