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.