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.

Lines less traveled

If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to check out Logan Laplante’s TEDx talk about how he’s taken charge of his education, organizing his life around a commitment to being happy, healthy, and fostering creativity.

There’s just one small thing I wish Logan had taken a step further. He says that to follow a traditional educational trajectory is like skiing one well-worn line down a mountain, while designing a program for yourself is like heading off into the powder to blaze your own trail.  I’m with him up to the part where he says that the shared line is probably safer.  In the snow it may be, but when you’re building a life, I’m not so sure.

I think it may once have been, but it’s getting less and less safe to traverse the common route.  The competition is so great for the handful of spots there are to fill along the way (in the “best” colleges, “best” graduate schools, the “best” jobs) that it’s no longer a fail-safe way to build a life.  We just keep saying it is because the powder makes us nervous.  The powder’s unknown.  We’d rather take our chances on the thing that will almost certainly work out for some people, even if it’s only a very, very small percentage, than head off into the powder where everyone probably has an approximately equal chance of making it, because there are so many more routes possible and winning spots doesn’t matter so much, if it matters at all.

We’re not safer on the route we know.  We’re just more comfortable there.

I’m so grateful to Logan for the framework he offers, simply and frankly, in this talk. Logan lives in the kind of world I think we could build for everyone, where vitality is of the utmost value and importance and can, in fact, be the best possible guide.

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.

Seeing

I was on my bicycle the other morning and passed a row of parked cars in front of a restaurant.  One of these cars got my attention because, I eventually figured out, it had resting on its roof rack a small row boat with a pair of deflated pontoons slung over either side.  Fortunately, I figured this out before my puzzled gaze caused me to veer off course.  But for a few moments, I couldn’t quite understand what I was looking at.  Had a giant duffle bag full of wood dropped from the sky and landed on this vehicle?

In the course of any given day, we know what we’re seeing, most of the time.  Or at least we think we know.  Much of the time we see what we’ve already decided to see, or what we’re looking for.  The things that stand out are the ones we scan for.  I was in a workshop recently in which the leader asked us to say to ourselves “yellow, yellow, yellow” as we looked around the room and notice which objects stood out.  And then, “blue, blue, blue.”  If she’d have just told us that we “see what we’re looking for,” I’d have nodded in solemn agreement.  But to watch my mind pull the colors out away from everything else in view; this got my attention in a different way.

One thing we have grown very adept at looking for and seeing is disorder and disability in children.  We look at kids and see all sorts of problems – things that make them less easily compatible with existing expectations.  We name the problems and categorize them, create new interventions intended to eliminate them, build entire institutions around them.  For better or worse.

We’re less skilled at seeing the affinities and strengths that make kids unique and capable.  The problems are so shiny to us, so alluring with their fancy names and their carefully mapped-out recommended responses, that it’s difficult to see the other colors.  And to see what those other colors may lead to or turn into if we pay as much attention to them as we pay to the problems.

On my bike that day, approaching the odd-looking boat flopped over and configured in a way boats usually aren’t, I had to ask myself, with some impatience and force, “What am I looking at?  What the heck is that?  What am I not seeing that’s right in front of me?”  Since then, I’ve been trying to remember to ask similar questions of myself when I’m sitting across from a child.

Because there are the things I already know, the things that are easy to look for and notice, and then there’s everything else.  And the everything else – the things that don’t match up or seem to fit and insist we reach deeper into our ability to imagine and conceive of newness and alternative – is often where the richest, most promising parts of us live.

One size fits one; mindful device-choosing

My dad called the other day with a question about smartphones.  After I told him what I know about the functions he was curious about, he sighed and said “Do you think it’s really a step forward, all this technology?”

I think and talk about this often with parents. The topic is huge, and endlessly complex.  But I’ve found that there’s a good place to start with the question my dad posed: It depends on who’s using it.

Here’s what I mean:

My brother runs two small businesses from his smartphone.  He has never in his life been comfortable sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time, so he may not have survived as an entrepreneur without technology that allows him to manage his work when he’s on the move.  In my opinion, that would have been a loss, both for him and for other people.  He’s a farmer and a pizza chef – his work means food, enjoyment, and community for many people.

And then there’s this.  An acquaintance of mine works as a mental health counselor.  Until recently she spent much of her time outside her job writing stunning prose and poetry.  A few months ago, she noticed that she wasn’t writing much. She realized that the time she would otherwise have spent writing was getting eaten up by the various entertainments and other consumptions available on her new smartphone.

My brother’s phone helps make his fullest participation and contribution possible.  My friend’s phone has apparently been undermining hers. (And I’ve seen similar scenarios of both types arise with children and electronic devices.)

I read recently about how the journalist John McPhee first used computers to support his writing.  After decades of organizing his stories manually, using slips of paper and scissors, he became curious (in the early 1980s) about whether or not new technologies might be able to support his process, perhaps improve his efficiency with assembling thoughts and ideas.  He met with Howard Straus, an information technology expert at Princeton where McPhee teaches.  What Straus said first to McPhee was “Tell me what you do.” He then (for many years) adapted software to support the complex organizational process that McPhee undergoes when assembling a story.  McPhee writes of Straus “Howard thought the computer should be adapted to the individual and not the other way around.  One size fits one.”

We don’t all have Howard Strauses on hand to tailor technology to support what we’re up to and what kids are up to, to this extent.  But we can approach it the way Straus did with McPhee and his writing. He didn’t rush at him with all the new possibilities, whether or not they could support or forward McPhee’s work.  He studied the actual person in front of him and then considered what might be possible and what computer technology could provide in support.

We can ask ourselves (and each other, and our kids) what it is that each of us is already up to, what we’d like to achieve, and then make choices about engaging with technology that are in keeping with the answers to those questions. It’s only a beginning; there’s lots more to manage and navigate, but it’s a place to start.

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.

Not just about the math

Paul Lockhart has a new book out.  The title (Measurement) will likely strike dread in the hearts of those who despise mathematics for one reason or another, but I mention the event not for the math but for the potential contagion of Lockhart’s delight in his work. He’s made a short video to accompany the release of Measurement. Even if you want nothing to do with the math, you may find that the way Lockhart is about it inspires and reinvigorates – that he reminds you of what you care most about and why you care about it.

Also, though, if you are looking for a gentle invitation into the world of numbers, shapes, patterns, and mathematical happening and inquiry (whether for your own sake or that of your young), you won’t likely find anyone more eager to hold the door open for you than Lockhart.  He knows we won’t all love math the way he does, but he sees room in it for everyone who comes inquiring after it.  No matter how many times they’ve been otherwise told they’re not welcome and don’t have what it takes.