Dr. Steven Hughes a pediatric neuropsychologist and Director of the Center for Research on Developmental Education, an education outcome research consultancy. His work is directed at measuring, tracking, and communicating about the wider developmental benefits of nontraditional educational experiences. He is the founding chair of the Association Montessori International Global Research Committee. Dr. Hughes previously was a faculty member in the Division of Pediatric Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School, and is past president of the American Academy of Pediatric Neuropsychology. Dr. Hughes’ main research interests are on processes that promote the growth of executive functions, social-emotional skills, and moral reasoning. Dr. Hughes is a popular speaker and consultant for Montessori organizations around the world. As the driving force behind the Montessori Global Outcomes Project, he is helping Montessori organizations around the world show how Montessori education can help “close the gap” with children from under-resourced backgrounds.
We all ask ourselves one question: What will be like the education of the future and how to prepare the children for it. What is your opinion?
In many countries, education in the future will continue much the same way it has been in the past. Because of PISA score rankings and also because of the tendency for governments to copy policy initiatives started by other governments, many countries will continue to emphasize use of national or international test results as the means by which they evaluation their education systems. This is a serious problem, because it turns out that other factors contribute far more to job success than how well people do at school.
For example, both Google and Ernst & Young have found through their own internal research that academic ranking or grades received at university have almost no predictive power for success on the job. Neither do things like challenging brain teasers sprung on candidates during job interviews (something they used to be famous for). Google found that what does have strong predictive power is the way a job candidate answers questions like, ‘tell me about a time when you had to solve an analytically difficult problem.’
While many ingenious software engineers who are good at solving problems have done well at university, many others did not get good marks (maybe they were too busy developing their own app, or contributing to the linux operating system kernel). Many don’t even have a university degree. What predicts success working for Google is not how well they did at university exams, it’s how well they can do the kind of things they’ll be required to do while working for Google – like solving analytically difficult problems.
Business leaders known who they want to hire. IN 2012 IBM commissioned a study of over 1,700 CEOs from 64 countries in 18 major industries, asking them about the kind of skills they believe are necessary for success in the global economy. They reported that the most important skills were the ability to be creative, to innovate, communicate well, to collaborate with fellow employees and with customers, to be willing to seek new opportunities, to be analytical and “leverage complexity” to competitive advantage, to anticipate and manage change. None mentioned anything about doing well on academic tests.
So what is likely to happen in the future is that some countries will understand that the kinds of activities necessary for their young people to develop skills like creativity, innovativeness, collaboration, and communication (and paradoxically, ALSO to develop more advanced language and mathematical and analytical skills) are different from the kinds of activities that only promote performance on academic tests. These countries –Finland being perhaps the most familiar example – will orient their education systems around the kinds of experiences that promote creativity, innovativeness, communication, collaboration, curiosity and analytical skills. These countries will experience a higher quality of life and standard of living.
Other countries will continue to chase test scores and chose to ignore the accumulating evidence of the importance of so-called “non-academic skills.” It’s easy to organize and administer mass academic testing, it looks like the education ministry is doing its job, and school improvement through higher test scores has a superficial logic to it. However, this is becoming an increasingly difficult position to hold, its sole virtue being that it is relatively easy to create and justify such programs.
Which are the crucial skills for the child development in order to help them to self-create their personality?
One of the most important conclusions draw in neuroscience research over the past couple of decades is recognition that the primary function of the brain is to formulate, coordinate, and perform movement. The evolutionary process that ultimately lead to the appearance of homo sapiens is survival based on perceiving relevant features of the environment and performing actions (movements) that aid survival. Any living thing that moves, can sense the environment, needs to eat, and can be eaten, will improve its chances for survival by doing these things better. A mechanism that mediates between observing conditions in the environment and deciding upon (and performance) an appropriate behavioral response is present in organisms as simple as bacteria or as advanced as human beings. Our ability to look around, figure out what needs to be done and do it, is basic to survival, and has been part of the evolutionary selection process leading to more advanced forms of life. The mechanism that mediates between perceiving the environment and producing (we hope) an appropriate behavioral response is cognition. Good decision-making aids survival, and the human attribute of intelligence has come to be understood as the outcome of an evolutionary process selecting for better decision-making over time.
