I had eagerly awaited this evening for months. The launch of my latest book, Early Childhood and Neuroscience. Theory, Research and Implications for Practice. The book is primarily aimed at early years practitioners and is designed to make neuroscience accessible and meaningful in practical terms, breaking down theoretical concepts and putting them into the daily context of working with our youngest citizens.
As an early years lecturer and author, I had been told the contrary for too many years by various neuroscientists, that ‘neuroscience does not have much to offer early years’, and that ‘brain imaging studies cannot tell us anything useful when it comes to understanding behaviour’. (The discussion around both points is not for this post. I will do this separately). I know this is not true and that I had to do something to change this obstructive rhetoric. The most important lesson I learned from this gathering of diverse individuals is that we shared one passion, and through collaborating and persisting – we can instigate a much-needed change in early years discourse and practice. The change is in two phases: consistent inclusion of evidence from neuroscience to inform workforce qualifications, thereby enhancing early years practice.
Writing this book took me on a fascinating and at times, challenging journey. I had started the project with a neuroscientist as my co-author. This did not work out: predominantly because he could not see what a book like this could offer early years practitioners. This myopic view was not uncommon. I think it is one of the main reasons why neuroscience is yet to be fully embraced as part of early years discourse and practice. It further fuelled my passion to complete this book in order to contribute to a necessary change in what early years students and practitioners are taught, to deepen their understanding of early brain development and how this could be used to inform their interactions with individual babies and children. For hundreds of years, pedagogy has been informed by attachment, cognitive, social and behavioural theories. We rightly still draw upon these but crucially, neuroscience provides a contemporary, scientific lens through which we can understand child development. This is identified by the OECD (2007: 229):
Teachers are not aware of the actual processes in the brain that constitute actual learning itself, and can at best only make some guesses about the mystery of brain mechanisms. It is therefore reassuring that brain and educational research validates such guesses.
One challenge which underpins the barrier to unifying these two disciplines is achieving interdisciplinary working in translating research from neuroscience into practice. The fields of psychology, early childhood education and care and neuroscience would each benefit from making steps towards working more cooperatively in early education and intervention (Howard-Jones (2014). Mason (2009: 549) recommends:
The sooner educational psychologists invest their efforts in building a solid bridge, the more pedagogical practice and neuroscientific research will benefit from each other.
This collaboration can prove highly effective for improving outcomes for young children due to the traversing themes that they are able to join together over. This recommendation is supported by Koizumi (2004: 135):
Fusing neuroscience, education and other relevant disciplines, and creating a new trans-disciplinary field would connect work on learning across the intellectual walls dividing disciplines.
This need was confirmed for me when I asked an eminent psychologist specialising in education and neuroscience, whether I had failed to notice any of his publications concerning early years and neuroscience, as the entire collection started from primary education. He told me ‘you are right. There isn’t any. Perhaps this is an area for you to further explore, to what see what can be done about it’. This response not only confirmed my beliefs but further fuelled my determination in addressing this.
Broadly speaking, I hope to contribute to these changes by:
- Completing my PhD in early childhood and neuroscience – to identify why these gaps exists, and finding realistic solutions to address this
- Continuing to share my knowledge of neuroscience across all my teaching, public speaking and writing.
I want to thank all my students (past and present) for attending, as well as Neil Leitch, Catriona Nason, Professor Eunice Lumsden, June O’Sullivan, MBE, John Warren, Ali McClure and all my other colleagues who, like me, know that there is a place for neuroscience in early years discourse and practice – and are doing something about it. We cannot wait for policy changes to magically occur. We must take matters in our own hands, talk to each other, share examples of how we are making neuroscience meaningful in all that we do and develop ways to take this further. I believe actions like these will eventually instigate the necessary changes to workforce qualifications and early years policies and practice.