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Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning [Hardcover]

John Bruer
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From Amazon

Will listening to Mozart's symphonies make your newborn smarter? Is your child's brain unalterably "hard-wired" by age 3? Don't believe the hype, trumpets educational consultant John T. Bruer, Ph.D., in The Myth of the First Three Years. A powerful political element has put its spin on dated, unrelated, and inadequate research, he says, christening it "the new neuroscience." According to Bruer, both Mozart and a study of one-eyed kittens are spuriously linked to the future success of our nation's children and are being used to propel a platform of welfare reform. Disgruntled by the lack of hard, scientific evidence behind the latest policy push, he asks, "But just what is the connection, for example, between the 100 billion nerve cells, developing healthy brain circuitry, and selective TV watching?"

Countering the central tenets of the myth by exposing the research upon which it is supposedly based, Bruer finds, "Apart from eliminating gross neglect, neuroscience cannot currently tell us much about whether we can, let alone how to, influence brain development during the early stage of exuberant synaptic formation." And contrary to the myth, up-to-the-minute research actually informs us of the remarkable plasticity of the brain and its power to continue learning throughout life. Perhaps most insidiously, "the Myth rejects strong genetic determinism in favor of early neural-environmental determinism.... The argument is but one rhetorical move away from an early-environmental version of the Bell Curve."

Less a tool for parents than a fascinating case study for students of political science or public relations, The Myth of the First Three Years slams the policy machine that has hijacked the new neuroscience and redirected it to finance a new wave of entitlements. --Brian J. Williamson

From Library Journal

Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation in St. Louis, has written a provocative analysis of public response to the science of brain development. His argument is a combination of anti-big government conservatism and rigorous scientific method. Criticizing the media and misguided politicians, he argues that brain-development studies have been misrepresented in an effort to reserve public money for early childhood public services. He suggests that funds would be better spent on lifelong services, like skills classes for parents and caregivers. Along the way, he levels some well-deserved criticism at reports in the media that misinterpret and oversimplify scientific studies in order to support a popular agenda and cautions against confusing learning that must take place in a developmental sequence with other learning that can occur throughout life. Because his thesis will raise a fair amount of controversy, this book would add balance to any child development collection. Recommended for public and academic libraries.AMargaret Cardwell, Georgia Perimeter Coll., Clarkston
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Kirkus Reviews

An educator takes issue sharply with the currently popular notion that the first three years of life are crucially important for optimal brain development. Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which funds research in mind, brain, and education, examines how folk beliefs about child development (as the twig is bent, etc.) became wedded to brain science. This union has, he asserts, led to what he calls the Myth, spread by the Carnegie Corporations reports Years of Promise and Starting Points, the 1997 White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning, and the Rob Reiner Foundations I am Your Child public education campaign; these reports, he claims, are producing undue anxiety in parents and mistaken public policy. Bruer warns that when policymakers adopt the belief that only in the first three years of a childs life can any real differences be made, programs to help older children and adults are threatened. According to the Myth, that brief period, when the brain is rapidly forming synapses connecting nerve cells, provides a critical window of opportunity in which enriched environments and increased stimulation can help children build better brains. Advocates of the Myth, charges Bruer, have oversimplified and misinterpreted what neuroscience has revealed about synapse formation, critical periods, and enriched environments. Bruer looks at the research in these three areas, examines their implications for early childhood education, and concludes that research findings do not support the Myth. In his closing chapter he has reassuring advice to concerned parents of young children (stop worrying, but do see any vision or hearing problems are fixed promptly) and some stern counsel for the rest of us: be highly skeptical of any claims that human beings do not continue to learn and benefit from their experiences throughout life. In other words, abandon the Myth. Bruer has fired a well-loaded gun across some establishment bows. (For a different look at learning in the first three years, see Alison Gopnik et al., The Scientist in the Crib, p. TKTK.) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.


Steven Pinker Director, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, MIT, author of The Language Instinct and How the Mind Works John Bruer offers a voice of sanity, common sense, and genuine expertise to counter the latest fad from the witch doctors of child development. Nothing is more important than understanding the growth of children's minds, and Bruer insightfully reviews the state of the art with admirable clarity, balance, intelligence, and humor. This is an indispensable book for parents, professionals, and anyone else who is interested in the fate of our children.

