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“Loving to read as a strategist”. Episode 16 part B. The reading brain of kids. Strategic Reflections

In my last episode, we didn’t write the strategic reflections with a specific teaching purpose. We wanted you to see, feel and comprehend the contrast between encoding and decoding information, in comparison to completing the reading cycle: decoding-comprehending-responding. Literacy at the highest level occurs when we can perform personal detailed inferences and strategic reflections. When we don´t read with deep interest, but only scroll or skim for information on the Internet, what we convey is the transmission of information that simply stays at the level of decoding (sometimes not even comprehended well). When we participate actively in responding to the authors, either by performing analysis, critical thinking or by adding new elements or connecting the dots between past knowledge and new ideas, or by stretching our imagination to talk (mentally) with the authors, that is how we begin to exercise the habit of reflecting. When humans do not reach Literacy 5 (the top level according to the OECD), we simply are information gatherers, but we don´t perform the complete cycle of reading.

At Literacy 5 level, tasks may require the respondent to search for and integrate information
across multiple, dense texts; construct syntheses of similar and contrasting ideas or points
of view; or evaluate evidence-based arguments. Application and evaluation of logical and
conceptual models of ideas may be required to accomplish tasks. Evaluating the reliability
of evidentiary sources and selecting key information is frequently a requirement. Tasks often
require respondents to be aware of subtle, rhetorical cues and to make high-level inferences
or use specialised background knowledge.

Definition of the higher level of Literacy. Literacy 5 by PIACC Standards. OECD Skills Report. SKILLS MATTER: FURTHER RESULTS FROM THE SURVEY OF ADULT SKILLS. Year 2016. https://www.oecd.org/skills/skills-matter-9789264258051-en.htm

The meaning of my work in these episode lectures is to show you how to reflect strategically.  As promised, I am completing my strategic reflections before the next episode. I decided to do it today, on my Sunday resting jour. I do hope that you did your homework from the last episode and tried to come up with at least three strategic reflections. If you have not done it, please do not read this post yet. try to exercise your mind to prepare at least three thoughtful reflections in the format of an inquiry to me. And then come back to read this episode. Before commencing, find two additional slides that I have prepared as a supplementary section to our past episode. So, let´s begin.

The reading brain of the kids. Doctor Hugo Lagercrantz, a global authority in pediatric neurophysiological research (1), has been our pundit light for the following strategic reflections. So let´s start to read how we connect the dots between what Lagercrantz (and other researchers) have suggested to us, with our strategic domains. We will focus on pregnancy because we intuitively believe that learning (including literacy) is linked to the foundations of our life: our mother´s womb.

Once a woman is fertilized to have a baby, she won’t know about her pregnancy, probably only by around 4 to 6 weeks afterward, or she will find out after her menstruation doesn´t show up a month later. In consequence, the miracle of life for our neural and brain systems occurs exactly since the sperm fecundates the ovule. Even if the mother doesn´t know that she is expecting, our biological development inside her womb has already started. “By the third week after fertilization of the ovule, the gastrulation, the head-tail axis, and a ventral and a dorsal side are formed.

Then the neural groove and the neural tube will have closure about 25 days after conception. Failure of this closure leads to anencephaly or spina bifida. This can be partially prevented by folic acid”. Lagercrantz describes that the neural tube is then expanded in the cranial end forming the brain hemispheres, i.e., ballooning of the brain. There are about 100 billion neurons in the adult brain. Most of them are generated during fetal life, mainly between the 10th and 20th gestational weeks.

