Early childhood learning and, in particular, on why it is important to educate young children about the natural environment and about how to relate to it in a way that would preserve its integrity in the interests of both present and future generations.

Although educational psychologists hold differing views on how young children learn, it is generally agreed that early childhood is the ideal time for learning not least because young children have fresh, uncluttered minds as well as strong natural curiosity to learn. Discussion begins with a consideration of the three classic approaches to child learning— the empiricist, nativist and interactionist approaches — of which the last is widely accepted as being the most realistic. The importance of learning in early childhood is then discussed with reference to the highly relevant issues of parenting, motivation and the nature of the learning process itself.

In subsequent discussion it is argued that how we treat nature and the environment is fundamentally determined by our attitude to it, and that our attitude is shaped by our moral values. Therefore, if we are serious about protecting the environment and in achieving at least an acceptable degree of sustainable development in the interests of both present and future generations, then the prevailing exploitative attitude to nature must give way to one of respect, care and prudent husbandry. It is also argued that this can only be achieved by instilling appropriate moral values in children that would endure throughout their life. But who is, or ought to be, responsible for instilling and nurturing these values in children? Given the pace of social changes now taking place in practically all societies due to pervasive globalization and other factors, it is argued that teachers should take greater responsibility to this end.

It is a fact that educational psychology has evolved, and is evolving, in the particular context of western societies, and the general tendency is to apply it to other societies without adequately taking into account important socio-cultural differences. Obviously this approach is fraught with danger. On the other hand, in many societies there are deeply embedded religious and philosophical traditions, mythology and legends that respect nature and the environment.

Approaches to Early Childhood Education

There are three different approaches to early childhood (1-8 years) education. One of these, called the empiricist approach, views the child as an ‘empty vessel’ to be filled with knowledge, information and skills, or as a ‘lump of clay’ to be molded. There have been periods when the empiricist approach was dominant, mainly in the USA, while the nativist approach gained favor at different periods primarily in Europe. However, both these approaches are obviously constructs advanced as approximations to what the true nature of education in early childhood is or ought to be, and, not surprisingly, both have been the subject of well-founded criticism. Typically, Gardner (1983) takes the view that it would be wrong, if not dangerous, to adopt either of these approaches exclusively or ideologically, not least because this could deter or even prevent the search for more effective approaches to early childhood education and modalities for their implementation.

The other approach, called the interactionist approach, originated from the ideas of philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). It is actually a combination of the empiricist and nativist approaches, because it views children partly as ‘empty vessels’ and partly pre-programmed. This approach is in line with recent advances in the science of genetics confirming that while a part of how children (and adults for that matter) behave is determined by their genetic inheritance (biological pre-programming), the physical environment as well as external stimuli plays a significant role in shaping behavior too. However, there is dispute over how much of behavior is inherited and how much of it is determined by external environmental factors. This dispute is responsible for the on-going nature versus nurture debate among psychologists.

In this context it is instructive to consider the ‘subject’ as a ‘system’. If the system is depending on its physical, chemical or biological properties. For example, consider the system as a given mass of water and the external stimulus as heat. As the amount of heat applied to the water increases, system response (behavior) changes (rising temperature for example), and, in this case when the boiling point is reached or exceeded, even the physical state of the system changes from liquid to gas (steam). This behavior is universal in the sense that the temperature of water will always rise as the amount of heat applied to it is increased. It is hard to imagine a situation when this could not be true.

A consideration of the evolution of the humankind would suggest that the pre-programmed part has probably grown over time through the storage of coded survival skills and vital body functions. In other words, it is plausible that as we evolved, increasingly sophisticated bits of information vital to our body functions and survival became programmed in our hypothalamus over time, thus creating what are now the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of our autonomous nervous system (ANS) over which we have little or no voluntary control. As for the second question posed above, it is clear that our behavior is influenced by our pre-programming.

Importance of Education at an Early Age

It is clear that with the passage of time the empty part of the ‘vessel’ gradually fills up with received knowledge and information, and, as religious evangelists would confirm, it is far easier to convert an atheist than one who already subscribes to a particular faith therefore easier to fill, while in the case of the latter, the ‘vessel’ must be emptied of existing knowledge and information before it could be re-filled with new knowledge and information. The process of emptying and re-filling can be difficult because, as a
child grows up, he or she accumulates life experience and norms and values specific to his or her socio-cultural context. Also, with advancing years we become set in our ways and comfortable with what is familiar to us, and so it becomes more and more difficult for us to change our values or attitudes unless forced to do so by circumstances.

It would follow, therefore, that early childhood is the ideal time for instilling done effectively, imaginatively and universally, such education would sustain them through their lives’ sojourn in ways that would ensure that a reasonable global environmental capital is left behind for future generations.

SOURCE: Learning and Memory: An Integrated Approach

The author of this article is Asst. Professor, Pioneer Institute of Professional Studies, Indore

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