Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

Some Favorite Books On How People Learn

After years of teaching teens and young adults, I had to train myself from scratch when it came to helping my own kids. Babies and young children are just different. But once I started reading the various popularizers of developmental psychology, I realized my old layer of teacher training that covered how humans in general learn was twenty years out of date. It's been fun catching up on this stuff. To continue flogging the online bookfair for my kid's preschool, here are some engaging, accessible, thoughtful books that anybody interested in learning processes could enjoy.

Remember that big scandal when it turned out kids who watched lots of Baby Einstein videos actually had a measurable delay in learning to talk? And after the results of that study came out, there was a flurry of other refutations of the baby genius industry. It's enough to make you wonder if anything actually does help babies learn. Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Diane Eyer, and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek do some fun debunking in Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn--and why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less. Better yet, once they've advised parents to chill out and enjoy their children, they talk about things parents and kids can do that (A) actually do seem to help babies learn, (B) are fun, and (C) cost practically nothing and require no trips to the mall.

One of the few baby enrichment fads that survives their scrutiny is baby sign language. The visual-manual connections in the brain kick in earlier than the audio-vocal ones, and babies get some hand coordination long before they have much control over the muscles in their mouths. Even if your kid only has enough signs to tell you when he's crying because he's hungry and when he's crying because he needs a diaper change, that's a big improvement in quality of life for both you and the baby.

I read probably a dozen books on baby sign around when Gareth was born. By far the best was Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert's Signing Smart with Babies and Toddlers: A Parents' Strategy and Activity Guide. The others mostly boiled down to: baby sign helps, and here are some signs. Anthony and Lindert recommend specific ways to integrate sign into other stuff you're already doing with your kid, and ways to combine sign and speech to speed the signing baby's transition into talking. Whenever I need to give someone a baby shower gift or a welcome-baby present, this is what I pick up.

I read a lot of books about gender (and biological sex) and child development, too. There are some pretty dramatic claims out there about biologically rooted brain differences between boys and girls, some of them so dramatic that they set off my bunk alarms. Alas, I don't have the chops to assess the quality of a scientific study, unless it's got really blatant fatal flaws. I needed a popularizer to survey the whole field and tell me what wasn't BS. Lise Eliot's Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps -- And What We Can Do about It looks to be just the thing. Whereas journalists and educators dabbling in the subject tend to seize on the wackiest results and flog the hell out of them, Eliot has looked at all the relevant studies and put them together into something that has enough we-don't-know-yets and it's-weirder-than-thats to seem plausible to me. For the sleep-deprived parent, or the parent intimidated by the detailed explanations in the chapters, she has overviews at the end of each chapter, including short, manageable recommendations for things you can do immediately with few or no materials to help your kids, and recommendations for which things you shouldn't bother about because the kids are all right.

A book that absolutely everyone could benefit from reading, with kids or without, is Daniel T. Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. It's written for teachers, with practical classroom applications in mind, but as I read it, I found it illuminated weirdly disparate problems like how to write a good query letter to a literary agent, how to improve the exposition techniques in my fantasy fiction, and why my husband can never remember where he put the cordless phone. Before I was more than two chapters in, it was already improving my teaching, and two years later my reflections on it improve my teaching still. It solidified some of my guesses about how I want my kids' educations to be structured, and forced me to throw out some things I had assumed were settled issues. Seriously, rush out in a buying frenzy and get this book.

A last note from B&N about how to make sure that little percentage of your purchase gets credited to the Unitarian Montessori School, the only school yet that has been awesome enough to make me second-guess my crazy homeschooling plans:
1. From the Payment page, scroll to the very bottom and choose "Check this box if it is a Bookfair Order." NOTE: If signed into your BN.COM account, you may need to click "Change" on the Payment section on the Checkout page and then scroll to bottom.
2. Enter Bookfair number as indicated.

Our bookfair number is 10770006. You can use it with almost anything you might buy online from B&N, through June 7th.
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