I could’ve been a concert violinist by now

Since becoming a teacher and going on a reading journey that has eventually led to a deeper understanding of how human beings learn, it has been amazing to realise that ‘natural talent’ doesn’t exist and that pretty much anyone (bar those with serious disabilities affecting cognitive function, memory etc) could become an expert at anything* providing they were taught well, had masses of opportunities to practise and then were tested occasionally. Unfortunately, it also means that I have to live with a permanent sense of regret because I spent far too much time in my teenage years thinking about diets, boys, music, melancholy feelings, clothes, money and housing worries. If only I had known what I know now……..

Anyway, while most of us in the edutwittersphere, from reading experts to maths teachers to historians, are aligned on this matter of ‘how humans learn’ for children over the age of, say, 5, when it comes to talking about tiny children, toddlers and babies, views differ considerably.

My tentative position is influenced by my academic background in biology – what I know about the way that synapses fire and neural pathways are strengthened or weakened based on the frequency of stimuli. Everything I have learned from reading the research of education experts (nutshell: good teaching, lots of practice, frequent testing) such as Hirsch meshes beautifully with what I have learned about how, at the molecular level, the brain works and how memories are formed. What does not mesh, at all it seems, is my knowledge of how the brain works with what the experts in cognitive psychology say about how the very youngest humans learn. My view is that the biology of the brain is exactly the same for all humans, even the youngest ones; therefore, the natural conclusion for me is that even the youngest ones learn in exactly the same way and if we want even the littlest children to learn, say, the subtle rules of social interaction then the process is exactly the same: great teaching (modelling, advice and correction from a parent/adult), lots of good quality practice including through play, and then testing (could just be the ‘test of life’ too). This is why I dispute the sacred efficacy of child-led and play-based discovery learning – for me, play is incredibly important for helping children consolidate, develop and make connections with what they already know, but the good quality initial teaching and modelling primarily comes from the adults rather than being discovered out of thin air or summoned up from some kind of hidden, primitive part of the brain. Perhaps I am wrong on this?

It was Clare Sealey’s post that made me dig a bit deeper and really question this notion that there are two types of knowledge, one, called ‘biologically primary knowledge’ that we are supposedly evolved to learn without effort (allegedly through discovery – hence the promotion of the play-based learning with peers in a stimulating EYFS environment) and one that we call ‘biologically secondary knowledge’ which our brains have evolved to allow us the option of acquiring in order to have a better chance of success in whatever society we happen to live in (hence the need for traditional, knowledge-based education for older children). So, I have actually taken the time to read some of Geary’s work in the field of evolutionary psychology to see whether I am wrong or right. Well, it turns out that I am both wrong and right.

Firstly, it should be noted that the concept of two types of knowledge is actually a theory, rather than a ‘truth’ as has been put forwarded by education experts. Secondly, having read the paper in the above link, it seems that Geary is really making the distinction between what is learned because of a pre-programmed motivation to survive and what is learned because of the motivation to be successful and because of our capacity to make choices. It’s all quite complicated actually and difficult to get your head around, but what Geary doesn’t say is that biologically primary knowledge is constructed in a vacuum, provided the environment is suitably stimulating (ie filled with the right kind of lovely stuff and fellow children to play with). He says this about play:

Play, social interactions, and exploration of the environment and objects
appear to be the mechanisms through which these emerging competencies are
practiced, refined, and adapted to local conditions.”

So, play is about consolidating what is already known, which, as you know, is the position I take. But where are these emerging competencies developed first of all? Were they already embedded in the brain somehow? Geary argues, contrary to the position that education experts have taken, that the seeds are sown by the mother, rather than discovered:

For instance, the strong bias of human infants to attend to human faces,
movement patterns, and speech reflects, in theory, the initial and inherent
organizational and motivational structure of the associated folk psychological
modules (Freedman, 1974). These biases re-create the microconditions (e.g.,
parent-child interactions) associated with the evolution of the corresponding
modules (Caporael, 1997), and provide the experiences needed to adapt the
architecture of these modules to variation in parental faces, behavior, and so
forth (Gelman & Williams, 1998). It allows your infant to discriminate your
voice from the voice of other potential parents, with only minimal exposure to
your voice. Indeed, when human fetuses (gestation age of about 38 weeks) are
exposed in utero to human voices, their heart-rate patterns suggest that they
are sensitive to and learn the voice patterns of their mother, and discriminate
her voice from that of other women (Kisilevsky et al., 2003).”

Later, Geary makes reiterates the point that social biologically primary knowledge, as initially taught or modelled by the parents/adults, is consolidated through play, rather than discovered:

As another example, sociodramatic play appears to be an important vehicle
for elaborating children’s social competencies, such as learning the implicit
scripts that choreograph many social interactions. Beginning around age 3,
children practice social scripts in the context of their play (Rubin, Fein, &
Vandenberg, 1983)”

He doesn’t say those implicit scripts appear out of nowhere. Which social interactions (including facial expressions, body language and social rules) are children watching or taking part in that introduce the implicit scripts they need to practise through play? That’s right. The adult-adult and adult-child interactions. Basically, the paper proposes that biologically primary knowledge is what children acquire by just naturally interacting with or watching parents/older relatives and then practising through play, whereas biologically secondary knowledge is what children acquire when adults make a decision to teach children and then expect them to pay attention!

