Last week, I wrote about Ellen Galinsky’s important new book , Mind in the Making, on the seven life skills that every child needs today. Recently, I caught up with Galinsky and asked a bit more about the book’s genesis and her views on learning. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
MJ – What vision of learning did you have for the book?
EG – We’re born engaged in learning, because it’s basically a survival skill. If we couldn’t figure out the world, we wouldn’t survive. For a long time, we’ve understood learning as the acquisition of content and facts. More recently, there’s been a push for learning skills that will help young people when they reach the workforce. In writing the book, I was particularly interested in the kinds of learning that can help children now and will also help them in the future. I thought a lot about moving from a 20th-century to a 21st-century view of learning. We get stuck in an either/or situation: either content, or skills. To me, the point is, it has to be both.
MJ – In what other ways are you trying to broaden our definitions of learning?
EG – When parents are asked what they want for their children, most say they want them to be caring, contributing people who have meaningful lives. They don’t want them just to become successful in academics (which of course is important, too). The skills I’m writing about are for a well- rounded person, not just a one-size-fits-all person. A person on Twitter wrote me that the reason she likes the book is that: “Your message is clear: The self-motivated, independent children who are resourceful and know how to cooperate are our future.”
MJ – It seems to me that the seven skills you’ve highlighted are also fairly low-tech, and I love that about the book. They’re based on simple, everyday activities that any parent can inspire and guide.
EG – I remember meeting a low-income parent who said that she wants the same things for her child as a rich parent can give their children. In writing the book, it was important to me that whatever I was suggesting be something that any parent could use for children of any age. Often it is the simple things done differently – “simon says” played the opposite way – that promote learning. I will be appalled if people take this and make stuff that parents have to buy. Of course, it’s the job of marketing and product developers to find things to sell us. But we’ve been promised quick fixes with Baby Einstein or Brainy Bay: “do this, and then you will have a child who’s a genius.” We’ve been through that, and hopefully we’ve learned from that. Learning should be fun. If it’s just drill and practice for your 2 year old, that’s not good. I used to watch in horror as a friend drilled her baby: “This is a lesson about balls.” As I watched, I was thinking, “Just let him explore the ball. Ask him questions that promote his interest.” What I found consistently is that children are born with all the right equipment to gain knowledge. They have what I call in the book an object sense, a numbers sense, a people sense. The brain is wired to understand knowledge in specific ways.
MJ – How have our views on childhood changed in regards to learning? We used to have a Lockean view of children, that they are a “tabula rasa” or blank slate, needing to be filled with facts. Or we had a perspective inspired by the teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that children are naturally gifted with curiosity and other traits that become devalued by schooling. Where are we now in our views of children?
EG – We have had a burst in knowledge about child development, particularly with neuroscience and with the ability to study children’s learning from many different disciplines. This knowledge has taken us beyond the “tabula rasa” or “put them in the sun, and water them and they’ll grow” viewpoints. There are no genetic expressions without experience, nor vice versa. For example, we used to think there are nine different types of temperament, and children are born with one of them. Now the latest thinking on temperament is that children vary in terms of how they react to new experiences, and how they regulate their responses. It’s much more of a process than a personality type. We also now know that children’s brains are wired in ways that enable them to grasp complicated knowledge. For example, work by Jenny Saffran at the University of Wisconsin shows that babies have the ability to grasp which sounds in their language or languages go together. It is a process of detecting patterns in what she calls a “sea of sound.” But we have to build on this knowledge to promote the learning of life skills and content.
MJ- The idea that learning opportunities are all around us, every minute of the day is both inspiring and perhaps daunting to parents today who are so anxious about raising children the “right way.” What would you say about today’s anxious parents?
EG – There are so many people who criticize parents about their desire to do the right thing. As parents we’ve always started out wanting to be perfect and that probably is a good thing. We then realize we have to be good enough. I have studied parental growth and development and think that that needs to be understood by all those who write about parents – and by parents ourselves. When we reach the ‘good enough’ stage, we tend to relax and enjoy the process more.
MJ – What surprised you as you researched and wrote the book?
EG – Although I have an extensive background in child development and its research, creating this book felt like such a learning adventure. That to me was the biggest challenge of the book: to capture in words the mystery, the excitement, the wrong turns researchers made, to tell the story of researchers as people. That’s why I told the story of Dan Stern, who became a baby researcher because, as a toddler himself who could speak only Czech, he spent months in an English-speaking hospital, where he learned to watch behavior, since he didn’t understand language.
When I was getting ready to start to write a chapter, I would immerse myself in reading the interviews I had done with researchers. I would immerse myself in the research, then I’d go find out things I didn’t know. Then I would put it all aside and write the story I was discovering as an outline. As I was writing the outline, I was seeing so many new connections. Those connections always surprised and delighted me.