I haven’t read the book yet, (I will be ordering it soon), but that doesn’t stop me from expressing delight at the premise of Alison Gopnik’s new book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life. My enthusiasm is based on the recent review in the Time.
Gopnik is a favorite of mine from her previous work, The Scientist in the Crib, and because of the charming lecture she provided to the parents at my previous school, a lecture based on that book. In one of my favorite passages from that book, she explains that children don’t just play-act as scientists—they truly are scientists:
“Children create and revise theories in the same way that scientists create and revise theories. We think that children and scientists actually use some of the same machinery.”
At first glance, one imagines the book’s title to have just a single meaning: this is a report from scientists who got into a crib, metaphorically, to learn about children’s brains. But no, the book’s second meaning is just as important—children in the crib are themselves scientists, puzzling out how the world works by trial and error, by hypothesis and experiment.
Here in the new book, and I am quoting the Times review:
She announces that they are in some ways “smarter, more imaginative, more caring and even more conscious than adults are.”… She makes the bold suggestion that thinking about small children can shed new light on ancient philosophical problems.
For me, the critical point here is that we can learn from our students just as they learn from us. Gopnik argues that we need to not just add things to them to help them become better scientists, but take care not to take away things while we do so. To be an innovative scientist is to be intensely curious, to be a risk-taker, to be willing to ask a crazy question, to be able to dream up an entirely different way of thinking about something. But these are descriptions that more often apply more easily to young minds than to old.
In Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap, he writes of the importance of his seventh survival skill, curiosity and imagination:
An administrator from one of our most prestigious private schools suddenly asked: ‘Why is it that the longer our kids are in school, the less curious they seem?’ The room fell silent. No one challenged her assertion; nor did anyone offer an explanation.
Wagner and Gopnik: together they make the point that part of our project is not to add to our students’ deficits, but to perpetuate their strengths. We need to bring this mindset to all of our teaching.