Friday, April 18, 2008

Living in a Material World

This aspect of life, that we do in fact live in a material word, has never been of much interest to MK.

Politics, religion, history, law: these are subjects that, in one form or another, have held MK's attention throughout his 12 years of life. He can tell you about the difference in Christian, Hindu and Buddhist understanding of the afterlife, the number of people who speak Tamil in Singapore, or how Hillary and Barack differ on Iraq. But until very recently, he would have been hard pressed to tell you what a camel is like, how ducks differ from penguins, where wood comes from, what lava is or what makes a car move.

Fair enough. It's hard to learn about things that we find boring, but I can't help feeling that a certain minimal level of understanding of the physical world makes it easier to get through life and that, ultimately, if you want to understand people, you need to understand the environment that they live in.

So it is with considerable relief that I find MK is, at long last, beginning to do just that. We spend about 45 minutes a night on bedtime reading. Recently we have been spending the first 20 minutes on science, and we are making exceptional progress. I think there are two things going on.

First, all the new language than MK has picked up over the past year has made it possible for him to discuss things with greater ease. Last year, for example, I remember asking him what clouds were made of (it was something we had talked about before). His answer, after some thought, was "esophagus." It's very difficult to untangle this sort of thing when language gets in the way. I could be pretty sure that "esophagus" meant something else. Possibly even "evaporation," but by no means certainly. And sorting that out is a pretty tall metalinguistic order. What is more, by the time you've done that, the original conversation has lost all its momentum. Now MK has less trouble (not none, but less) with the wrong words coming out when he speaks. And because conversations are richer and more flexible, it is possible to talk around language glitches so that the conversation moves forward.

Another thing -- and I think a larger thing -- is what Feuerstein describes as a demand for logical coherence. Part of his theory goes that, in the course of our cognitive development, we develop a need to have new pieces of knowledge fit with all the others we have stored in out heads. When they don't, things don't make sense. For example, when we first hear that bats catch insects as they fly around, we have no problem with it. But when someone tells us that bats are blind, we should feel uncomfortable. We should say, "That doesn't make sense. How do they see the insects?" Only by understanding echolocation can we reconcile the two pieces of information. And when we do reconcile the facts, we get a buzz -- that little jolt of pleasure that makes learning so much fun. However, for various reasons, not everyone feels this need for logical coherence. For example, if you have very little confidence in the facts that you are storing in your head, when two of them seem to be contradictory, you are likely to assume that one or both of the facts is wrong. In this case, everything seems vague and disordered and the new facts, far from producing that spurt of pleasure by reconciling the contradiction, just add to the confusion.

For some reason, MK is now starting to demand logical coherence in the physical world, just as he has long demanded it of the social world. Why are polar bears white? How can a person be killed by a tornado, which is only wind? How come we don't run out of oxygen? These are questions that have suddenly become worth answering.

And so we go, raising three questions for each one we answer as we move forward along an infinite path of tangents. A lot of the stuff (why a fish has fins, what squirrels do with nuts) is very basic. It's the kind of stuff a typically developing kid would have learned between the ages of four and seven. Other things (what atoms made of, how the movement of tectonic plates causes earthquakes) are what you would expect kids of MK's age to be tackling.

It's fun for both of use to be able to talk about this stuff and hopefully, by the time he is grown up, this will make the material world and easier place in which to live.


Anonymous said...

Questions are thrilling! I know I thought M would never start asking them. Now that she is I enjoy learning many of the answers right along with her.

I am so glad you and MK can talk about his questions together. Does MK like movies? We just saw Nim's Island and M loved it. It brought up lots of fun questions about animals and islands. I enjoyed it too!

VAB said...

Yeah, questions are da' bomb.

Yes, MK likes movies. Nim's Island is on the list. Recently we've been watching a lot of war films -- he's very much a boy in that respect.