Sparks

Earlier this year I posted a link to an excerpt from a 60 Minutes show featuring Jacob Barnett. When Jake was two, and was diagnosed with autism, he seemed to be retreating into an internal world where his parents felt they couldn’t reach him. He’s now a graduate student in theoretical physics.  In his mother’s new book, she tells the detailed version of the story that aired on 60 Minutes.  As the popular summary of Jake’s story goes, his parents refused to believe that he’d never learn to walk or read. They followed many of the prescribed therapy regimens, but they also let him explore the things that seemed to fascinate him, though they didn’t exactly understand what those things were or what they would come to.  His mom, Kristine, writes in the book:

One morning when I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, the scene before me took my breath away.  Jake had run different-colored yarn all around the kitchen – crisscrossing through the refrigerator handle and around the garbage pail, the table and chair legs, the cabinet pulls, and the knobs of the stove.  The result was a series of brilliantly colored, intricate, overlapping webs.  Using yards of yarn, he had created not a terrible, tangled mess, but a design of complexity, beauty, and sophistication. …It must have seemed a little crazy to let him take over the house in this way.  Some days it was even impossible to get into my kitchen.  But his intricate designs were spectacular to look at, and when the sun streamed through the windows, the shadows they threw moved and changed as the day progressed, involving the whole room in a complex play of light and dark.  These creations were evidence to me that my little boy was in there, busy working on something magnificent.  They gave me a way in, a glimpse into his private world and his extraordinary mind.

The Spark

Jake’s parents could have ignored his fascination with light and shadows as a passing attraction or whim – they could have shut down his access to yarn and insisted that he instead spend all of his time working on his therapies – but they didn’t.  Of the many parts to the Barnetts’ story that can offer inspiration and insight to families with children who are struggling, I think this one may be the most compelling.  Their child was enthralled with things (like this work he was doing with the yarn) that they didn’t at all understand, things that could easily be deemed superfluous, a waste of time, an obsession, little more than a mess.  (And in fact such things often are, by parents and other adults.) The Barnetts were tempted to believe what professionals were telling them about their child – that they couldn’t hope for much from him. But what they decided to believe instead was that whatever Jake was up to in his mind could be the key to reconnecting with him and to helping him find a way to be with them in the social world.

We tend to dismiss many child-chosen pursuits as frivolous, cute, or passing. What if instead we took these things seriously the way the Barnetts did, even when kids aren’t retreating the way Jake was?  We wouldn’t all end up with pint-sized physicists as this family did, but we’d make it possible for a much wider range of potential to emerge and for more kids to feel as though they’ve got something worthwhile to offer, from the very beginning.

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Worry about yourself

This little one’s inadvertently making an interesting point about the relative usefulness of adults.  She knows she can buckle herself in and just needs some time to get it done, and she wants her dad to pay attention to the things she actually needs him for, namely taking care of himself and actually driving the car.

Her stance suggests the possibility of a more efficient use of adult experience: once kids have the information and example they need, we should get back to giving our attention to the rest of what they’ll need us to provide information and example about.

It’s not that kids don’t want or need help.  It’s just that what they often crave is not for us to fuss about the things we’ve already shown them how to do as they’re working on completing their mastery of those things. What they often wish, as this child is so persistently saying, is that we would just go about our business.   That we would go ahead and do things, to show them how to do them, and then move on and do some more other things.  So they can start trying pieces of what we’re doing as soon as they’re able and interested, and then take over for themselves when they’re ready.

And I think Gandhi, for one, would have concurred.  More on that here, regarding that musical instrument you always wished you’d learned how to play…

Most geologists believe…

At a roadside trailhead last weekend, I read this:

IMG_6020 - Version 2

Why bother with the “Most geologists believe…”? Why not just say “The mountains surrounding you were created by the collision of continents drifting across the planet 400  million years ago”?

