The Famly Interview
Secret Life's Paul Howard Jones

Hear from The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds resident neuroscientist.

At the Nursery World Show we sat down with neuroscientist Paul Howard Jones from The Secret Life of 4 and 5 Year Olds. He has also recently released a new book titled Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So Smart. 

Hear him talk about his experience on the show, and what it taught him about assertiveness, observation, and…kissing. On top of this, Paul talks about his research into how young children learn and how he believes scientists, managers, and practitioners can work together more,

Watch the full interview or read the transcript below and let us know what you think.

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Next up we’ve got a great interview with Paul Howard Jones. You might know him from The Secret Life of Four-year-olds. He’s here to promote his new book Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So Smart. It’s all about how we learn and how of course young children learn and we had a great discussion about that and also about how neuroscientists can work better with people in the early years – practitioners and managers to help children learn even better.

For those who don’t know about you maybe a little history about yourself and how it relates to early years and what you’re doing here today at Nursery World?

Well, I used to be a teacher and then I became a neuroscientist and now I really sort of focusing on bringing neuroscience into education. I’m interested in all phases of education. I used to be a secondary school teacher used to train primary school teachers. But I’m also interested in early years and of course a lot of people know me through the Secret Life of four or five year olds.

And how is your experience on the program? What did you learn and how did it break your expectations?

Well I mean it’s an amazing experience. I’m really privileged to be able to observe children in that way over that sort of period of time. I mean I suppose the first thing, it’s quite an emotional experience because you’re watching children at that level and you get very involved with their lives, with their conversations, with their dramas. So that was kind of unexpected for me you know. I mean, sort of up halfway through a week you know you’ll start really worrying about one of them because they’re not making any friends and you really feeling pain. But I think the other thing more scientifically is there’s a number of areas that we we just don’t have research on which appear to be really salient.

I mean they’re very obvious when you’re observing children over a long period of time like that. And one of them is assertiveness. So I was noticing that children who were more assertive are actually much better at making friends. They found it much easier. So even if they had other parts of their personality which maybe weren’t so positive. The very fact that they were so assertive and they would push their views and opinions forward somehow seemed to make it easier. Looking at the literature there’s very little on that on the positive aspects of children’s assertiveness. Generally speaking if I look at the literature on bullying and aggression and the sort of negative aspects push themselves forward into a situation. But actually assertiveness is something that we all need a bit of and you see the children who don’t have that assertiveness really coming off the worse in many situations.

So that was one area, another area is kissing. When there was a lot of kiss chase happening, a lot of romance brewing I thought actually I don’t know very much about love amongst four and five-year-olds and the role that it plays. Do children actually fall in love at four years old at five years old? There’s very little literature you know, I just just couldn’t find it. I was up until like 2 or 3 in the morning getting quite panicky feeling that I should be an expert in this area if I was going to say something about it on the screen, but again it’s one of those areas we know very little about.

Do you think there’s a reason why we have such a lack of research around some of this do you think it’s more difficult to do research with the youngest children? Is that part of the reason why?

I think a lot of the a lot of the research that we do on young children is very structured so we have very controlled experiments and that sort of thing and we go into it asking particular questions. Quite often though, the questions come from a scientific point of view that can continue to build publications in their area you know and attract research growth. What we don’t do is go into a scenario and just see what is actually going on. And I think actually it’s that type of naturalistic observation that Secret Lives has allowed me to do which I found so incredibly valuable. Just saying okay you know without any sort of biases what’s going on here. I mean that’s what the programme makers asked me to do. Just sit me down and say we want you to just watch what’s going on tell us what’s happening. And that is really challenging but also really rewarding. Because it just pulls up stuff that you wouldn’t have thought of as being important you know.

Do you think being part of a process like that has now influenced your research and what you are most interested in?

Well one of the things that we’ve done and we’ve done it with series two but if it goes well, we’ll arrange it for the other series as well is actually persuade Channel 4 and RDF the filmmakers through negotiation to release all the audio files to us. So that we can actually research everything the children said over you know the summer period when it’s filmed. Because of course what actually goes on screen is a very small amount of it and we’re recording everything that every child says all the time. Which you could imagine is hours and hours and hours of really interesting data. So it’s an interesting cooperation between you know TV media and and actually academic research.

Brilliant and you’ve got a new book out at the moment.

It’s about you it’s about your brain and you know how did you get to have the brain that you have. I mean obviously there’s genetic variation but the basic brain of our species evolved over billions of years and that story of evolution and how the brain evolved has lots of insights about how you can know we’ve ended up with such a smart brain but also how you can use it to be a bit smarter.

So I guess during that it’s interesting because that’s what we’re most interested in in the early  is how do we help these children to develop the key skills they need. Have you formed what might be called a pedagogy? Have you formed what you consider to be the most important thing, you’ve very passionate about for example a play-based approach to helping children to learn? What do you think is really important?

What I think is really important is the expertise and knowledge of the teacher so I don’t think actually that scientists can tell nursery teachers or any teachers how to teach. The teachers are the experts. But I think that the science and understanding science is a really important part of that and I believe that teachers can benefit and their learners, the children can benefit from from having the insights that neuroscience is providing. So you know that’s what I feel passionate about, trying to find ways of communicating what we are beginning to understand from the neuroscience to educators and teachers and working with them to find how that is valuable how that can inform their practice.

I think that’s a great point because actually most of the people who’ll be watching this interview, they’re not coming at it from your point of view they are mostly going to be practitioners and managers. What can they do if they want to search out things that are more accessible rather than having to crawl through a 50 page paper?

Well, this was the reason why I wrote the book. So it tells the story of how the brain evolved and that’s a very interesting story but actually along the way you find out how the brain works, how it learns and that’s really helpful for teachers and parents and learners. But I think that book and also the rest of my work has been informed by having conversations and by working and collaborating with teachers so we’ve just put neuroscience into our teacher training at the University of Bristol. And I say ‘we’ because that was only possible because of conversations between myself you know providing a science concepts and the teacher educators who have the expertise to know what student teachers need. They help identify the concepts the curriculum, I help keep the scientific validity. But they help make it educationally relevant and you need those two things together so neuroscientists cannot tell teachers how to teach. Educators quite often feel at sea with the neuroscience. It’s only together that we can produce and we can identify the concepts that are most useful in the classroom and find ways of communicating them. But I mean that the book I’m hoping is one of those ways.

Brilliant. Paul Howard Jones thank you very much I think that’s a great place to end up.

Pleasure to meet you, really great!

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