If we want to consider how children might grow and develop their own unique personalities, we need to begin from the understanding that every person has a unique set of innate characteristics owing to the unique configuration of their genes. Every child born (even twins) will go on to have unique experiences in the world, both at home and at school, and also in other settings throughout their lives. Most people now understand that the “nature via nurture” debate is outdated and wrong. The process of development is one of “nature via nurture.”
Every child needs to work out how he or she (with their unique set of attributes) will survive (and hopefully thrive) in the world by experiencing, experimenting and exploring how the world works, and what kinds of behavior gets them what they need.
Well, some children are born extroverts. They might work out how to thrive in the world through engaging with and maybe even charming, or persuading others to work with them or do what they want. A child who is by temperament more of an introvert is not going to be predisposed to approach and engage with others – they’re just not built that way. A more introverted child might work out a “winning strategy” that allows them to earn a living in a more controlled, quiet, and stable environment.
But at the beginning, nobody knows what is going to work best for them. They can only figure out how their unique set of genes is going to be able to survive (not to mention reproduce) by trying things out, developing their skills, abilities, decision-making, and by forming their own strategies for dealing with the world. And that means that we need to be able to response to their developing interests, values, abilities, and goals in such a manner that they can learn how to optimize and develop their talents.
Parents, teachers, and others involved with children often have an instinct for this. They look for signs of interest or curiosity and try to provide opportunities for their children to explore developing interests. School can also play a role in this essential process, but not if it imposes a “one size fits all” approach. Every child’s developmental path is unique, and every child’s pattern of interests and abilities is unique. To be effective, education needs to be able to accommodate these simple truths, and in my experience nothing can do this as well as Montessori education when its done well.
Is there any age period of child development, after which is much difficult to build the skills for life?
The good news is that there can be plenty of opportunities for people to build the skills necessary for life. Even people who get off to a difficult start can find their way to a more developmentally helpful path, but there is no question that experiencing a responsive, supportive, peaceful, and stimulating environment early in life is desirable. In some cases (such as in the development of language, sensorial, or motor functioning), there seem to be critical developmental periods during which the brain is especially primed for the formation of certain functions, however, that’s not the case for everything.
However, in building the skills necessary for life, it is very clear that there is a developmental sequence to things, and that early experiences can aid in the early maturation of important neurological and functional systems that are necessary to do more advanced problem solving. Most aspects of physical and cognitive development occur as a consequence of interaction with the environment. Some children have fewer of what you might call practice opportunities in their environments than others, so they may not develop a capability as early, or perhaps as fully, as a child raised in a different setting.
We know, for example, that growth in vocabulary and language skills more generally is highly driven by environmental experiences. By 36 months of age, children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds know less than half of the words recognized by children from more privileged backgrounds – and vocabulary is solely driven by environmental exposure. This doesn’t mean that children from poor backgrounds can’t or won’t learn more words as they get older. Perhaps some will gain vocabularies that are even larger than those of more privileged peers, but gaining these skills earlier confers clear advantages. For example, if a child in elementary school is still trying to figure out how to use a pencil, they are not going to be able to write poetry. So it is worthwhile to offer them the opportunity to develop all of their skills as early as possible.
Based on your expertise in the field of research of the child neuropsychology, would you please share some secrets from the ‘kitchen’?
It really all comes down to creating conditions that permit children to follow their curiosity, explore how the world works, and to develop their own “winning strategies” for surviving and thriving. Many parents and teachers have a kind of instinctive understanding of this need.
However, the same parents and teachers can also get wrong the need for children to have some kinds of external guides for their behavior. One of the most important attributes they need to develop for a successful life is self-regulation. The ability to stop oneself from acting inappropriately, to sit still when necessary (even if one would prefer to run around), or the ability to experience emotions without necessarily acting on them, are slow in developing. And they don’t really develop in settings that are overly permissive.
It is really important for adults to be able to set appropriate limits – to gently but consistently enforce necessary behavioral rules (e.g., taking turns, not hitting others, being polite, sharing) and, for example, say “no” when saying no is the right thing to do. Setting limits is not being mean. Children may protest, but they themselves don’t yet have the capacity to recognize that going to bed at an appropriate hour is in their best interests, that staying up until 10 or 11 might feel kind of fun or special when you’re doing it, but that the next day is not going to go well if you do. This is the kind of thing that parents need to do.
