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Putting Relationship at the Center of Learning

Putting Relationship at the Center of Learning

Nature does it, so why shouldn’t we?

Research has provided great insight into how important human relationships are to learning and health.  This is important, because while technology is enabling research to highlight the primacy of relationship, technology is also supplanting the primacy of relationship.  In this series of articles, we will take a look at why relationships are primary, how to enhance education through relationship, and how our use of technology is challenging relationship.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has published a recommendation to discourage the use of screen media for children under two years of age [1]. In their report they state that 90% of parents report their children younger than two watch some form of electronic media, and by age three almost 1/3 of children have a TV in their bedroom.  They also state that parents are being pulled away from child-parent interaction because of the excessive time that parents spend using media.

In understanding why this is so devastating to children, it helps to briefly review what research has shown us in terms of aspects of the brain that cause babies to focus on faces.  Research has given insight into the interactive process between babies and caregivers that promotes learning through social interaction.  While imitation as an innate ability of infants has been challenged recently in popular press [2,3], the evidence is overwhelming that imitation and face-to-face interaction between baby and caregivers (especially mom) are primary sources of an infant’s learning about information regarding what is important, and how to respond to the world around them [4,5]. This is social learning in action in that what is learned is based on observation of and interaction with others.

A clear and extreme example of social learning is illustrated by Patricia Kuhl’s work in early language development at the University of Washington.  Infants show an incredible ability to learn the sounds of any language they hear from approximately six to twelve months of age [6].  Outside of this time period this sensitivity to phonetic information begins to decrease.

One critical aspect of this study is that the exposure to phonemes in Chinese was delivered through four live speakers and the same speakers on a screen.  The exposure, except for the screen aspect, was the same to different sets of randomly chosen infants:  twelve, 25-minute sessions of book reading and play over a two-month period when the infants were approximately 9 months old.  The researchers had a control group of infants who heard only English.

The result of the study is that the infants exposed to the live speakers successfully learned the Chinese phonemes they were exposed to.  The infants exposed to the screen version of the Chinese speakers did not learn any Chinese phonemes.  They were no different in learning Chinese than the control group who heard only English.

The implication of this study is clear in relation to learning the sounds of language. If we substitute screens for human faces at this stage in a child’s development to teach phonemes, they will learn none of the intended lesson from the screen. In this case the time with the screen is taking the place of time with a human face and results in much less learning.

This study verified that for phoneme imprinting, infants need live human interaction.  This suggests that known factors such as mirror neurons and attunement make faces and relationship the primary source of learning for young children.  The question that we have to keep in mind is whether social learning continues to be a primary source of learning throughout life. If it does, then relationship needs to be at the center of our educational process, and we need to improve our ability to engage students in relationship-centered learning.

  1. American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Communications and Media. Policy statement: media use by children younger than 2 years. Pediatrics, 2011;128(5);1040-1045 pmid:22007002
  2. Online at:
  3. Oostenbroek, J., Suddendorf, T., Nielsen, M., Redshaw, J., Kennedy-Costantini, S., Davis, J., Clark, S., & Slaughter, V. (2016). Comprehensive Longitudinal Study Challenges the Existence of Neonatal Imitation in Humans Current Biology DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2016.03.047
  4. Botbol, M., 2010. Towards an integrative neuroscientific and psychodynamic approach to the transmission of attachment. J. Physiol. Paris 104, 263–271.
  5. Meltzoff AN, Murray L, Simpson E, et al. Re-examination of Oostenbroek et al. (2016): evidence for neonatal imitation of tongue protrusion. Dev Sci. 2017;e12609.
  6. Kuhl PK, Tsao FM, Liu HM. Foreign-language experience in infancy: effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2003;100:9096–9101.


Rick Doughty is a parent of three young adults and the Vice President of Administrative Services at Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Oregon. His wife Sally is a second grade teacher at a Title I school in Beaverton, Oregon. Rick is a Certified Trainer in brain-based learning through the Jenson Learning Corporation and has a master’s degree in communication studies. His passion is helping to make complex material and ideas useful and understandable. This passion is reflected in his book Fulfilled Kids, Fulfilled Parents which takes principles from neuroscience and helps us put them to use in parenting.

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