Let’s Be Smarter and Leverage Learning

Published in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser – 12/30/2018 Page : F03  –  ISLAND VOICES column

by Ethan Allen, Ph.D. (neuroscience)

[Ethan hosts the weekly “Likable Science” show on ThinkTech Hawaii, and leads STEM education programs at Pacific Resources for Education and Learning.]


It has long been known that education – the capacity to reason, think critically, and communicate – is necessary for democracy to function effectively. Yet our current educational systems fail to take full advantage of our innate capacities to learn.


Despite robust evidence from neuroscience showing even young infants possess sophisticated cognitive abilities and capacities for reasoning, only rarely do we teach children metacognitive skills. Metacognition, the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes, is vital to learning how to learn. The two key facets of metacognition, knowledge of one’s own thinking processes and the ability to regulate and direct those processes, together allow learners to nurture and hone their learning strategies – to become better learners.


Young brains possess much greater ‘plasticity’ – the ability for their neurons to connect, disconnect, and reconnect in new ways – than do the brains of adults.  This greater plasticity allows learning on a deeper, richer, and more fundamental level than is possible for adults.


An everyday illustration of this plasticity can be seen in learning of languages. We have come to understand that learning a second (or third) language is, literally, child’s play, best and most simply accomplished during infancy. Adults struggle to learn a new language, whereas toddlers can absorb, sort out, and use multiple languages with apparent ease. Young infants can hear every sound made by speakers of every language on earth; Dr. Patricia Kuhl calls them ‘citizens of the world.’ This capacity begins declining before infants are a year old. Children who learn second and third languages along with their first speak these languages without ‘foreign’ accents, something that later learners of a second language can only rarely accomplish.


Infants and young children, once considered ‘blank slates’ needing to be taught everything, now are recognized as innately possessing higher-order thinking skills. For example, ‘theory of mind,’ the ability to understand what another person knows and thinks based on observing them, used to be considered a capability only of adolescents and adults. Yet recent work has shown that even pre-verbal infants possess and use ‘theory of mind’ processes.


In a similar vein, we now know that our habits of thought, how we approach problems and how we deal with new information, are powerfully shaped by our experiences early in life. Children’s early experiences with languages promote or hinder their capabilities for later multilingualism.


Similarly, other higher-order cognitive skills among our very young children must be practices and developed in order to maximize the learning potential of our youth. Teaching metacognition is a powerful way to do so. We should encourage kids to stop and reflect on how they learned some new piece of knowledge, or how they learned to perform some new skill. We should highlight for them the need to think about their own thinking, and the value this can bring to later learning. We should develop formal curricula for metacognition education and integrate this into every child’s education experiences. The complex interconnected societal and environmental challenges that tomorrow’s voters will face demand the very best learners and thinkers that we can raise.


We must build on our growing scientific knowledge of our learning processes. Our society must  focus evidence-based efforts on improving the education and maximizing the learning potentials of our youngest members. We must put more resources into both the academic and practical aspects of early learning. We must encourage the best and the brightest of our citizens to help nurture early learning and reward them appropriately. Only by better understanding our early learning, and by fostering optimal learning among all of our youth, will we, as a people, truly thrive.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.