Silly Mama, tables are for eating

As a young kid I was convinced dinner was “supposed” to come directly after lunch, but this was just never fully practiced. I had asked my mom once why she seemed to care so much about clearing and washing the table after lunch.  She said, “so it can be ready for dinner.”  Seemed to me like a lot of wasted momentum.  She always seemed to forget about dinner as soon as she finished clearing the table.  We weren’t really hungry at that point anyways.  Mama’s can be so silly sometimes.

The readings this week talk about how the way we think effects the way we learn.  What we are looking for in the information we receive completely changes the way we learn, what we learn, and how useful the learning is.  I want to  look at the way kids think differently than adults, and some of the learning benefits to thinking like a kid.

Dr. Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, has a theory that kids are like “the research and development division of the human species.” She is featured on a recent Freakonomics radio podcast, as did a professional magician. The magician demonstrated what he says is common knowledge in his profession: that kids are much more likely to figure out how a magic trick was done than adults are.  On the podcast they and others attempted to sort through the ways of thinking that make this the case.

One explanation is that kids are constantly coming up with theories while adults are essentially waiting for the punch line.  Kids come up with running hypothesis as they go and are not as worried as adults about throwing in some silly ones.   I imagine the consequences for giving a “silly” hypothesis a working, vocal, chance are greater for an adult than for a child (or at least the perceived consequences, but in certain social and professional settings I think the negative feedback can be real). I think adults tend to look for the safest answers. The “grownups” feel duped if they are caught making a guess that turns out to be wrong, whereas kids feel duped if they never make the guess that turns out to be right.

The readings this week were about how to capture a mindset – almost how to capture a child-likeness – that enables learning. Referencing the examples in psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer’s book The Power of Mindful Learning I would summarize her argument as the idea that learning is undermined when it operates on the mindset that there are right and wrong heuristics.  She powerfully argues for the importance of recognizing heuristics for what they are early in the learning process and asking the why behind a habit before over-practice and under-thinking ingrain the habit itself as some sort of underlying truth.

I used a slightly different vocabulary than Langer does to reflect the point that I take away from her examples. Her original wording says that learning is debilitated by the mindset that “there are right and wrong answers.” I see the mindset that “there are right and wrong heuristics” fitting more directly with the her examples. As a scientist I take issue with the idea that the mindset that the word is unknowable and intractable is likely to lead to a more active scientific process. Like kids figuring out a magic trick –  they assume it is knowable, and they look to solve the mystery. Whereas adults are essentially assuming that if it is a good magician the trick will be unknowable (to them). Trying to figure out the mystery could put us in a position of looking the fool. So we don’t. From my perspective we are already too often guilty in science of looking at the world the way a bunch of “grownups” watch a magic show.

I think kids are naturally good at wanting to understand not only how to do something, or what to do, but why to do it.  I like the way the readings illustrate the value of allowing people to rethink patterns we might otherwise have long taken for granted.

In the meantime it’s getting late. I had better go clear the table for breakfast.

14 thoughts on “Silly Mama, tables are for eating”

  1. Great insights! I very much like how you mention that kids are naturally good at wanting to understand how and why to do things. However I am curious to know if you think that they are also good at achieving this on their own? I agree with you on the fact that we are all curious to learn things in order to apply them to our life. However, I think that some of us (or at least myself) have a hard time achieving this and that’s when the role of a teacher comes into play.

    1. I agree — I definitely don’t mean to diminish the role of the teacher.

      In the same podcast Dr. Gopnik said that as adults we are like production and marketing. I can imagine playing off of that same analogy to describe the importance of a teacher instead. If a company were all research and development with a dysfunctional production and marketing department, it would be accused of being lost in it’s own world. It wouldn’t be self-sustainable (It’s the same thing academia is accused of sometimes…).

      Pure creativity can be entertaining on it’s own, but in the end we want it to be tied to something we actually intend to do or to produce. I don’t actually think kids are good at finding ways to spread their ideas and see them utilized and produced in a void of support from “production and marketing.” That doesn’t mean I don’t think they are not capable of these things, but I think teacher/adult support goes a long way here.

  2. Thank you for your interesting post. Your description of the way people perceive the world around them and make meaning of it at different stages of life made me think of Piaget’s theory of development in which he talks about different stages on how we make meaning. His last stage is know as the Formal Operational Stage usually starting at 11 years of age and up. This is when our mind can handle abstract thought, hypothetical situations and pursue ideological problems. He ends his stages here and I wonder if he were to read your post how he would describe the next stage…where would he start…when do we as adults stop imagining and thinking fantastically?! When do we turn into logical, realistic, sensible beings that cannot even think beyond the boundaries that own minds have created for us.

