I attended a presentation today by Nobel prize winning economist James Heckman at Duke's Center for Child & Family Policy's 10th Anniversary on the economics of investing in children. He began by highlighting the fact that American society is increasingly becoming more polarized and less productive and this decline in productivity has had a negative effect on society. Many major social and economic problems can be traced to low levels of skills and abilities and research has shown that gaps in these abiltiies open up very early between advantaged and disadvantaged children. While our educational system focuses heavily on testing and developing cognitive skills, non-cognitive skills such as socioemotional abiltiies, physical and mental health, motivation, self-confidence and attention not only contribute to better performance in society but also have been shown to contribute to the ability to perform well on the very tests that measure cognitive abilities. The biggest predictor of cognitive and non-cognitive skills is not poverty or genetics as many might imagine, but rather family environment and quality of parenting, factors that an increase in income may not necessarily improve.
Heckman asserted that an early investment in the lives and education of disadvantaged children, particularly in the early years, will produce a higher rate of return than waiting to address their problems once they reach middle or high school. While interventions aimed at young adults such as public job training, convict rehabilitation and adult literacy programs, show some increase in skills and abilities, they do not produce as high rate of return on investment as interventions aimed at very young children. While the cost to intervene at a younger age may be the same as for an older child, by intervening early you greatly increase the likelihood that children will become motivated and self-productive and thus you will save the cost of remediating that child later on.
I found Beckman's discussion of self-productivity, or as he described it "skill begets skill and motivation begets motivation" to be a very intriguing concept. He argues that the earlier a child is stimulated and motivated to learn, the greater the likelihood that he will continue to be motivated and stimulated to learn and those that do not, are much more likely to fail in both social and economic life. I found myself wondering if this also applies to other acquired skills such as collaboration, exploration, critical thinking. I recently read an article by Jane McGonigal for Cathy Davidson's class about the value that can be found in engaging in pursuits with "epic meaning" such as collective intelligence gaming. As I listened to Beckman I couldn't help but think about all the ways that early exposure to certain forms technolgy could not only help eliminate the cognitive gaps that exist between advantaged and disadvantaged children, but also the ways that it could be used to engage kids in projects that tap into their own sense of "epic meaning" and make them feel part of something bigger than themselves, like having them collaborate on being part of the solution to a problem in their community or the world. Instead of only looking for ways to avoid paying higher costs for the future rehabilitation of these kids by intervening early, why don't we also utilize all the tools at our disposal to us to help these kids create futures for themselves that we can't even imagine now.