Learning from everything, even the things you don’t know

I just read a lovely blog post by Sarah Keenihan about the science lessons that can be extracted from Pamela Allen’s wonderful Australian children’s picture books. It caught my eye partly because we used to read Alexander’s Outing to our children on high rotation and still refer to it when we ride our bikes on busy roads: “Stay close, take care”.

Keenihan points out how lessons on the movement of water and Newton’s second law can be seen in the books; for example when Alexander the duck is saved from the bottom of a deep hole by people pouring water into the pit until… “Out popped Alexander like the cork out of a bottle”. Interestingly, when I discussed this with my nine-year-old over dinner last night he couldn’t remember the books but immediately came up with the water solution when the problem was described to him – perhaps the product of early imprinting?

Anyway, I like Keenihan’s idea and it resonates with a concept I think is important: Lessons can be extracted from absolutely everything that goes on. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a picture book, a computer game or a toy there are lessons to be taken away from them all. After spending a year travelling and effectively home-schooling our children, I’ve come to believe kids often learn best when they don’t even know they are learning. Our kids have learnt substantial things about history from playing Age of Empires, they’ve learnt about the economy from Monopoly, they’ve learnt about engineering from LEGO. The lessons don’t have to be obvious but just come from a parent engaging with them and dropping things into the conversation. And even when the lessons are obvious, the kids don’t mind if they are having fun.

Kids have an insatiable interest in the world around them; and answering all those questions can be incredibly valuable, but often not for the answers themselves. In today’s highly complex world just knowing a set of facts is only marginally useful. What is useful is encouraging children to question, to think, and to discover. The only effective way to do that, in my view, is to model that behaviour. And our lovely Internet-enabled world gives us ways of doing that which are more effective than ever before.

One of the things I love about the world we now live in is that so much information is readily available. If we’re walking down the road and a question comes up I can find the answer in seconds on my phone. I don’t need to remember to look it up later when I get home, and when, honestly, the moment has probably passed. The information is right there with us. There’s real power in that capacity to answer a question or thought while it’s still ‘hot’ and interesting. It makes the process of questioning and thinking seem much more immediately useful and pertinent; especially if taken with a bit of judicious parental nudging to get the kids to think through the problem before being presented with an answer.

There’s also a balancing concept though. That is admitting when you don’t know something. I hate it when I’m in a zoo or a museum and you hear a child ask an adult something only to be fobbed off with a slight or obviously incorrect answer. If you don’t know, tell the child so and find the answer. That has immense value in itself because it teaches them that adults are not all-knowing and always right and that there are ways of finding an answer that you don’t already know. And the beauty of it is we adults learn something along the way too!

There’s an interesting book by Jonathan Mugan called The Curiosity Cycle which is about encouraging critical thinking in children. It has some very good ideas in it, although it’s in need of editing so you’re best off skimming it. Or you could just get Alexander’s Outing of course.

4 thoughts on “Learning from everything, even the things you don’t know

  • July 31, 2012 at 11:20 am

    SImply lovely post. I completely agree that having real and accurate information at hand is so powerful. I find myself fighting to keep my kids off the internet sometimes just because I want them to experience more ‘stuff’ for themselves ‘in real life’, but to release that fear and let them find answers is also critical.

    The ‘fob off’ answer from many adults is so frustrating! It’s often seen in the older generations, but also some of my parenting peers are afraid to extend questions and answer scenarios into conversations. My two oldest kids had a wonderful teacher in their junior primary school, she was fearless in her preparedness to let the children direct the learning in her classroom. Questions were answered with more questions, and then somehow drawn together at the end of a week/fortnight/term to provide some sense of closure. Some parents couldn’t handle it, it seemed too unstructured for them. Funnily enough it was at a Catholic school, teacher is a practising Christian but she offered the best example of teaching the scientific approach that I have seen so far with kids at school. Open minds always best 🙂

    Thanks for the links, definitely following your blog and on twitter now!
    Bye for now,

    • July 31, 2012 at 11:32 am

      Thanks Sarah, I couldn’t agree more about the scientific approach. My original draft had another para which I removed because it was off topic for the main point I was trying to make: “More people admitting they don’t know things and understanding that not knowing does not mean you are wrong would do a lot for the World. You see climate change scientists being criticised so often because they don’t have a perfect answer, or other scientists being torn to shreds when more information changes their understanding. Look at the poor scientists who thought they’d measured faster than light neutrinos and asked others to look at their findings. They get ridiculed in the press for a claim they never made being disproved, when they should have been lauded for taking exactly the right approach by saying ‘here’s an observation, we can’t explain it, what do you think?’ Understanding what you do not yet know can be as valuable as the information you have today. That is after all the basis of the scientific approach: identify an issue, come up with a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, repeat.”

  • August 2, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Yes, the power of admitting you don’t know. It makes those around you feel included, part of a community I think. Then can use this sense to find an answer together.

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