On June 11, I had the honor of addressing the participants at the 2012 Chancellor’s Academy. I want to share an excerpt of my remarks.
I am told we have almost every public school from the Champaign-Urbana area represented here today. I want to acknowledge the Superintendent for Champaign Unit 4 Schools Judy Wiegand, Superintendent of Schools for Urbana School District #116 Preston Williams, and all the other administrators that are here today. All of you do a tremendous job for our community’s children.
I note with delight that this year’s Chancellor’s Academy will be discussing the whole child approach to teaching. I think this is so important. Here at the university, we bring young women and men from large urban centers and small rural regions to this transformative university, where they have opportunities to learn not only from their professors, but from their peers from across the United States and around the globe during internships and externships in varied environments in Illinois and in our robust Study Abroad program.
I think a common thread that runs through successful students is that their openness to education began at a young age. From such programs as Thrive by Five, we now know that the period of time from zero to five-years old is so critical to a child’s openness to being educated from later on. This is both scary and challenging to think that a child’s future is determined - and I don't think it's that strong, let's say - deeply influenced - by their first five years of exposure to so many factors, including nutrition, television, language, and books. There is a study that indicates that the more books present in a home the more children will want to read. And, as you know, the joy of reading is connected to the joy of learning. This means that in addition to parents, even the teachers we train for nursery school and daycare are so very important to a child’s development and that child’s future zest for learning.
In fact, a child’s learning process begins even earlier. Patricia Kuhl, co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington, shows that even at 19 hours an infant responds to a visual cue. So if you open your mouth, the baby will open its mouth, too. I think what it shows is how plastic the brain is.
To use Dr. Kuhl's own words during a TED talk titled "The Linguistic Genius of Babies," what is going on in a baby's brain is "nothing short of rocket science." She says babies can discriminate all the sounds of all languages, no matter what country we’re testing and what language we're using." And, Dr. Kuhl has learned, they learn their native language sounds before six months and can even discriminate other languages at that age. That's why children up to the age of seven can master a second language much easier than they can after the age of seven.
Perhaps not surprisingly, babies learn these language skills most efficiently from human interaction. They learn it from collaborations.
Teachers are the greatest collaborators and an individual teacher such as you can make an incredible difference in a student’s life. You are the gatekeepers to knowledge. What you do is transformative with lasting impact in a child’s life. Let me give you a couple of personal examples.
One of the best teachers I had was an English teacher in ninth grade. I remember so clearly reading Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter. I understood the narrative of these classics, I was enthralled by the story arcs but, in fact, I was missing so much without even knowing that I was. That is until my teacher pointed out something that was totally foreign to me. Symbolism! I had never ever thought of symbolism in literature. Now, you have to understand that my parents were both scientists and so we didn't do a lot of reading in my family. So when I began to reread those two great classics I realized it wasn't just the words that counted, it was the symbolism and the interpretation, and it came from the analysis that this amazing teacher taught us to do. It was as if I had been led into a secret garden.
Education truly is, as George Peabody said, "A debt due from present to future generations." It might not always feel that way but what you do each and every day in the classroom, in the lab, and in the studio lasts beyond the moment. You are creating intellectual pathways that last a lifetime. And I cannot think of a more important job than to lead a child through that gate into their own secret garden. I applaud all of you for your commitment, your passion, and your love of teaching. You are an inspiration to all of us. Thank you!