Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Guest Post: Aubry Alvarez

(Me and the little sis at Lincoln Park Zoo!)
Hello there! My name is Aubry, and I am a PhD candidate at Northwestern University. I also lecture at Northwestern, and am currently teaching an interesting course entitled “Typical and Atypical Development in Infants and Toddlers,” where we discuss the latest findings on the biological and experiential factors that influence the lives of young children. Broadly speaking, I’m interested in the ways children experience the world. My research draws upon methodologies in psychology, linguistics, and neuroscience. I am also deeply passionate about the creation of quality children’s media. I guess one can say that I’m totally a kid at heart.     

If you’d like to reach out, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me at aubry [dot] alvarez [at] gmail [dot] com, and on Twitter @aubryalvarez  

Seriously fun: On children, and what they teach us

Consider that the human childhood lasts longer than the childhood of any other animal. We spend about seven to ten years of our life adapting to our environments before we enter puberty. On an evolutionary timescale, the necessity is clear: our large, complex brains require time to develop. Indeed, some of the world’s most influential psychologists have posed compelling arguments for this protracted period of development. Yet, all too often, adults discuss children’s lives with an eagerness for them to mature, rather than focusing on the ‘work’ that children are responsible for during this time. And, as psychologist Dr. Alison Gopnik points out, philosophers have long neglected the role that children may play in our understanding of who we are as a species.

A cute and funny comic, but does it represent the truth? (Photo courtesy of WebDonuts.com)

I’ve always thought that concept to be so funny. How can children’s innate behaviors not embody some fundamental aspect of our human nature? It seems likely to me that the answers to our most pressing philosophical questions – ‘Who are we?’ ‘Why are we here?’ – lie within the minds of little ones. After all, if our genes and our ideas are passed on to us from our parents, and if we pass our genes and ideas on to our children, do not children represent the culmination of our species’ intelligence? I think that children, and their innate abilities, hold the keys to understanding our past and our future. (If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, try reading Why Youth Is Not Wasted on the Young: Immaturity in Human Development by David F. Bjorklund or The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik).

And what makes childhood all the more mysterious? The fact that we do not remember experiencing it! (Well, at least we do not remember the early years.) Our ‘infant amnesia,’ then, may lead us to believe that nothing actually happened before the age of three or so. Did we simply not think before the age of three? Did we not have feelings? Were we not capable of making memories? Of course we thought! Of course we felt! Of course we made memories! (Otherwise, how would we have mastered language or the ability to walk? How would we have recognized members of our family?) If you ask me, the earliest years of human life may hold more mystery and wonder than all of the cosmos.

To picture what the daily life of an infant is like, imagine looking out a window and seeing an image like this one. In the large mass of colors, textures, and contours, how do you decide where one object ends and another begins? Is it at the point where two different colors meet? If so, what about varying shades of colors – are these things the same or different? Now, imagine someone trying to describe this to you in a (spoken) language you do not yet understand. In their stream of speech, how do you know which sounds link together to represent words? (After all, pauses in speech only take you so far, and last on the order of milliseconds!) Let’s say you do manage to catch what you think may be a word; how do you locate that word’s referent? Could it be a label for all of the green things? Or perhaps it’s a label for the dark green things only, as opposed to the light green things? Could it refer to the number of tree-like objects there are? Or perhaps it refers to the name of the motion of the trees in the wind? You may rely on gestures and gazes to guess what they are referring to, but these indications are sometimes ambiguous. The only true ways to understand are to quickly calculate statistically probabilities, follow flexible guidelines in making your assumptions, and simply experience the environment over time. Eventually, you will learn the language and make sense of the information around you. If it sounds daunting, that’s because it is. And infants and children do it every day.
(Photo courtesy of National Geographic, © Thierry Bornier)

Over the years, I’ve become obsessed with childhood and what it means in the scheme of our existence. I hold children’s opinions in the highest regard, as I feel they are more knowledgeable, and conscious, than adults in many ways. Think about it: infants begin to devour information as soon as they are born (though these learning experiences arguably begin in the womb). How do they interpret the things they are seeing, hearing, and feeling for the first time? What are they thinking when they’re alone? What are they thinking when we’re around? When do they ‘cross over’ and become like us

As a researcher, I have pursued these and other questions with the help of magnetic resonance imaging, eye tracking technology, and behavioral analysis. My research focuses on the types of information that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are most curious to learn, and why. And because children’s lives are shaped by a combination of biology and experience, I am particularly interested in specifying preschoolers’ psychological responses to digital technology (undeniably a growing part of children’s lives today), and how they can use technology to support their learning. So in another line of experiments, I pursue questions related to the functioning of preschoolers’ attention and memory in the face of touchscreen technology.   

As a curious human being, I spend as much time with kids as I can. Their approaches to life remind me of where I came from, and how I got here. When I see children responding to something – whether they grow happy, afraid, tempted, or curious as a result – I know that those behaviors stem from a deeply rooted genetic history that has been in the making for millennia. And when anyone asks where my passion for kid-culture originates, I tell them the same thing: teaching and entertaining children is like a dance. Child and teacher move back and forth, exchanging feedback, until it becomes obvious that the process itself is what is beautiful to observe. I am just as enthused about their reactions as I am about creating experiences for them. They way children respond must inform what we create. And we must create experiences for children knowing that their responses may surprise us.

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