Monday, August 17, 2009

Warming up

One of the most difficult things about teaching young adults is that they look & sound so much like us that it's easy to think that the only difference is that we have more accurate beliefs about the world than they do -- because we've had more education or more experience. This doesn't happen with infants. We know - or at least it ought to be fairly obvious to us - that infants experience the world in a radically different way from adults. It hasn't been until fairly recently that developmental psychology (even professionally) left us with the impression that development pretty much ended when we were "full grown." Twenty-one or fifty-one, the only difference was going to be factual beliefs. We know now (okay, I'll shift to I). I know now, that in the same way that infants and I experience the world in radically different ways so do I and my 21 year old students and this isn't just because I've got more accurate beliefs in my head. There's a working through of beliefs as we get older that leads not only to different beliefs, but a different way for beliefs to relate to one another.

It's fairly standard these days for folks to at least be familiar with phrased like "moral development" and "intellectual development" even if the phrases aren't terribly well understood. Understanding that my students were in a different place in
terms of intellectual development, how they were understanding the world, what they expected from explanations, education, etc. was a huge breakthrough for me. It's made me realize that teaching is about figuring out where students are and then using the best tools I have to help them move forward. I can't teach students by teaching them the way I would best learn any more than I can teach my dogs to do something by simply sitting down and explaining it to them (if you feel the comparison between dogs and students is offensive to either dogs or students, then you have too limited experience with one or both of the members of each category).

Onto the book of the moment Philosophical Baby. She's looking at what infants (which she is defining as younger than 3) are cognitively capable of and what this tells us about ourselves. She notes, for examples, that infants are radically different from adults (not a terribly huge surprise) but not in a way that implies that infants are deficient. In fact, on her reading, it's the adults who could be said to be deficient. (In the butterfly/caterpillar analogy it's the adults who are the boring, staid caterpillars).

Human brains begin with zillions of neural pathways which atrophy as the brain ages (and this begins at birth) as neural pathways aren't used (think about footpaths through the woods) [infants perceive certain sounds - from different languages - up until a certain point (like 3 months?) when they stop perceiving sounds that they don't hear are a regular basis (so Chinese infants literally do not hear some sounds in English past a certain point and likewise for infants who grow up hearing only English can they not hear some sounds in the Chinese language). Cool, eh?]

Anyway, apparently it has long been thought that babies (again, anyone younger than 3) is incapable of (a) causal thinking or (b) counter-factual thinking (i.e., what would have happened if instead of doing what you did, you did this instead?). Turns out that of course they're capable of that and perhaps even more able than we are. She notes that we become far less imaginative as we get older and far less "connected" to our imagination as we get older ('connected' is my term, not hers). She notes that it had long been claimed that kids couldn't tell the difference btwn the imaginary and the real but then she trots out a bunch of evidence (much of it stuff all of us have probably seen) to make the case that kids can tell the difference but it's that kids experience the imaginary very vividly. The way that I think about it is that I know that scary books and sad movies are fictional but this doesn't make them less scary or me less likely to cry. Clearly the imaginary is vivid to me to some extent - I suspect different people experience the imaginary more and less vividly depending on the person. Kids, she's suggesting, experience the imaginary very vividly.

Another interesting point, thus far, is that kids can have their minds wander and explore all sorts of possible worlds in a way that adults, with deadlines and responsibilities can't (not that this stops me) and for this reason kids are the ultimate source of creativity in any society. Adults experience possible worlds through literature, movies, tv. And some of us, if we are very, very lucky, get things like sabbaticals to take the time to explore and think. BUT, this is a serious rarity. Some of, again, if we are very, very lucky, get to have jobs that allow us to do this on a regular basis. So, we have arrived, again, at one of my conclusions of the importance of art and possible world-making in any society.

A last interesting point (and then I shall return to reading), what she's said suggests (and perhaps she actually says this, I can't remember) that the lengthening of childhood (that is, as a time without or with minimal structure and responsibilities) is, in fact, a good thing since it lengthens the period of time when we are encouraged (or could be encouraged to imagine). I think that too few people take advantage of this.

Okay, off to read more!

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