    1. I hope never! I certainly hope these things change by degree rather than turn off and on.

      Thanks for bringing up Piaget’s theory. I’m not familiar with many of the theories in this field, I’m afraid. But hopefully I can pick up a lot through these conversations!

  3. Thanks for sharing.

    You made me think of one time that I was doing some science workshops in my hometown annual fair. I brought some experiments so kids and adults were able to understand several scientific principles. There was one little kid that was bored in one of the exhibits and I told him, do you want to come and see something cool?

    He came to my show and at some point I forgot he was there. There as an experiment where I demonstrated the Bernoulli effect so I had a straw and a credit card and I did an arrangement so when I blow the straw the credit card would flote (long history). The point is that I asked what do you think will happen when I blow the straw? The kid immediately responded it will flote. I was shocked it was the first time someone answered correctly. I asked him how do you know, his answer “You told me I was going to see something cool, so far you haven’t showed me anything cool, so it makes sense this will be it”

    Oh kids and their simple logic.

    One good thing to do is start thinking how can we motivate that intellectual curiosity that kids have in our classrooms, how our teaching practices can adapt to create environments where “students assume the materials are knowable, and look to solve the mysteries”

  4. I appreciate your humor here. Humor is a great tactic in teaching and one that is overlooked far too often. There is a joy in it. Fun, funny, movement, energy and action. I like that you create a metaphor between mindful learning and children at play. To me, a child who is in the full throws of using their imagination is a great example of mindfulness. The child is focused, engaged in play, and so totally committed to the imaginative process they believe in the unbelievable. I think this is a great example of mindfulness and one that can and should be utilized more often in teaching. My blog mentioned the teachings of actor Sanford Meisner and also drew connections between the imagination and mindfulness. One of my favorite quotes from him is, “acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” Children do this instinctively. It’s an automatic impulse and one of the many ways they interact with the world. It’s easy for children to commit to make believe and imagination requires focus, attention, and mindfulness to sustain for any length of time.

    1. I love the quote! It’s more “work” now then as a kid, but I still like writing stories. Even if they never get written… Maybe I “act” more than I think — I hope I am never too old to day dream. 🙂

  5. As a parent of a 2-year-old, I can absolutely vouch for my son’s ability as a member of the R&D department of humankind. Reading your post makes me think of varying theories in parenting, particularly the hands-off approach. Somehow my wife became involved in a playgroup of moms that believe parents should in no way influence their kids’ thinking. They go so far as to never so much as draw a picture for their kid because it has the potential to limit the child’s creativity.

    As in everything, I believe in moderation. This goes for parenting and teaching as much as with everything. As parents or as teachers, we have the task to foster healthy development. This involves guidance and support, not limitation. Both are equally important for health and productivity, just as weeding and fertilization are equally important for a healthy and productive garden.

  6. Children are considerably better at learning than adults. It’s because it’s the first thing they have to do. As a baby we have to learn what our parents’ voices sound like, eventually we have to learn language, how to be independent, etc. It’s an evolutionary condition that we are all born with, the inherent ability to learn. Eventually, when we grow into adults we have the perception that we have reached our limit, that we can’t learn anything else. Really, it’s just that they are out of practice.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I have to remember this sometimes. Even in the subjects I have been studying for years, I constantly learn new things. I think this is important for adults to remember, but especially if those adults are teachers!

  7. Being a student in the Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise department, I LOVE that you used the “clearing the table” metaphor to illustrate a bigger issue. I think questioning the “norm” is so important to achieve understanding on a given topic! Both my student and instructor selves can appreciate a good question and classroom dialogue over the topic at-hand; however, I have often observed that many instructors view this as challenging their authority or expertise. I think this is important to keep in mind as we progress in our teaching perspectives and methodologies. What is our initial reaction when I get a question that challenges my knowledge? Panic, excitement, irritation, etc.? More importantly, how SHOULD we respond, and how can we start changing our initial reaction?

    1. This is a great topic especially for new instructors. I feel like I am slowly developing enough confidence in my self to allow students to question me in class. I think the more I allow this type of questioning, even if it derails the conversation, the more perspectives and voices are involved in class.

      I recently wrote a list of what I thought were pretty definitive reasons for a particular policy, when a student brought up an idea that wasn’t on the list and I hadn’t thought of. His contribution really added to the class and I didn’t mind that it wasn’t my idea.

    2. I love the thought of picturing this in the moment I get asked a question, to help me frame what the question is really about.

  8. I really enjoyed your blogpost. Besides being in agreement about “Mamas being silly”, I whole heartedly agree with your points about finding the right answer to questions. In political science I think that too often we are pushing kids to find the right answer to political questions, and at the same time, by the time they get to college, they are waiting for their instructors to give them the right answer. The greatest achievements in our political thought has come from scholars who were willing to think about the world outside the box. To question our very foundations and be willing to take the risk of challenging them.

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