Usually that’s exactly the kind of thing we say, even in cases like this one in which a group of scientists has agreed upon something based on evidence of some kind.  We usually leave out the “Most scientists [or doctors or nutritionists or historians or neurologists or sociologists] believe…”

But these three words tell a part of any story that can be, especially for young people, very powerful and empowering.  If you stop to read some information at a trailhead, or you ask a parent or other adult a question, or you look something up on the internet, and what you’re told is “Many people who have studied this believe that…” you find out that the information you’re about to receive is based on something.  You find out that there was research, and also that there was interpretation.  And it is suggested to you that someone else might believe something different; someone else might interpret the same observation a different way.  You get to decide which things you believe; you get to decide which information and interpretation is most compelling.

Learning about the world and what there is to find out about in the world gets a lot easier when we’re willing to say things to kids (and to each other) like “Many geologists believe…”

Spiral

I opened my computer’s browser and saw this video caption: “It looks like this guy is just lugging around a 100 pound tire, but he’s about to do something pretty cool with it.” It turns out, as you can see from the video, that he’s going to use it as a hula-hoop.  If you’ve ever tried to hula-hoop, or lift a tractor tire, you can imagine that this feat would require a great deal of strength, coordination, practice, and patience to achieve.

It also looks very, very awkward at the outset, and like an odd choice of ways to waste time.

Kids are often doing things that look the way this looked – like a guy just lugging around a 100 pound tire.  They spend inordinate quantities of time and attention on things that appear to be nothing.  They run around and around and around things.  They pick things up and move them to other places.  (Or just put them back down.) They draw the same thing over and over.  They ask the same question again and again.  They stack things on top of each other and then knock them over.  It can seem pointless and unsophisticated. But if we’re paying attention in a particular kind of way, if we’re curious about what they’re up to, we often find out later that something else, something complicated or subtle or graceful, was in the works.  If we give kids room to do the things they’re doing that seem unproductive, that seem superfluous, that keep them from what we wish they were doing, we may facilitate accomplishment and contribution we can’t predict.

Anne Lamott wrote of her infant grandson: “Einstein would probably say that [my grandson] is already every age he will ever be, but in such super-slow motion relative to our limited perspective that we can’t see the full spiral of him yet…”

We forget, in our eagerness to make sure kids get by, that our perspective is limited.  We forget that we don’t know everything there is to know about how and where a new person will fit, what potential he or she possesses and is beginning to explore and develop, and how that potential might get expressed in his or her interaction with the rest of the world.  When we give ourselves room to be curious in our uncertainty, rather than just frightened into rigidity, we make it possible for the full spiral of each new person to be realized.

Jake’s example

I just watched this 60 Minutes story on Jacob Barnett, the 14 year-old student at Purdue University who’s been attracting attention for his exceptional abilities in math and science, particularly physics. It’s just generally inspiring and delightful to watch Jake in action, but the part of this story that got my attention begins about six minutes in:

Morley Safer: Just before his second birthday, Jake began to regress; stopped speaking and making eye contact.  After consulting with several doctors, the diagnosis was autism.

Michael Barnett, Jacob’s dad: We went through speech therapy, physical therapy, developmental therapy, occupational therapy; therapists came to the home…

Kristine Barnett, Jacob’s mom: He was going further and further from our world into a world of his own and I really was just baffled as to how we were going to get him back out of that world.

Morley Safer: And how did you get him back, out of that world?

Kristine Barnett: We realized that Jacob was not happy unless he was doing something he loved.

Morley Safer: Which even as a three year-old was math and science.  His parents say the more he focused on the subjects he loved, the more he began to communicate. 

Kristine Barnett: You could just see him just relax.  You could just see him feel like ‘Thank goodness we’re not working on something that I can’t do today.”

I’m inspired by the way Jacob’s mom talks about what happened when he was two.  She says that her son was “going further and further into a world of his own,” and that they wanted to get him back.  It seems like it would have been easy to worry that supporting Jake’s ventures into the depths of abstract mathematical thought would have pushed him further into the “world” they sought to bring him back from.  But the Barnetts trusted that those things that brought Jake the most peace and contentment were the key to maintaining connection with him. They reorganized his life around what was already engaging and fascinating to him, and eased up on pushing him to do the things that seemed to be shutting him down.

As it turned out, having permission to give his attention to the pursuits that called to him seems to have made it possible for Jake to find (or regain) avenues for communication and other social interaction.  From the sound of it, the family continued to work with him on speaking and engaging with others, but those things were no longer the center of attention.  Communication skills were reassigned – instead of taking center stage, they were given the chance to support the complex intellectual work Jake craved.

