Maryanne Wolf remarks

Unlearning Violence: Evidence and Policies for Early Childhood Development and Peace

February 14, 2014
ASEAN Auditorium
The Fletcher School
Tufts University


Transcript of remarks by Maryanne Wolf

So we are going to do an absolute whizzing through of a set of wonderful - a story really. It’s a story from neuroscience into areas in Ethiopia - but I could not do any of this without Stephanie Gottwald from the Tufts Center for Reading and Tinsley Galyean from the MIT Media Lab and also the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values.

72 million children basically are either not in school or are absolutely illiterate. 793 million people in our world cannot read. 64% of them are women. But one of the most important things for us who are in neuroscience is the question: what does it mean not to be literate? What does it mean to be able to have a brain that thinks and reads simultaneously? And here I’m bringing us back for those of you who were here last night to the three Kantian questions that are the leitmotif for today: What can we know? What should we do? How can we hope? And so this is going to be 15 minutes of looking at what can we know from cognitive neuroscience that informs our work on global literacy? And it all begins, as you help me begin, with that young reading brain.

Now the reality is that this child is not reading, but rather the child is forming a circuit, a circuit based on the regional structures that are in the brain.  Pascal said that nothing is new under this earth, but there is rearrangement, and that is the story of literacy and numeracy. We literally are rearranging existing circuits to make something new. But reading is extraordinarily complicated, and what we are doing is studying it. This slide is from  my colleagues at MIT and shows a children’s imaging center with a child’s stuffed animal getting a scan and a picture of the animal brain’s scan for the child. I hope the IRB will not object! That is a tiny bit of deception, but it helps our children enter the scanner, and we literally study how that brain, how that reading brain changes over time. We can look at millisecond to millisecond what structures come online.

Why is that important to the work that we’re talking about today? It’s important because it gives us the basis for what we will ultimately do in interventions. We are ultimately going to take all the areas that are involved in that reading circuit and we are either going to customize apps ourselves or curate existing apps, and that will be the story that will enfold in a minute. We are in what we consider a moonshot moment. It’s a time where our work in technology makes mobile devices for learning ever more accessible. It’s a time when our big data  analytics allows our colleagues at MIT, Georgia State,  and Tufts to analyze it as it instantaneously comes in. We’re also working very much on another area---and this is where the talks for all of today and Dr. Aber come in here -  about how does child driven learning and our work on ethics and transformative values--- how can it come together with our work on the reading brain? So, in essence, we are taking multiple disciplines and we’re putting them together, and we’re using this work on a global literacy set of initiatives. The people, some of whom are here, are asking the following question: Can we develop theoretically based digital learning experiences for mobile devices that will enable children to learn to read on their own?

Now so many of our children do not have schools, will never have schools, will never have teachers. Those of you who actually know some of my work in the reading brain know that I am both a critic of technology as an answer for all--- and an absolute advocate in how it can be used to help us. And so what we’ve done, we’ve taken this information on the reading brain and we’re using it to build an app map, a set of templates that can ultimately be used in an open -source platform not just for English, which we are beginning, but for any language. And we are taking it to different  places, our first two places are in Ethiopia.

The model is this: we’re integrating our understanding of the reading brain. We’re using this for apps. We’re using it with data analytics that allow us to assess in time, in that moment, what a child is doing any minute, so that we can ultimately understand what works best under what conditions, where, and in what language systems. So it’s an iterative process that we’re involved in.

Our first two pilots are in Ethiopia in Wonchi and Wolonchete. And one of the most incredible experiences we’ve had of late, we just heard from a scholar who came from Wolonchete who wants to help us work in the Oromo language. This is an extraordinary experience.

We’re working with 20 children in each village. We tap our computer engineer, who is in Addis Ababa, who brings Motorola XOOM tablets. That will change. We will be using all kinds of different mobile devices  in different places.

First, we bring the tablets. Nothing else. Now this is very tough for those of us who work with children. The intervention for us is to see if without intervention from any adult, children can learn on their own to learn precursors of learning, learn to be computer literate and, in this case, learn English. And here is the first child. I can’t tell you enough how shocking it was that in four minutes---remember,  these are villages that are off the radar; they have never seen paper, no pencil, no lamp, no anything---yet, in four minutes, this little boy got his tablet on and said, “I got mine on. I’m the lion.” He is the lion because he and the older girls immediately taught the other children. Within one hour, the kids became almost computer literate.

Stephanie and I just heard yesterday from Uganda  a similar story again: within one hour the discovery, the child-driven learning of the children is helping them literally teach others. With  some of the worst apps you have ever seen! These are so mediocre. I mean, part of our work was we’re actually doing a course between MIT and Tufts on this. We have to build new apps. They are so theoretically impoverished. But that’s not the story. The story is the kids are learning nevertheless.

I was there a year ago.  What we were doing, Stephanie and I, involved putting together a reading assessment measure.  What we found was that the four major goals were being extraordinarily achieved. First, the kids were computer literate,  and by five months, this is no kidding, the lion boy hacked. I do not know about you, but I can’t hack. It’s very good that I can’t. But these children had so much that was going on in computer literacy. In terms of English language learning, they learned a lot of the major concepts. In terms of the precursors of reading like letter learning, almost all of the children knew the letters, could recite the alphabet  backwards and forwards, could identify a letter and could write it. They’ve never written. We gave them pencil and paper and they wrote the letters. They have been doing it in the earth before and on the tablets.

And here I want you to see what we found in terms of precursors of reading. This is not reading. This is sight word recognition. We’re not there yet, but we are close. And those two little girls and the lion boy are the teachers. The kids are teaching each other in ways we would never have believed possible. This is the beginning. It’s only the beginning. We want to extend this actually with Jayanthi Mistry and some of her colleagues in India and the venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi who you will be hearing from this afternoon. Through their help we  are going into India. Stephanie and I are working in South Africa. We are working on different mobile technologies, different power sources and very importantly, we want to work on different apps. And here’s where Dr. Aber’s talk and ours and the work of Venerable Tenzin and the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics are all coming together.

We want to create stories that will support ethical development so that simultaneously we have stories that are using the principles that we know from the reading brain that will be enhancing their learning of reading, but at the same time have moral dilemmas: stories of animals, stories of children, stories in which ‘other’ is no enemy, but rather, the “ other” is someone to learn from. Stephanie and I are right now working on vocabulary apps in which the children from different villages are exchanging the words for their favorite things and learning from each other as they are learning about empathy, about compassion for others.  Very importantly, ultimately  we want them to learne how to take on the perspective of ‘other’ and make that “other” not enemy but possible friend.  And so some of our work that has begun with literacy is being transformed to work on both literacy and ethical development.

Finally, I come back to our questions: What can we know, What should we do, What may we hope? We hope that this work becomes a platform for other people, other people around the world in which our new deployments can simply be germinating the work of many others. Thanks to Tinsley and Stephanie we’re now working with all kinds of technology groups to get developers to think about these areas. Our real hope is that we will ultimately have something we can give that will enhance - this is very outrageous - 100 million children to be literate at the end of the decade. If we would do that, this would be the equivalent of an ability to reduce poverty by 12% and the gains of health and in gender would be tremendous.

And so what do we hope? This is what we hope. This is Stephanie Gottwald in South Africa in a classroom of somewhere of close to a 100 children with one teacher. It’s not just about not being in places with no schools. It’s being in places with schools with impoverished conditions. But we want to see if we can harness the absolute best knowledge of this moment in time to enhance literacy and through literacy as our vehicle, ethical development and a more compassionate world. Thank you very much.