Montessori wrote about the need to create conditions where children can experience freedom, but only to the degree that they can demonstrate the ability to use that freedom in a purposeful manner. How much freedom each child can benefit from depends upon the child’s ability to use self-discipline. Better self-discipline (or self-control) should be met with more freedom, just as poor self-control requires more structuring by a caring adult.
What are the latest findings and facts about the way the child’s brain works and how we can utilize that knowledge?
Children’s brains grow as a result of interacting with the environment. We can think of the brain as being a kind made up of a range of special muscles. We develop any muscle (be it one’s biceps or one’s ability to play the piano) by exercising that muscle. It appears to be natures design that children are driven to engage in the kinds of activates that help them exercise their developing physical and mental muscles. We can create conditions that support this, or that constrain this. At the same time, children need to also develop the ability to manage themselves, and to do this they need to know what the rules are and that the rules are consistent. They know that they don’t yet have the ability to easily settle down when they get overly-excited, or that they don’t yet have the capacity to organize and plan their lives. They need the adults in their lives to “keep them in the road” so to speak. To help keep them on track.
How we can support the moral development of the child?
It is very clear that moral development is dependent on both cognitive and social development. One of the best ways to support moral development of children is to help them build their cognitive capabilities, and also to have the experience of being looked-after, and looking after other children.
One of the great benefits of Montessori education is the mixed-age learning environment. This means that every children who started school at age 2½ or 3 will be kindly and gently welcomed to their classroom by other children who had the same experience who are now age five or six. They remember what it was like to be new to this place. Their own experience helps them understand what a newcomer is experiencing–and how comforting it was for the older children to be nurturing and supportive.
Another aspect of the Montessori classroom is, at the start of the year, discussions around the classroom rules. How the rule about not being able to interfere with another child’s work means that everybody benefits everyone, or how not being disruptive allows everyone to do their tasks more calmly. Participating in a mini “society “with a set of rules that make sense and which benefit all, opportunities to reflect on how the world looks from someone else’s point of view, all these kind of things support the developing understanding of the principles necessary to create a world that respects the needs of all. And that is the foundation of moral development.
What is your opinion about the use of technologies and child development?
In most situations, screen time is more or less developmentally “dead time.” Especially during the first six or eight years of life, the most important developmental tasks are completed through hands-on, curiosity-driven interactions with physical materials and other people in the environment. As a tool-using species, human beings are very draw to technology, but our nervous systems and cognition are better developed through more concrete, physical engagement with the world.
Technology may have a role later in childhood as tools for use in conducting research, or perhaps as a vehicle of exploration and discovery for writing software (it would be quite an experience for a couple of 12-year-olds to write an app and get it published in the app store), but all too often use of technology means using an iPad as a device for delivering flashcards, or some other didactic purpose.
Would you please outline the main principles that are the foundation of the excellent Montessori education?
No other educational setting allows children to engage in the extensive, motivated, effortful, repeated, trial-and-error, experimental interactions with the environment that support the optimal development of the nervous system, brain, and cognition. Nothing else even comes close. Every brain grows at a unique pace, and every child can proceed through the Montessori materials-based curriculum at their own developmental rate. At the same time, children in Montessori are part of a supportive, safe, and peaceful social group.
What is the secret of Montessori methodology?
Creating conditions that facilitate concentration. Without question. When children are engaged in deep concentration, they are engaging the complex neurological networks necessary for problem solving. Most have heard the expression “neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain grows as a result of use. Of exercise. When children are “digging deep”, engaged in motivated exploration, problem-solving and making new discoveries about how the world works, they are using and thus forming the neurological systems that will be used throughout their lifetimes to understand and solve problems, to navigate the social world, and wherever they find themselves, to look around figure out what needs to be done, and do it.
Can you tell us about the topic of your lecture during the forthcoming conference in Sofia?
My lecture in Sofia will be about how the brains constructs itself and the kind of conditions that most support this process. It is all applied developmental neuroscience, and once you get some understand of these processes, you will never view education the same way again.
In fact, once you really wrap your brain around what the brain needs and how fully Montessori education addresses these needs, you will find yourself asking, “why in the world would we want to do education any other way?”