Sunday, August 19, 2012

Wisdom of Children

Folk wisdom is often far too quick to praise children as wiser than adults, as though all we need to do to improve international relations or the economy is to listen to 8-year-olds. "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" hasn't helped. But it sounds mean to remind people that children are still new to the world and aren't as smart now as they will be later, or to point out that there's a good reason it's against the law for parents to abandon them.

Because of this faith in child wisdom, I sometimes receive withering glares from people when, as an educator, I use my own beloved children as examples of how ignorance or incompetence works. But they're young. They don't have the background knowledge of an adult. Their incompetence is a fact of childhood, not their fault, and temporary.

However, every once in a while, I see one of my children do something that reveals there are some ways in which children can be smarter than adults. My eldest son, age 7, pulled off one of them today.

He has been playing with an inflated beach ball on which a picture of the globe has been placed. It's essentially an inflated mock-up of Earth. My wife asked him at dinner today, as he was holding it, whether he knew which country was the largest. Well, he's looking right at the thing. He gets this one right: "Russia." Lots of adults would get that one right, too, but my wife wasn't done with her questions.

"And where is Russia?" she asked. 

He said, without looking at the globe, "It's right next to the United States."

Judging from stats on American geographical knowledge, most Americans would tell him he's wrong. One adult in the room at the time started to "Umm" toward a gentle correction before I cut her off. 

See, he isn't wrong. He's right. 

Imagine looking down at the same ball he's holding. Russia is huge, dominating the Northern hemisphere and appearing to form a kind of "C" around the North Pole. Not only does Russia come very close to Alaska, which is colored green like the continental United States, it's right across the North Pole from us. Back in the Cold War, many people imagined a nuclear war would involve nuclear missiles crossing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, because on a flat map, that looks like the only way to do it. But the strategic planners in both countries had all of their radars facing north -- because the nukes were going to come over the North Pole. Santa Claus would look up from his home and see them criss-crossing through the sky like a screen from Missile Command. Going over the North Pole was the shortest distance for the ICBMs. 

So here's a question that most adults would get wrong, because they've spent too long with the sort of flat, horizontal maps you find in books, while the kid with the beach ball can remember -- without even glancing down -- that the two countries are practically touching. 

That's the sort of thing a kid can do better than an adult. When the models adults have in their heads distort the truth or contain inaccuracies while the correct answer is available to simple observation, a child will kick the adult's butt. 

Here's another question adults often get wrong, but a kid with a map or globe will handle just fine: Which city is further North, New York City or Rome, Italy? 

The answer is Rome, but if you've spent too much time watching footage of chilly New York winters and temperate, glowing, Mediterranean Rome, you're likely to get it wrong. (London, meanwhile, is about as far North as the bottom of Alaska. All of Europe is further North than Americans tend to imagine it is.) 

A child doesn't have all of those cold and hot associations for those cities, though. She'll just glance down at the world depicted in front of her and draw a line. An adult who corrects her when she gives her answer is doing damage and should listen carefully. 

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