Learning from a child’s learning

This article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Man’s World magazine.

I’m fascinated by how children learn. During my reading on cognitive development in children, a quote by psychologist Jean Piaget stuck with me. He says children aren’t less intelligent than adults, they just think differently. What interests me is the consummate ease with which babies make sense of their environment. The only acknowledgment of each new experience being a set of gentle coos and aahs or that wide-eyed, pinpoint stare they’re capable of when something interesting flits into their field of vision. Most of that initial learning is through seeing and touching different textures, shapes and objects.

Piaget says children build schemas. Simple frameworks into which they pour their small but exponentially growing body of knowledge. A squeezy ball is just that to us as adults – a plaything. To a baby it’s something round, which after two minutes of experimentation becomes something round which rolls and progresses to something round which rolls and makes a delightful sound when squeezed. Hence anything that’s round usually rolls and makes a sound when squeezed. Then they’ll observe a wheel and realize not everything that’s round is spherical so they’ll modify their schema. It’s amazing, really.

My son’s four and in a fascinating stage of cognitive development with two dominant themes: role-play and curiosity. The first I liken to a kind of intellectual stretching of limbs. Children at this age are unable to assimilate different viewpoints and tend to stick to their own, but they expand that perspective through symbolism and role-play. This is why he says his leopard toy’s his dinosaur toy’s “mom” and will not let it go out to hunt without brushing its teeth. Or when he’ll chase me around with a plate calling it an “alien spaceship”. Fantasy is escapism for adults but for kids it appears to be a pushing of boundaries in an effort to see what else could happen.

This brings me to Curiosity – simultaneously their most endearing and most annoying trait. Their questions arrive ceaselessly, like waves in a storm relentlessly pounding a withered shore. Barely have you mustered an acceptable answer to one question, the next one’s already limbering up outside.

Consider, for example, a recent conversation about shadows. My son (let’s call him Tyke) excitedly summoned me to his room and pointed at his shadow:

Why’s my shadow white?

I was puzzled. “White? Looks dark to me.”

No, it’s white. Less dark.

I realized there were two sources of light, one behind him which was casting the shadow and another above him which was brightening the shadow. I explained. He contemplated that for a second and realized he hadn’t understood a more elementary problem. What’s a shadow? He must’ve heard the term in pre-school when people referred to this strange dark shape trailing them everywhere. I explained that behind him was all the space on the floor where the light couldn’t reach because his body was blocking the light rays.

But then why’s it black?” followed by “If I smile, why doesn’t my shadow smile?

(Pro-tip: If you feel cornered in a place where a child demands an explanation but you don’t know the answer or how to explain it, always offer to play cartoons instead. Works for me.)

Or the other day when he was playing with a top, which was a noisy, garish thing replete with flashing lights. When it stopped rotating, the silence was deafening to Tyke who asked “why did the top stop”? I thought this was one of those moments you go “aww, don’t worry just spin it again” but he wasn’t being whimsical. He really wanted to know why the top stopped. I stared at him like an idiot for a few seconds before mumbling “it got tired”. Sometimes it’s not a good idea to patronize kids. He was unconvinced and I think, a little disappointed by my answer. I hastily tried to explain friction but by then he’d dismissed my inputs.

It’s not just their sense of observation that’s keen; it’s their intuitive ability to question linkages. And of course, the irrepressible hunger to know more. They never tire of questions, because learning interests them. I’m not sure if they even know how any of that insight will help them, but they don’t care. They just want to know more, which I really admire.

To quench this insatiable thirst for information, I’ve turned to the internet. There’s so much online and in such rich formats that learning is now a truly interactive and enjoyable experience. There are apps that have sophisticated learning programs, a far cry from five years ago when clunky alphabet primers dominated the marketplace. Even without apps, YouTube and Wikipedia are a treasure-trove. I remember my childhood when questions about countries, animals, natural phenomena would send parents and teachers running for their Encyclopedia Britannicas or “Tell Me Why”s. Now, when Tyke has a question about the Panda, we head over to YouTube and watch an hour-long documentary. If he has specific questions about its habitat, what it eats, what it weighs, we go to Wikipedia and find out. It’s that easy. Of course, I don’t allow unsupervised time on the internet because it’s my role to curate.

However, I’m pretty sure even the internet would admit defeat when faced with a toddler’s inquisitiveness. Caught in long sessions of exasperating interrogation I’ve had the time to marvel at their ability to frame questions that are paraphrased versions of “so what”? I work in an industry that relies on insights to address business issues. I’ve attended workshops that teach how to distil insight, with “so what” being an integral question in the search for its attainment. And yet, we didn’t need workshops to learn this as children, we just seemed to know how. I believe a child doesn’t have information but knows how to use it. An adult has information but loses the natural ability to use it somewhere along the way. It probably happens when we stop taking the effort to build our own schemas, something children do quite well. It happens when we value efficiency over experimentation and simply acquire schemas from other sources to supplement our own – i.e. from traditions, rituals, culture, and someone else’s experience. I understand these shortcuts are necessitated by busy lives, schedules, greater responsibility, etc. But isn’t that why scientists are parodied as absent-minded people with their heads in the clouds? Having worked with some, I can vouch for the fact that they’re adults who’ve retained a child’s most intrinsic learning ability – building concepts from scratch, through observation and experimentation.

Adults face learning curves because they’ve forgotten how to, but kids show us the way every day. To me, that’s as good a reason as any to not just love, but respect them.

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4 responses to “Learning from a child’s learning”

  1. varsha says :

    yes. so true. working with M who is in his 10th now. and the sheer volume of information and the paucity of time leads the kids to “tuition” and “notes” basically somebody else’s schema! and i am disappointed that icse helps cramming so much in this one year that theres little fun left in learning.
    in the process of teaching M i have also discovered fantastic aids, videos esp, on the net. but its go go go…all the time, “no time to stand and contemplate!”
    then i was talking to this other mom of a 11th std kid. he is working towards the CET (medicine) and his coaching already forces him to stay up to 3am! wth! is anything worth this? and at 16? grrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!

  2. At Sita_Iti says :

    I have noticed that too- children observe and take in information while simultaneously and seamlessly integrating that into a whole experience. Somehow this process gets thwarted in many as we grow up.

    One thing I learned as a researcher(!) was to be able to frame/ask a question, correctly and precisely, when needed. Sounds simple. But when a tornado of complex information comes at us (of course, there is always a crisis) having the question layered out helps set up filters that allow assimilation of information within context. Or in other words, – child’s play! Children never lose context so that is how they can take in so much information?

    Loving and respecting children for who they are, at just the right level is a challenge and a reward in itself :)

    Nice, thoughtful post. Liked.

  3. Payoshni says :

    Daddy,
    i recently left my corporate job to work for a NGO in India where i teach a bunch of 11-14 years old in standard 6th. Being a novice teacher, and somebody who isn’t a parent., am scared AND fascinated with the curious mind of children. They are inquisitive, creative and free thinkers. Unlike us, they aren’t caught in the web of things that are socially acceptable and said truths (atleast not till now)..

    Loved reading this piece. Am sharing this on our Facebook Group (i work for Teach for India btw, google it:) ). Others like me, would love to read this am sure :)

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