Kids are Better Scientists than Adults

by Rick on August 7, 2014

Every night at dinner my three-year-old grandson launches into at least one oration. He holds both hands up with the palms up and out, gesticulating not just with his hands but with his whole face as words pour forth as from the mouth of Demosthenes. At this age he is better with his body than his words, so I have a hard time understanding what he is actually trying to tell me, but I can tell it’s about an important truth.

On September 12, 2001, I sat in on a discussion that the second grade class was having about the attack on the World Trade Center. One seven-year-old said, “One plane hit the tower thirteen times.” She had been watching the news, of course, and needed to talk about what she had seen. The teacher explained that she had seen the same video clip thirteen times, and that the plane had only hit the tower once.

building with blocks - Google SearchThis is how children inquire about the world. They don’t so much ask questions as make statements. They tell you what they experience, watch your reaction and listen to your response. In fact, recent research (Alison Gopnik, and others) confirms that children tend to be better scientists than adults. Every move they make tests some hypothesis that they created from previous experiences.

In this respect children are smarter than adults. The older people get the less we take our knowledge as hypothetical knowledge in need of disconfirmation, and the more we tend to become invested in our notions as truth. Increasingly, a disagreement is an insult rather than an opportunity to learn.

This need to be right: we come by it honestly. By first grade most of us began to play The Game of School in which the object of the game is to be right, with penalties for being wrong. It used to be that in kindergarten, at least, it was still okay to be wrong. Now, however, being wrong is increasingly penalized.

Since most of us were raised in The Game of School, we justify this approach to children on the grounds that we are preparing them for “the real world,” but we are not. Success in the real world requires working with others in a continual progress of approximating truth. Scientists like Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori designed environments and activities that treated children as scientists, and educators who follow this path have continued to show excellent results for a century.

Picture a rectangular fish tank with one fish in it. On each of two faces of this tank there is a video camera, and my friend and I are sitting in the next room looking at the monitors of these two cameras. What we see is two fish. We also notice that every time one fish moves, the other fish moves. What would you say to us if my friend and I started developing theories about which fish is causing the other to move and why? As our advisor, what would you tell us when you noticed we were beginning to disagree over whose theory is right?

Right. You would say, “Hey, you guys. What we have here is a two-dimensional representation of a three dimensional reality. “One” fish is not “causing” the “other” fish to move. They are actually the same fish.” It actually might be such a hard concept for us to get our heads around that we might tell you to go away and stop bothering us.

For a century the field of physics has been teaching us that what we experience is a three dimensional representation of a multi-dimensional reality. Even though most of us know this by now, it is a difficult idea for us to understand because we are cursed with three-dimensional brains.

Disagreeing about something is not unfortunate, it is a gift. It is an opportunity to expand our brains and to deepen our understanding. To fight about who is right is not just ignorant, it’s stupid. To see a disagreement as a win-lose proposition is as ignorant as arguing over which of those two fish is causing the other one to move. To fight about it is just plain stupid. The smarter thing to do is to engage the other brain in a search for some understanding that we could both agree to.

In our adult community, let’s be as smart as the kids. Let’s be a team of scientists collaborating toward truth.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Tanaka August 7, 2014 at 7:44 pm

Great post! Depending on the subject (particularly political ones), searching for understanding in what others believe can be really really hard. Will try to apply this strategy to disagreements in our household.

Rick August 8, 2014 at 6:52 am

Yes, Mark. It really is hard. How to get two brains to sync up? and to keep those brains in sync? Maybe there is no harder challenge. I think the history of the human race shows that there is not more important challenge.

Chris August 11, 2014 at 5:05 am

Love those scientific brains. A good conversation with someone who continues to learn and explore the world around them is exhilarating. Life is very much a journey, not a destination. It is through open and honest communication that we receive the feedback and grow in relationship. Developing honest relationships and cultivating supportive friendships is instrumental in growth.

Rick August 15, 2014 at 8:05 am

Yes, Chris. Maybe necessary.

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