Howard Gardner Harvard University, author of Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences John Bruer convincingly debunks current hype about brain research and learning. His careful discussion and eminently sensible conclusions should shame those who propose grandiose policies or issue dire warnings on the basis of scanty or ambiguous data.

Judith Rich Harris author of The Nurture Assumption A myth is still a myth, whether it has its roots in folklore or neuroscience. In this fascinating book with a very important message, John Bruer traces the myth of "zero to three" to its sources, reveals the flimsiness of its foundations, and shows how the purveyors of the myth, intending to do good instead do harm. Every parent of a young child should read it, rejoice, and relax.

Jerome Kagan Harvard University, author of Nature of the Child John Bruer combines a clear, gracefully written critique of the science cited to support the myth of infant determinism with a depth of wisdom that parents should be able to use every day.

Charles A. Nelson University of Minnesota John Bruer does a masterful job in making accessible what truly is and is not known about early brain development. In light of the current hype of making "superbabies" and building better brains, Bruer's book couldn't be more timely or important.

Robert J. Sternberg IBM Professor of Psychology and Education, Yale University This outstanding book is essential reading not only because it tells the truth about what neuroscience currently tells us, but also because it shows how even well-intentioned scholars confuse what they want with what actually is true. A true tour-de-force.

Jonathan R. Cole Provost and Dean of Faculties, Columbia University A brilliant, must-read book for anyone interested in the relationship between science, journalism, and public policy. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One: Through The Prism of the First Three Years

0ne afternoon in early fall of 1996, the phone on my desk rang. The call was from a journalist who was writing an article for a national parenting magazine. She was doing a story for her readers based on the then recently released Carnegie Corporation report Years of Promise. She told me that I was on the media list for the report -- a list of interested or knowledgeable people, sent out in the report's press kit, who would be willing to speak to journalists. My name appeared on the list because for the previous decade I had been funding and writing about applications of modern psychology to education and school reform.

She asked me, "Based on neuroscience, what can we tell parents about choosing a preschool for their children?" When I answered, "Based on neuroscience, absolutely nothing," I heard a gasp on the other end of the line. The journalist politely suggested that I must have been living under a rock for the past four years. She told me that there was a wealth of new neuroscience out there that suggested otherwise.

I did not think I had been living under a rock. And I did not offer my answer casually. For the four previous years, along with almost everyone else, I had been hearing murmurs about how new breakthroughs in neuroscience -- our new, emerging understanding of how the brain worked and developed -- were about to revolutionize how we think about children, childcare, and parenting. I had read the occasional articles, features, and editorials that had been published in major American newspapers. The headlines did get one's attention: "To Shape a Life, We Must Begin Before a Child is 3," "Building a Better Brain: A Child's First Three Years Provide Parents Once-in-Lifetime Opportunity to Dramatically Increase Intelligence," and "Youngest Kids Need Help, U.S. Told: Federal Government Urged to Focus on Their 1st Three Years." The articles under the headlines said that new brain research could now tell us how and when to build better brains in our children. The first three years -- the years from birth to 3 -- we were told, are the critical years for building better brains.

In early 1996, I read Sharon Begley's February 19 Newsweek article, "Your Child's Brain." Although I was glad to see that brain science was getting cover-story attention, some of the claims and statements in the article, especially those offered by childcare advocates who were not brain scientists, seemed farfetched. But that is not unusual in popular articles about science and research.

In spring 1996, because I was on the media list, I saw an advance copy of the aforementioned Carnegie Corporation report, Years of Promise, which briefly touched on what the new brain science might mean for educational practice. The report's discussion of the brain science was so fleeting that I dismissed the neuroscience as rhetorical window dressing to increase interest in educational policy and reform. About that time, during a visit to the MacArthur Foundation, I read an editorial in the Chicago Tribune titled "The IQ Gap Begins at Birth for the Poor." In this piece, as in others I was now collecting in my file cabinet, the writer claimed that applying the new brain science offered "the quickest, kindest, most promising way to break" the cycle of poverty and ignorance among the nation's poor and to "raise the IQs of low-scoring children (who are disproportionately black)...."

However, the more I read, the more puzzled I became. For the previous eighteen years, at three private foundations, I had been following research and awarding grants in education, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. All during that time, I was wondering when I would begin to see credible research that linked brain science with problems and issues in child development and education. I was puzzled because, despite what the headlines proclaimed and the articles stated, I had not yet seen any such research.