To me, this makes much more sense although I would still dispute Geary’s theory in terms of the extent to which children come pre-programmed to ‘easily’ acquire this new ‘biologically primary’ knowledge, including language, from their first teachers (parents and older adults in their social group). I think that the learning process is exactly the same: good teaching, lots of practice and then testing. I don’t think there is a difference in how ‘easily’ this knowledge is acquired, practised and then remembered, as if evolution has prepared a special part of the brain with initial ultra neurons or something – anything that downplays the natural yet very deliberate teaching and modelling that new parents do, instinctively and perhaps because of a desire to see their young survive and thrive, I will always view with suspicion. No, the real difference, to me, is the fact that for the first few years of life, little humans are effectively captive markets – they firstly can’t, and then they’re not allowed to, run away, so what is learned is basically what dominates in terms of stimulating the senses: spoken language between and from adults, facial expressions, visual representations of foods that are collected and prepared and so forth. They get lots of practice thinking about, and therefore committing to long term memory, all of this because there is nothing else to think about.

You could perhaps argue that ‘folk physics’ is discovered, but how would we know for sure when the child in the mother’s arms has spent so long looking at and listening to the mother’s interaction with the physical environment, long before he crawled away and decided to crush a flower with his little stubby hand, just to see what happened?

What all this tells me is that I am wrong about grannies being ‘the solution’ by coming into schools, reading to and chatting with disadvantaged children, although they would definitely help close that word gap. Actually, the solution is for tiny children to witness good quality every day social interaction and ‘life’ in order to then have the basic knowledge to go off and consolidate through play. Part of the solution therefore is to reduce the isolation of mothers – how many children grow up without hearing friendly adult interaction because they live in a single-parent household? How many children grow up not witnessing the daily interactions and activities of adults because they’re parked in front of the TV or on the iPad? Children don’t even witness adult interactions at the dining table, shops, post office or church anymore because everyone lives their lives online, in a bubble of one.

The dilemma still exists as to what to do with disadvantaged children who have missed this initial ‘biologically primary’ knowledge that should’ve come from parents, wider family and positive adult role models, those children who come to school without (they can’t play their way to discovery, remember) much to consolidate or develop. The situation is compounded by the fact that primary schools, unlike secondaries, tend to draw from their immediate surrounding areas such that the disadvantaged children on local estates with high levels of deprivation are rounded up together – how can we give them what they have not been given? Even if we did magically conjure up play-based ‘teachable moments’ for all of these children with just two adults, when they’re busy learning the missing biologically primary knowledge, they’re not learning the secondary knowledge and all those advantaged children are tearing ahead, looking forward to years of accelerated learning due to the cumulative effects of the Mathew Effect. The fact is that even though pretty much everyone agrees that there needs to be a ‘balance’ of adult instruction/modelling and child-led play, the current ‘balance’ if you look at the wider experience of the disadvantaged child (as they are learning all the time) results in their being held back such that they miss out for the rest of their lives There must be a way to give them a fairer deal in life? It causes me great anguish that many who work within this very important stage of children’s lives simply say ‘balance!’ and then use this as a way of vindicating themselves, their phase and the status quo.

Since children cannot discover all this biologically primary knowledge through play, the answer lies in ALL the adults, not just the ones working in nurseries and EYFS reception year, bursting their own bubbles and giving children that biologically primary knowledge they so desperately need.

And then letting them play.

Who’s with me?




6 thoughts on “I could’ve been a concert violinist by now

  1. Would that mean that babies and young children who spend a lot of time in nurseries and child care could be missing out on opportunities to observe and learn patterns of adult-adult interactions or adult-child one-to interactions?


  2. I’m with you all the way on this one–whilst studying linguistics at UEA, I wondered if Noam Chomsky had ever talked to a mother before concluding that language is a ‘natural’ behaviour that will emerge spontaneously just from being around people talking.

    A quibble with your first sentence: I don’t think that ‘pretty much anyone’ can become an expert at anything providing they are well taught and work hard enough. No way could I ever have understood quantuum mechanics or even relativity no matter who taught me. I have an old school friend who was doing original research in particle physics as an undergraduate–he didn’t do any post-graduate work because his professors admitted that he was doing things they didn’t understand. And he sure had enough sense not to try and explain it to us mere mortals.


  3. I’m with you. And thank you so much for taking the time to share your thinking on this. There is much wisdom here, and you’ve given me a lot of food for thought. I live with my recently-divorced adult son, and last night was one of his nights to have the grandsons (10, 8, 3) over for the evening. And guess what? This would have been a perfect opportunity for them hear friendly interactions between adults. You see that, right? And thanks to you, I can now see it too. But last night, I couldn’t. So the boys missed it because…well, I must confess that I spent part of the time in my bubble,and did not even join them at the supper table!!! Mercifully, today is another day. And the boys will be here again for supper.


  4. An excellent article, thanks. Good on you for digging into Geary’s work on biologically primary and secondary knowledge, I am guilty of accepting others interpretations of this too glibly. More food for thought too on the play-based learning whose passionate advocates continue to vex me. It sounds to me like just an extension of the whole child centred progressive school of thought and I would love to delve into exactly what research they claim is justifying the approach.

    Regarding the talent issue…I agree up to a point. I think variation in IQ or fluid intelligence results individuals who can master different areas of knowledge/skill far more quickly than others and hence appear to be “talented.” But exposure and practice to skill and knowledge through being born into a musical family for example, or a family with parents who discuss science at the dinner table makes those children seem talented.

    Liked by 1 person

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