Pluto and Triceratops

Once upon a time, there “was” a planet called Pluto.  Also, there “was” a dinosaur called Triceratops.  (If you haven’t yet heard about their respective changes in status, click here for the news about Pluto and here, Triceratops.)

The word was (in its various forms – is, are, will be, etc.) can get us into a whole heap of trouble.

We teach our kids that things are or that things did happen a particular way. We tell them that there are facts to learn and that the acquisition and retention of those facts will turn them into knowledgeable and culturally literate people. (Actually, we usually say smart, or at least that’s the message that makes its way to them.)  We have to do this, as long as we remain committed to our longstanding approach to education.  If we didn’t, if we couldn’t rely on fact in this way, it wouldn’t work to establish curricular content.  We couldn’t decide which things to make kids learn.  It’d be too slippery and we wouldn’t make sense even to ourselves. The bad news is that we’re just kidding ourselves if we think we’re making any sense to kids now when it comes to this.

The truth is that someone decided to call Pluto a planet, and someone decided to call Triceratops a type of dinosaur.  Someone decided to refer to certain quantities in certain ways and to describe the patterns of behavior in those quantities with particular words (math).  Someone decided to follow certain steps in testing a hypothesis (science). Someone named things the things they’re named.  To pretend otherwise is to set kids up for disappointment, disillusionment, frustration, exasperation.

Why not let them in on this changeability of fact and information?  I think it’s because we don’t want to worry them.  We want to protect their innocence, and the only approach we’ve come up with so far is to conceal complexity.  But that’s incredibly difficult, and we fail a lot.  In the course of it, we lose credibility and worse, we end up worrying them after all.  They find these things out whether we want them to or not.  And the extent of their disappointment and frustration can be great.

Also, it’s very hard to explain the complexity and variability of things.  It’s easier just to say “this is.”

If you really want to prepare your kids for what’s out there, consider having the kinds of conversations with them that reveal the changeability of things and the role of human language in setting fact.  It doesn’t have to be a big existential conversation.  It can be simple.  And occasional.  It doesn’t have to be every time, about every thing.  It just has to be as true as you can get it, and it has to be not never.