The Jesuits used to argue that if they could get someone in their church by age five, they’d have them hooked for life.
Nobel Laureate James Heckman doesn’t go quite so far in his ideas for early childhood education, but he does suggest that the years between birth to preschool are crucial in helping to boost IQ scores, enhancing overall educational standards, and therefore improving the economic future of the less advantaged amongst us.
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James Heckman’s proposals are not particularly radical in terms of major institutional changes in our educational structure. Rather, they are more profoundly social in nature. Enriched parenting, providing children with encouragement, and creating early environments promoting cognitive skills and non-cognitive skills, are the kinds of things that James Heckman’s research is designed to promote. But his research also indicates that something as basic as reading to a child on a regular basis, a very simple human activity that many of these disadvantaged kids don’t get, can have significant payoffs in terms of IQ development.
James Heckman is now extending his research well beyond the United States into countries such as India and China, where the impact could be even more profound from a longer-term perspective given these countries’ huge populations, and their economic ascendancy.
His overall message is fundamentally optimistic: We can change who we are. We can improve ourselves in various ways, and we can give ourselves possibilities to grow intellectually. This is not so much “improving” or making a better person through a kind of complex social planning scheme fostered by the government. No, what James Heckman’s research is trying to augment is a sense of capabilities.
Basically James Heckman is saying that we need to give children more possibilities to do whatever they want with their lives. The more capacities our children have to solve math problems, to learn music, to read and to write, the more economic opportunity we will be creating as a society. Is there anything more crucial than that?