Our first strategic inference of this research observation is fascinating: regardless of the moment in time in which the baby moves for the first time and irrespective of the moment in which the baby’s consciousness starts (20 weeks after conception), the brain creation for the little baby happens since gestation. By the time in which a woman realizes that she is pregnant, the brain of the baby has started to take form, so our brains have been constructing themselves. See Slide 10a. The scientists have offered a milestone list of our brain development that we won´t be able to discuss today (2). Watch slide number 10b.  Our second strategic reasoning is that the brain of any human can be altered for good or for bad by external conditions that affect the normal growth of the fetus inside the mother´s womb. These external circumstances to the baby can alter the development of his or her brain, and these factors could be genetic, biological, emotional, or physical nature that comes from the mother. Depending on the age of the fetus, then the impact of these external conditions that influence the mother can also influence the baby´s brain development. When the baby´s brain development is altered, this affects the learning-memory aspects required for further education-instruction after birth. So it is not only genetic or biological what is happening with the fetus. It is also wired to the external conditions that the mother is living.

The first 36 weeks of life of any of us inside our mother´s womb can affect our brain´s development including our future learning (and literacy). By reading Lagercrantz’s book, we also can extrapolate (in theory), and without any medical-physician expertise, that our brain’s biological foundations for our whole life are settled and completed by 25% to 40% right before childbearing, which means that whatever that affects the brain development of the baby before birth, has a tremendous impact in the future of the learning brain. The foundations of our birth development don’t happen after birth, but beforehand.  The next third strategic conjecture might be too courageous from my side because that percentage could be more or even less, but whatever the correct percentage, it doesn´t matter. What counts is the foundations of our brain development are minted in our mother´s womb, and we believe that our learning style is coined there. This implies that we will be more visual or reading or auditory or kin-aesthetic depending on the stimulation that we get from mom during pregnancy. Would it be possible that since pregnancy we can learn to become activists, theorists, pragmatists, or reflectors? We also consider that pregnancy is so crucial for the brain development, that even the emotional intelligence life of the kid is stamped during those months. We wonder:  don´t you think that many of our troubles with learning can be fixed during pregnancy? What about considering that somehow, it is during pregnancy that the true foundations of our brain development are established? And what is more interesting, if these brain foundations aren´t only genetic, how can we as parents support our baby´s brain development much more during pregnancy? I wonder what type of cognitive-learning processes can be promoted in the mother´s womb that can affect positively the next first 6 years of humans’ life, or early childhood?  If humans are so focused on neo-natal and early-childhood caregiving, why aren´t we focusing on the first 9 months of life during pregnancy?

When the baby is inside the mother´s womb, no one can see what is happening to him or her; and all the pregnancy attention is focused to keep the physiological and biological conditions for the mother´s successful term. But concerning learning, probably not so many mothers are aware of the impact they hold on their babies in gestation. The most daring experiments of learning stimulation of the fetus that I know are related to:

  1. Placing relaxing classical music to the mother´s tummy.
  2. Reading and talking to the baby, during pregnancy
  3. Caring for not drinking alcohol, coffee, acid, or bitter food that may affect the fetus.
  4. Providing folic acid, and natural vitamins through a special diet with plenty of fruits and veggies during pregnancy.
  5. Exercising properly.

Apart from these measures, each pediatric physician evaluates and monitors the health of the mother during pregnancy, with the purpose to keep the healthy expected ranks during the whole term. Nevertheless, we ask ourselves, what else can we do to help kids’ brain development during pregnancy? It is being said that babies feel when their mothers are being loved by their partners? And they also feel when mom is in trouble. Babies experience fear and pain or happiness from mom. Is the brain learning process affected biologically much more than what experts think? This is the fourth strategic premise that comes to my mind. See slide numbers 10a and 10b again, please. Also, read again slides 10th to 13th from our last episode.

 Illustrative and non-commercial image. Used for educational use. Utilized only informatively for the public good.

