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.


Theo Jansen builds kinetic sculptures out of plastic electrical tubes.  He says he’s not sure if he’s a sculptor or engineer, and that the boundaries between art and engineering exist only in our minds.  To see his creations skittering around on the beaches of the Netherlands, it’s hard to imagine that science wouldn’t benefit from more play, wonder, and imagination.  And that we might want to let the artists, the engineers, the… boths… get started earlier with their investigations, explorations, experimentations.  Our exclusive emphasis on the particulars of communication and calculation – our beloved 3Rs – which when in authentic service of innovation and contribution don’t take 13 years sitting still to learn, is holding us back from realizing the true scope of what we could accomplish.


If we’re to make any progress in the transformation of education and the realization of actual potential, it’ll be in large part because we alter the way we speak to young people and the way we receive what they contribute.

Yesterday I heard a cool story on the radio featuring 16 year-old Alexa Dantzler who decided to study the dry-cleaning residue on clothing.  She worked on it herself for a bit and then contacted chemists at local universities until she found someone who would collaborate with her on the project.  Paul Roepe, the chemist who responded (the one chemist who responded) was interested in the idea and surprised that no one had explored the topic already.  According to the segment, their investigation showed that the carcinogenic chemical does seem to linger on clothing after dry cleaning and that different clothing fibers retain the chemical in varying degrees.

What got my attention was the way this young person was addressed in the interview.  The spirit of this kind of story is too often, in my opinion, along the lines of “Holy cow!  Look at how this child was able to come up with an idea that no one else has come up with and actually do something with the idea!  Amazing!”

And it is amazing, but not because it’s unusual for young people to come up with good ideas deserving of pursuit.  It’s amazing because we make it very difficult for young people to do anything with serious important ideas because our attention is on preparing them to such things later (maybe).  Only one of the professors Dantzler contacted even responded.  Dr. Roepe did, and that was the reason that Dantzler’s idea got the attention it deserved. Young people have good ideas, ideas that express their concern for the environment. They have all sorts of inclinations toward service and contribution.  Children think more flexibly than adults do, so they’re actually probably more likely to come up with new ideas than adults are.  But we’ve grown accustomed to treating them as though they are only potential thinkers, thinkers-in-training, so this kind of thing must be the result of an extraordinary mind. Closer observation reveals that young people are idea machines, they’re just not supported in the pursuit of ideas.

The other thing that’s interesting about this story is that the sentiment of “Holy cow look what a kid did” is nearly imperceptible in the transcript but quite clear in the audio recording.  Our stance toward children is often less evident in actual words than in the tone we use to deliver them.  The host of the segment is delighted by what this young person has accomplished, and it shows; it’s probably the main reason the story was newsworthy (without Dantzler’s youth it would have been just another scientific study of carcinogens).  The host asks serious questions, but several of them he asks with a tone of surprise and (culturally sanctioned) condescension, not the respect we could hope would be afforded a person who has proven herself a mature thoughtful scientist, determined enough in her pursuit of information and truth that she was willing to withstand the prejudice of her elders. Try reading the transcript and then listening to the segment.  Young people’s lives are full of this discrepancy between the seriousness of words and tone, and it’s perpetuating the waste of potential and progress.

Math and Science Stuff to Do…

I was reminded today of the Lawrence Hall of Science publications.  I haven’t tried anywhere near all that they offer, but their math and science materials lean in the direction of exploration and adventure.  In the shopping area on their website you’ll find lots of things to actually do, which is always a good sign when it comes to science and math. In particular I recommend looking through the topics available under GEMS (Great Explorations in Math and Science).