In late spring 1996, I had received an invitation to attend a July workshop in Denver, Colorado, sponsored by the Education Commission of the States and the Charles A. Dana Foundation. The workshop's title was "Bridging the Gap Between Neuroscience and Education." Based on the reputations of the sponsoring organizations, I thought that the workshop would offer an ideal opportunity for me to learn about the new brain research and its implications. Unfortunately, I had a scheduling conflict and could not go, but my colleague, Dr. Susan Fitzpatrick, a neuroscientist, attended in my place.

When she returned from Denver and briefed me about the meeting, I had expected to hear about new research linking brain development, child development, and education. Instead, she began her briefing with a one-word description of the workshop: "Bizarre." She told me, and my subsequent reading of the workshop report confirmed, that there was little neuroscience presented in Denver and certainly none that I had not previously known about. There were, however, Susan told me, wide-ranging policy discussions, bordering on the nonsensical, in which early childhood advocates appealed to what might be most charitably described as a "folk" understanding of brain development to support their favorite policy recommendations. Reflecting on the Denver meeting and its report, it seemed as if there was, in fact, no new brain science involved in the policy and media discussions of child development. What seemed to be happening was that selected pieces of rather old brain science were being used, and often misinterpreted, to support preexisting views about child development and early childhood policy.

Thus, my response to the journalist's call reflected my conviction, based on what I had read and heard up to that point, that there was no new brain science that could tell parents anything about choosing a preschool. Her call, however, did change how I thought about the issue. If claims about brain science were confined to rhetorical flourishes in policy documents like Years of Promise or to the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune, it was probably relatively harmless. It might even draw attention to some important issues that policymakers and newspaper readers might otherwise ignore. However, it struck me as a very different matter if people were taking the brain science seriously as a basis for policy and legislation and if parents were asking what the new brain science meant for raising their children and choosing schools. Following that call, I was no longer comfortable being merely puzzled or bemused about what I read in the newspapers. I wanted to understand what was going on and to consider more carefully what the brain science might actually mean for children, parents, and policy.

The White House Conference

My job as a foundation officer responsible for funding research in mind, brain, and education, plus some strategic letters from colleagues, earned me an invitation to the April 17, 1997, White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning: What New Research on the Brain Tells Us About Our Youngest Children. For those interested in children and education, the conference was an exciting development. It promised to focus the nation's interest, even if only for a few days, on science, children, and related, highly significant social issues. What better occasion could there be to understand the growing enthusiasm for what brain science meant for parenting and policy?

Mrs. Clinton opened the conference. She emphasized the significance of our new understanding of the brain. Brain science confirms what parents have instinctively known, "that the song a father sings to his child in the morning, or a story that a mother reads to her child before bed, help lay the foundation for a child's life, in turn, for our nation's future." Unlike fifteen years ago, when we thought babies' brains were virtually complete at birth, she told us, we now know brains are a work in progress. This means, Mrs. Clinton said, that everything we do with a child has some kind of potential physical influence on that rapidly forming brain. Children's earliest experiences determine how their brains are wired. The first three years are critically important because so much is happening in the baby's brain. "These experiences," Mrs. Clinton said, "can determine whether children will grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens, focused or undisciplined workers, attentive or detached parents themselves." She did caution that the early years are not the only years that matter and that brain science also tells us that some parts of the brain, in her words the "neurological circuitry for many emotions," remain a work in progress until children are at least 15 years old.

Mrs. Clinton introduced the president, who outlined several initiatives that his administration was undertaking on behalf of mothers, families, and the nation's youngest citizens. The president in turn introduced the chairman for the morning session, Dr. David A. Hamburg, then president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It was Hamburg who three years earlier had initially called attention to the "quiet crisis" afflicting young children, a crisis addressed in the Carnegie Corporation's report Starting Points. That report, in Hamburg's words, "focused on the strong evidence from research on brain and behavior development, indicating the long term effects of early experience." Starting Points, he said, also noted the wide gap between scientific research and public knowledge, between what we know and what we are doing with that knowledge. The White House Conference represented a major step in an attempt to close that gap.

Dr. Donald Cohen, director of the Yale Child Study Center, spoke next. The Yale Center has been a leader in the areas of early childhood research and education. Mrs. Clinton had worked with the Child Study Center while she was a law student at Yale. In his talk, Cohen also mentioned that, while at Yale, both he and Mrs. Clinton had been students of Sally Provence, one of ... --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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