Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Dangerous Presumption

I know a five-year-old who is intrigued by the way things work. He can tell you all about the mechanics of any number of things and is especially enamored of trains. Although he prefers to explore the history of their development and their technical specifications, the extent of the train offerings in the children’s section of local libraries tend to be limited to Thomas the Tank Engine. I know another child who has developed an interest in astronomy. Of course, the only information his mother can find in the local library insists that Pluto is still a planet. I am also acquainted with an eight-year-old who can engage political science professors in discussions of political theory . . . in Asia. That same eight-year-old is fascinated by string theory and fractals. However, after perusing the shelves of the children’s section of the local bookstore in search of high quality, conceptually rich, factually accurate materials that would provide him with a solid foundation in the key ideas behind the theory (such as the String Ducky video from Discover Magazine’s String Theory in 2 Minutes or Less Contest), I discovered that they don’t exist.

Meanwhile, books ostensibly written for the “average” non-scientist adult are so full of text and mathematical equations and so lacking in pictures that they are basically incomprehensible–even to a highly educated adults, unless they happen to be physicists, of course!

My point is three-fold. The first is that the proliferation of information and the speed with which it can be disseminated has resulted in an increasingly acute need for students to leave schools equipped with the cognitive flexibility to adapt to rapid change, the creativity to generate innovative solutions to complex problems, and the transliteracy to create and interpret meaning across cultures, genres, and platforms. Yet, there is little in the children’s sections of our local libraries and bookstores that would build the interest, understandings, or skills from which future innovations in traditional fields could be leveraged, much less in fields like design, environmental sustainability, photonics, or quantum computing. The second is that the majority of teachers lack even basic digital literacies (which might explain why so many of the tools critical to developing them are banned or blocked in most schools) and are therefore ill-equipped to guide students toward suitable alternative resources online. The third is that the presumption that children’s interests are narrow and that their capacity for understanding is limited is a very dangerous one. What’s more, it is often untrue.

In The Little Prince, St. Exupéry lamented the inability of grownups to understand anything of real consequence. I suspect that many of the children I know would heartily agree!

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