What if our brain development starts as soon as fertilization?
By reading other authors, it seems to me that the stimulation of our brain development (associated with our learning process after birth) shouldn´t wait to start with the birth of our babies but before. During the last century and even after the appearance of MRI technologies, all our research has been focused on what can parents, tutors, and teachers do to help babies to reach their brain development potential after birth. For us, that is too late. Neonatal and early childhood have been studied and researched, from the point of view of nutrition and psychological and pedagogic stimulation. Additionally, we believe that the phenomena of digital disruptive technologies associated with the media toolkits in apps and games (in tablets, computers, and Smartphones) have broken the research guidelines that were coming from generation to generation. There are new disruptor elements on the table that were not conceived intrinsically.  That is why our education researchers have been busy trying to understand the impact of these new technologies on early-childhood learning. But what is happening to the mother if she is exposed to digital addiction during pregnancy? How that digital addiction can affect the baby before birth?

Lagercrantz explains that since pregnancy (by the 4th week of age), the genes are crucial for the construction of the scaffold of the brain. He also states that genes are also important for making the neurons and their branches, glia, and synapses. However, Lagercrantz also has written that “there seems to be a redundancy of the formation of neuronal pathways and connections at that age. That is why the fetus and the newborn brain are more like a jungle than a computer. The immature brain must be organized, and the optimal neuronal pathways selected”. So, our fifth strategic implication is: the children´s brain cells and neurons learn to conform themselves during pregnancy and after birth, to be ready to learn.  This is also supported by the concept of epigenetics of neural learning.

The epigenetics of neural learning. According to researchers Bronfman, Ginsburg, and Jablonka (3) learning involves neural plasticity and memory. It is manifested at many levels of our biological organization: at the single-cell level, at the level of local cell assemblies or networks, and at the system level of dedicated structures in the brain, for example, the forebrain, the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala. For centuries, “how our cellular systems communicate and transmit information in between them was associated with genetics heredity”.  Even Lagercrantz explains that the formation of the brain during the first weeks after fecundation is a “genetic flow”, but he also perceives that external conditions can affect it. If Lagercrantz asserts that “the stimulation of the brain starts before birth: for example when the fetus is exposed to sounds including the speaking of the mother for language development”, then not everything is explained by genetics. In consequence, we ask ourselves, what else can be done to stimulate proper learning styles inside the womb? What else can we do inside the womb, to prevent ADHD, or other brain sicknesses such as Alzheimer, Parkinson, Syndrome Down, or other mental illnesses? If we can fight spina bifida with folic acid, what else can we provide to the mother to avoid the baby´s genetic diseases? What if instead of modifying the genes, the solution to our learning problems is nothing else than a specific medicine (such as folic acid) and/or correct and loving stimulation for the baby inside the womb? This is our sixth strategic reflection.

Epigenetics is a term that was defined by Waddington in the late 1930s. Epigenetics is the study of developmental processes that lead to persistent changes in the states of organisms, their components, and their lineages (3). In our bodies, these persistent changes are mediated by epigenetic mechanisms at several levels. These changes occur in the form of a simple communication process: encode-storage-retrieval, which is basically connected to the continuum process that we have studied when defining the concept of reading-learning: decode-comprehension-response.  Are you following me? For example, our cells, neural networks, and multinetwork structures systems encrypt a message in between them and act accordingly to reproduce themselves, or to tell these systems what to do to our brain directives. This encoded input-response is maintained or stored, leaving a memory trace, that can be recalled or retrieved. This is how our organism functions.  In consequence, our inner biological organization is formed and transformed since its conception through this process of learning and memory. And it occurs during the whole pregnancy, and continues after birth, with the external continuum process called reading-learning.  Do you see the association? Our inner neurophysiological systems are encoding-storing-retrieving (or decoding) inside of us to function well. And since our birth, we are learning using the framework of decoding-comprehending-responding.  From here, our seventh strategic inference is intuitive enough: our biological organization systems are always reading and learning inside of us, since fecundation. After birth, we are simply trying to emulate what we do inside and extrapolate it to our reading-learning continuum.

