Children!

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Let me share an interesting incident that happened in one of my recent Science class. For those of you who don’t know, I teach an integrated Science course i.e., a course in which Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Geology are integrated into a single narrative without tight subject boundaries. During one of my recent class, I was exploring what are called as Newton’s Laws of Motion. As a part of that I was explaining to children some simple experiments wherein, under different conditions, one pushes an object on a flat horizontal surface and records the data w.r.t distance travelled and time taken. Analysis of such a data lets one appreciate the laws of motion, especially the first two laws. As I was explaining this, the following conversation happened with one child:

Child: Why don’t we use inclined planes?

Me: Why do you want to use inclined planes? (Btw I was quite surprised by this out of blue response… will come back to it as to why I was surprised)

Child: Nothing specific… its just a thought that came to my mind?

Me: Is there anything in the experiment, w.r.t using flat horizontal surface, that you didn’t like?

Child: No problem with your experiment. I understood what you are trying to explain. Inclined planes was just a thought that came to my mind.

Me: Ok. No issues.

Now before I come to the point of being surprised, let me ask you the following question,

Aristotle has given laws of motion around 1800–2000 years before the modern laws of motion came around. If arriving at the modern laws of motion is all about doing simple experiment of pushing objects on flat horizontal surfaces and recording distance/time data, then why was it not done and the new laws derived for so long a time? Why did mankind continue to live with the wrong laws for such a long period of time?

Now this is not the only instance where mankind has lived with wrong ideas for a long time. History overflows with such examples.

So why do we do such things again and again?

Let me share some of my thoughts w.r.t this.

First of all, its important for us to understand that all wrong ideas become wrong only in hindsight. When they were proposed they made a lot of sense given the amount of information available. It’s not that these ideas had no challenge… it’s just that they were probably the best option available to us at that point in time. So, it’s not that we were stupid to live with wrong ideas for such long periods of time… in some ways they made sense. That’s why it’s not possible to get up one fine day and challenge them just like that. However, because these ideas have inherent problem/s their usage will keep throwing up triggers all the time that point in the direction of having a relook. And this is where problem arises due to three following reasons:

1. Firstly, it requires a child’s curiosity to catch the trigger/s and ask a fundamental question that most adults have been confidently taught by their parenting/education system as being answered.

A child can ask a thousand questions that the wisest man cannot answer.

- Jacob Abbott

2. Secondly, it requires the ability to stick with that curiosity/trigger long enough to understand the problem better.

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

- Albert Einstein

3. Thirdly, it requires a child’s creativity/imagination to conceive of an alternate answer that most adults will reject at first glance as impossible/illogical/impractical/etc.

Creativity is an area in which younger people have a tremendous advantage, since they have an endearing habit of always questioning past wisdom and authority.

- Bill Helwett

This is why it took probably 1800–2000 years to find the right laws of motion for rare are those adults who can keep the child in them alive and almost non-existent are those worlds where children are listened to with reverence rather than being taught with authority.

So, is it a surprise that wrong laws of motion remained around for so long?

This brings me back to the point of surprise w.r.t the child’s suggestion of using inclined planes to explore laws of motion. The father of modern science Galileo was triggered, by some events, to explore the Aristotle’s laws of motion. I will not get into details for they are reserved for children in my Science classes 😊, but the point that I want to share here is that as a part of those explorations Galileo did the famous experiment wherein he rolled balls down inclined planes. It is this study that eventually culminated into his discovering the law which is taught to us as Newton’s First Law of Motion.

I am sure now you would be getting a hang of why the child’s suggestion w.r.t inclined planes surprised me.

How did this child step into shoes of Galileo just like that?

Now I am sure the first thought in mind of lots of people, who have the patience to read up to this point, will be that this is just a coincidence and I am making a mountain out of mole hill. Well, I would not have disagreed few years back but today I know it’s a real mountain, for I have had such experience not once but literally with each and every child that I have engaged, for a reasonable duration, as part of my Science course. Nowadays many times I feel so stupid because I did not record all those experiences. In any case, the point I am trying to make is that the child uttering the words “inclined planes” was not a simple coincidence but it reflects the amazing amount of creative imagination that resides inside children. This is something that adults have lost long ago and that’s why more often that not we miss these sublime moments.

We all are groomed with a philosophy that children are like wet shapeless clay, who must be given proper shape by smart adults. Nothing can be more disrespecting to sublime intelligence than this kind of stupid thought process.

Children are not yet fools, but we shall turn them into imbeciles like ourselves, with high I.Q.’s if possible.

- RD Laing

This is a big problem with our education system. An adult (teacher/parent) just walks in, shares some experiment, explains some theory/law, names the scientific genius who did all this, and bingo everything is done. To the student this makes no sense and unfortunately they have no choice to express their thoughts without fear of being judged/ridiculed. So, over time all children become copies of each other, at least w.r.t curiosity and creativity — ask nothing, imagine nothing, create nothing.

Let’s correct this and take a step back. Let’s stop teaching children, rather engage with them and if possible learn from them. I can guarantee that if we do this our lives will witness sublime intelligence so much on a regular basis that words like “genius” will become ordinary and mundane.

“It is said that before entering the sea
a river trembles with fear.
She looks back at the path she has traveled,
from the peaks of the mountains,
the long winding road crossing forests and villages.
And in front of her,
she sees an ocean so vast,
that to enter
there seems nothing more than to disappear forever.
But there is no other way.
The river can not go back.
Nobody can go back.
To go back is impossible in existence.
The river needs to take the risk
of entering the ocean
because only then will fear disappear,
because that’s where the river will know
it’s not about disappearing into the ocean,
but of becoming the ocean.”

- Khalil Gibran

We parents/adults behave almost like a river… we want to desperately teach our children, because like the river we feel afraid that if we don’t fulfil this responsibility our children will be lost in the world… unfortunately what we don’t realize is that when this fear of ours will disappear our children will become the world.