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.


Local detail

Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind includes a reference to psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen’s work on gender differences in thinking.  Baron-Cohen’s work suggests that there are brains that favor systematizing and brains that tend to empathizing.  The differences tend to sort themselves by gender; more males seem to have brains that favor systematizing and more females have brains that favor empathizing.  (Pink and Baron-Cohen are careful to be clear that this is distinct from the notion that there are “male” and “female” brains.)

Baron-Cohen describes systematizing thinking: “systematizing involves exactness, excellent attention to local detail, and an attraction to fixed rules independent of context.” Empathizing involves attention to the larger picture, context, and history.

Pink’s point throughout the book is that we need both, for most demands of the current economy and technological age.  The very day I read this section, I got to see the need for both in action, in the basement of my house.  Here’s my anecdote:

“We’ll just cut a small hole in the concrete here by the wall,” the contractor explained.  I remembered a friend’s story about clouds of concrete dust resulting from just such a hole.  “Will there be dust from sawing the concrete?” I asked.  “Aw, no,” he said.  We’ll just bust it up with a sledgehammer.”

Half an hour later an earsplitting whine erupted in the basement – the unmistakable call of a very, very powerful saw.  I got to the basement stairs to investigate just as the cloud of dust began to rise and this man emerged.  “Just had to cut through the pipe,” he told me.  A moment later the smoke alarm sent its piercing cry through the house.  I wrinkled my brow in surprise and then remembered about systematizing.  Local detail.  He was busy paying attention to the hole, and the pipe, and had forgotten, or never considered, that he was in a house, with detectors of carbon and lungs and ears and upholstery.

He did a great job, on that hole and pipe.  By the time he was done, I could barely see where he’d opened up the floor.  And he was gracious and cheerful throughout.  When my ears stopped ringing and the dust finally, literally, settled, I couldn’t help thinking that we could really get a whole lot more done well, smoothly, and with minimal fallout with both kinds of thinkers on every team – someone to watch out for the local detail and someone to keep an eye on the context. We hear a lot about the importance of working as a team, and being part of a group, but it’s critical to remember that teams don’t work just because you gather up a bunch of people.  They work when the capacities of the team members are diverse and complementary.

This is your brain on exercise

Not just energized, but actually brighter. I’m reading John Ratey’s Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  Parts of it are technical, but even just the first (less technical) section sheds some astonishing light on the relationship between movement and learning.

Here’s my quick summary of the content: exercise makes the brain work better.  The implications of what Ratey describes are huge – the potential for exercise to prime the brain for optimal learning and to balance its chemicals such that the likes of anxiety and depression can actually lose their grip on a person.  The research suggests that the key to solving the childhood obesity problem could also get us back on track with math and science – instead of increasing academic instructional time in kids’ days, we’d increase physical activity.  This could make for contentious discussion at the dinner table on Pennsylvania Avenue…

Kids already know this, of course, which is why when you ask many a child what their favorite part of the day is, they say recess.  It’s not because they’re lazy and they don’t feel like studying (though in many cases their classes probably are boring and so it’d be hard to blame them if they didn’t).  It’s because they know they need lots and lots of motion.  Who knows what might become possible if we let them have it.


The title of my last post prompted this reader’s response: “Your title [what looks like lazy] reminds me of all the times I would look at the kids and see them just sitting there…”doing nothing”…..and then WHAM they would ask a profound question that would settle my soul, knowing that their minds are engaged.”

David Brooks referred to a similar phenomenon in a recent talk: “…We think about the things we can measure easily – things like grades, SATs, degrees, the number of years in schooling. What it really takes to do well, to lead a meaningful life, are the things that are deeper, things we don’t really even have words for.”

It’s easy to measure how well someone spells, how quickly someone can do arithmetic, how many facts someone knows.  It’s harder to measure the development of actual understanding, of the ability to question what you’ve learned and shape it into original thought and ideas.  And more and more, research suggests that it’s this other more elusive kind of learning, knowledge, and understanding that will drive economy and culture in the years to come.  It won’t function without the likes of spelling and computation and memory, but it will be the difference between thriving and not. As this parent recognized again and again with her children, the brain is processing and connecting all the time.  If we’re constantly cramming kids’ brains full of things we already know, there’s no time or space for them to do the job of synthesizing and extrapolating from what it’s learned, for generating new ways of seeing and thinking and interpreting. As long as we confine our teaching to that which we can comfortably quantify, we’ll be missing out, undermining the realization of full potential, and shortchanging kids in their preparation for the realities of the adult world they’ll encounter.


I’m reminded again and again of the wide appeal of Rush Hour.  If you haven’t played it, or seen someone else play it, I highly recommend trying it out.  It’s available the old-fashioned way, with moveable three-dimensional pieces, or in app form.  I’ve played both, and while the app looks cool (especially on the ‘Pad) and could be considered more portable, there’s something about physically moving the pieces that seems to contribute to the experience.

Anyway, it’s a puzzle, or a one-person game, in which the player is charged with freeing a designated vehicle from a set of prescribed toy gridlock.  Depending on the difficulty level of the gridlock design you choose, solving the puzzle can require willingness to consider multiple options, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning, strategic planning, and much patience and tenacity.  It’s the kind of thing about which I hear young people say “This is hard.  And so much fun.”

More on slowness

Slowness in young people tends to worry adults.  We often take it as a sign of disorder or dysfunction; something kids need help with.*  Sometimes our help is helpful – sometimes kids really do want us to help them do things more quickly.

But other times, they’re just plain taking their time.  Or they aren’t in an automatic hurry to get something done.  Or they don’t see the point of the thing. Or they’re choosing to be meticulous.  Or they’re reflecting on something else as they work on the task at hand, and the two fit nicely together.

What would it be like to get really interested in the slowness, to understand where it’s coming from and what it might reflect, what insight it might offer into the workings and preferences and capacities of the mind behind it?

(See also last week’s post on how kids make boring things more interesting.)

Key Press warehouse sale

Key Curriculum Press is having a sale on several of their problem solving/puzzle/brainteaser books.  Here’s the link to the sale items. If you follow a product link on that page, you’ll only see the price and item number.  For detailed descriptions (and sample pages in some cases), type a title into the search window, and follow a results link to the product’s actual page.  A little cumbersome, but the materials are good – lots of fun thinking stuff.