Inside our biological body organization, everything is communicating dynamically in between, and this memory-learning process befalls at several levels. Richard Semon (3) developed the notion of biological memory in the early 20th century. He conceived that individual learning leave traces in the biological organization. And these traces can be transmitted to descendants. This notion triggered a tripartite conceptualization of memory: the cell memory (cellular level), the neural memory (nervous system level), and the phylogenetic level (heredity-genetic level). For example, if I can paint watercolors without formal training, and I learned it spontaneously when I was 45; that can only be explained because an ancestor of mine was a fantastic watercolorist (or paint artist) who transferred those skills to my brain memory, and this talent was reactivated and retrieved when I was confronted to similar or associated conditions that were lived, once I took the brush and the pigments 7 years ago. In the terms of the experts: I was able to paint as a well-experienced watercolorist because a connection between cell-neural-brain systems memory was transmitted as a generational heredity mediated by many epigenetic mechanisms; and was corroborated then by my brain and hand practice, even if I was 45 years old then. These cumulative epigenetic mechanisms motivated learning and it was manifested. But my painting competencies aren´t only explained by genetics, but by the aggregated behaviors and knowledge learned from my birth up to the time in which I decided to start to paint. It is also explained because I practice every week for several hours.

How can we use the notion of tripartite learning memory (cell memory, neural memory, and heredity levels) for reading? Our eighth strategic inference starts here: If inside our biological complex organization, all our systems are communicating in between using the model explained above, then how can we replicate what we do inside to the outside world to help our kids to learn properly (not rapidly), but with distinction? Is the concept of aggregation or cumulative learning from multiple domains associated with excellence, when it is aligned with epigenetic mechanisms?

Once babies are born, what can we do to help them to learn literacy?
The rest of the slides that I shared last Friday, from slides 10 to 22 helped us to integrate the strategic notes provided in slides number 23 and 24.  In one paragraph, the synthesis of our strategic reflections is: the reading brain of the kids is in active development since the day of fecundation. There are inherent biological development events related to the brain learning-memory development processes occurring in the pre-natal, neo-natal, and early childhood years. It is of primordial priority that parents stay on top of the stimulation for learning of their children, since conception. A nurturing and loving environment between mom and dad is crucial for the attainment of the children’s continuum aggregation of knowledge: from the inside encoding-storing-retrieving; and on the outside decoding-comprehending-responding.  The mother´s womb circumstances affect the capacity for future learning of the baby, beyond biology or nutrition. There are external conditions that affect the brain of the mother: contexts, motivations, culture, values, emotions, attitudes, skills, and daily routines. And all these conditions seem to affect the brain of the babies. This occurs pre-natal, and neo-natal, and extends toward early childhood years. If you wish to learn about age-by-age reading to your baby after birth, read the following article which is a complementary information guide that I have found on the Internet. I consider it very comprehensive: https://www.waterford.org/education/how-young-is-too-young-to-read/ (4).

Well, this is it for today´s challenge. I truly hope that you have perceived the difference between reading as an information ritual, and reading as a strategic reflection.

Announcement: See you next Tuesday 8th with two subjects which are interconnected in between “Who enjoys reading? And “If you don´t like to read”. Blessings. Enjoy your Sunday!

“Loving to Read as a Strategist”. Illustrative and non-commercial image. Giphy source from Nazaret Escobedo

Sources of reference utilized today for my inferences:

  1. https://staff.ki.se/people/hugo-lagercrantz
  2. Lagercrantz, Hugo. Infant Brain Development: Formation of the Mind and the Emergence of Consciousness. Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
  3. Edited by Murphy, R.; and Honey, R. “The Wiley handbook on the cognitive neuroscience of learning”. John Wiley and Sons. 2016. Chapter 7: The epigenetics of Neural Learning by Zohar Bronfman, Simona Ginsburg, and Eva Jablonka.
  4. https://www.waterford.org/education/how-young-is-too-young-to-read/

Total of words Episode 16th Part B: 2,834.
Reading time: 15 minutes.

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