The Barnetts are quick to acknowledge that Jake is one person and it doesn’t work to generalize their experience to all or even any other children with autism diagnoses.  But they do encourage parents of any child who appears to be struggling to do just what they did – to look for the spark of contentment and delight in the child – and build around that spark.  Not every child makes it as obvious as Jake did where that spark lies, but I haven’t met a child yet who didn’t have one.

Fun with circles and teeth

A friend handed me one of these the other day and said “Like Spirographs, remember?”

I didn’t remember, but if I ever used one I’m sure I loved it (and apparently it’s possible to find similar products now but Hasbro doesn’t make the original anymore; if I’m wrong please let me know!). This thing is great fun if you like shapes or patterns or color or the unexpected.

And it’s one of those things that the mathematicians like to play with and calculate about that blurs the boundaries between math and art. I’m pretty sure this is the kind of thing Paul Lockhart is talking about all the time; the math that tickles, and wrinkles the brow with amazement.

I mentioned a talk by Conrad Wolfram a while ago, which I remembered in the midst of playing with the hypotrochoid set because I went looking to find out how the thing works and found this animation on his MathWorld of a point rolling around inside a circle in a fixed way which is what goes on with hypotrochoids.  No numbers required in the marveling at it…

The guys who landed Curiosity

Since the rover Curiosity landed on Mars in August, two of the engineers involved in the project have been getting lots of attention in the press.

Adam Steltzner, who was in charge of the actual landing, has been telling the story of his unorthodox path to accomplishment in the aerospace field.  According to Steltzner, he wasn’t much of a student in high school, so he stopped going.  A few years later he was driving home at night and got to wondering why the stars he could see were in different positions in the sky from how they’d appeared earlier in the evening.  Soon after, he attempted to enroll in an astronomy class at the local community college but found that the class had a physics prerequisite. Steltzner had struggled with basic high school math, so one might imagine that the prerequisite would have ended his quest for an astronomy education.  In fact, it was the beginning of his ascent to tremendous success as a scholar in and as a practical contributor to aerospace engineering.  His alma mater captured the phenomenon this way: “Steltzner quickly experienced the epiphany that has transformed many lives before his: What people resist doing by rote and requirement, they’ll cheerfully embrace through passion and curiosity.”

Steltzner’s colleague Bobak Ferdowsi, the flight director on the Curiosity mission, traveled a less circuitous route to his occupation, but his success as an engineer also seems to have begun as Steltzner’s did, with a fascination with science and space.  He told it this way to WIRED: “I always loved science fiction, I used to love to draw spaceships. Another thing that helped me as a kid was that I played with Legos constantly. I’m sure a lot of kids do, but for me it was not only being creative but being able to build the thing that you’ve imagined. It’s hands-on engineering. We actually use Legos here at work sometimes – more in the early part of the mission – when we’re trying to make a quick 3-D model of something. Legos are one of the reasons I ended up where I am.”

These two would not likely be as successful as they are without the rigorous academic training they’ve received.  But for both of them the prelude to that academic training was critical.  Academics alone was not enough to engage Steltzner.  He needed context and inspiration before it felt worth it to apply himself sufficiently to the study of the field in which he’d go on not only to succeed but to innovate. And from the sound of it, Ferdowsi didn’t struggle as Steltzner did, but he makes it clear that the Legos and the spaceships of his youth were instrumental.  His context and inspiration just came earlier than Steltzner’s did.

The role of the sky and the Legos in Steltzner and Ferdowsi’s accomplishments might seem like grounds for a mandate of stargazing or building.

But these guys aren’t saying “Thank goodness someone made me learn this stuff.” They’re saying “This is what fascinated me. Then I went after it.”

When we start spending our energy and other resources supporting young people in finding their own fascinations – their own versions of the stars or the Legos – rather than only on convincing them how important it is to read and write and calculate early, we’ll end up not only with lots more accomplished and knowledgeable people in every field, but also with more proficient readers, writers, and mathematicians. For so many of us, maybe even most of us, the context makes all the difference.