Here’s something that looks obvious.
This illustration is too complex for a toddler to understand.
Things seem obvious—until they don’t. This is what paradigms are all about. A particular idea, or set of ideas, captures the imagination of society and is taken as obvious.
How we educate our children is full of paradigms. A lot of good ideas (and some bad ones) have held sway over the years, were taken as obvious, and were supported by “proper methods.” Ideas were often presented as “what is good for one is good for all” propositions, so that they could be applied broadly.
Educators and parents are always trying to adjust things, to find the best way forward. Adequate is not good enough. Broadly applied methods are being pushed aside in favor of more localized experiments. The rise of charter schools points to this trend. Anxious parents are demanding some sort of advantage for their children. Many are seeking genius for children hoping to cope in an increasingly competitive world.
Currently, in the United States, there are a few different schools of thought. One that has caught the imagination of many is the idea that one may achieve expertise by following “The 10,000-Hour Rule.” That ten thousand hours of practice is the magic number for what is required to achieve expertise in any field, was first made widely known through Malcolm Gladwell’s 2008 book, Outliers, The Story of Success.(1) Gladwell based a good bit of this proposition upon the expertise studies Anders Ericsson and his colleagues conducted at the Berlin Academy of Music. Many people jumped on the ten-thousand-hour idea and immediately began to apply it in their own lives, and for the education of their children. Parents were ready to jump on any idea that showed that their children could go well beyond their “potential” and become the geniuses of the next generation.
One of the major critics of this line of thought is the linguist, Steven Pinker. Pinker, in his 2003 book The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature, seemed to suggest that there was an inherited limitation on a person’s potential intelligence.(2) His position is that intelligence is to a large extent heritable. Taken at face value, Pinker is seen by many as a genetic determinist—a proponent of what they call a fixed mind set. Left with a choice between genius and limitations, it’s no surprise that people chose Gladwell’s approach.
Recently, Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool came out with their book Peak, Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. They refute both of these ideas. Peak claims that people who have been extremely successful in their fields were not made so by their genes. The import of Ericsson and Pool’s message is that these successful people acquired their skills through very particular types of practice that were both time and labor intensive—and painful. They imply that Gladwell’s interpretation of their work wasn’t particular enough in its details, that he relied too much upon the “10,000-Hour Rule” sound bite, and gave short shrift to the strenuous effort required to acquire expertise.(3) Their emphasis on the malleability of mind due to deliberate practice also put them in direct opposition to Steven Pinker’s inferences to heritability.
This is the classic Nature vs. Nurture argument pushed to the extreme. Like most issues these days, salient points seem pressed to the limits on both sides of the argument to better sell an idea.
In American schools lately there has been an effort to incorporate a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. Subjects are meant to be taught in a manner that stresses the idea of overcoming obstacles to reach toward some achievable potential. And there is an increasing push for universal pre-kindergarten education for young children. The thought is, the earlier education begins, the more possible will it be for children to reach their potentials (this is especially stressed in relation to poorer communities).
Much of the preparatory work on this topic comes down from Betty Hart and Todd Risley’s 1995 study called Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Hart and Risley concluded that there was a significant difference in the amount, and quality, of words uttered in professional-level households when compared to low-income households. What they found, through some pretty significant extrapolation of evidence, was that there is gap of up to 30,000,000 words between the “professor” class and the welfare class in the first four years of a child’s life.(4) Due to this gap, they indicate that differences in language acquisition potential become set in a predictable, and increasingly divergent pattern that continues throughout those children’s lifetimes—almost assuring a multi-generational divide in potential, and a hardening of class divisions.
The reactions to Hart and Risley’s study ranged from accusing them of being racist, to the sponsoring of public education programs, like the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge winning, Providence Talks program.(5) According to their web page, Providence Talks helps to close the 30,000,000 word gap by helping parents monitor their daily word interactions with their children. 21,000 words per day appears to be the benchmark they are trying to meet.
One thing that is consistent among all of these studies is the insistence on the obviousness of their conclusions and the implications they have for society at large. After all, they all claim, brain science supports their findings. Of late, books like Thirty Million Words, Building a Child’s Brain, Tune In, Talk More, Take Turns, by Dana Suskind, MD, claim that through brain imaging, you can get a real-time image of a child’s brain activity.(6) We are left to infer that this information is being used to help develop their educational programs.
Another thing that is consistent among the studies is that they rely heavily on intelligence quotient (IQ) testing to prove their points. Intelligence is therefore equated with language and math (logic) skills almost exclusively.
Now, where does that get us? We have a bunch of scientists and psychologists arguing over our children’s intelligence, and our educational methods, based upon the results of these studies.
Howard Gardner, from Harvard University, had famously claimed, in 1985, that there are actually eight different types of intelligence:
Linguistic: the spoken and written word.
Logical/mathematical: numbers and reasoning
Musical: rhythm and melody
Spacial intelligence: the ability to form a mental picture or model
Bodily kinesthetic: intuition and control over one’s own body
Interpersonal: the ability to understand other people
Intrapersonal: the ability to understand oneself
Naturalist: appreciation of understanding nature (7)
Now, you might or might not agree with this list, but the point is, there are many other sorts of intelligence than those that are traditionally tested for. To complicate the issue further, our brains aren’t even aware of most of the functions they perform.
It has long been lamented by many that the American education system only tries to educate a small fraction of our children’s minds (mostly the top two from the list above). Verbal intelligence is stressed. Visual, spacial and emotional intelligence is minimized.
The reason I have broken the discussion here, at the verbal and the visual, is because these two modes of intelligence have been pointed to as describing how the brain is constructed to deal with problems—the left- versus right-brain dichotomy. Daniel Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., put it this way, in their book The Whole-Brain Child:
Your left brain loves and desires order. Its is logical, literal, linguistic (it likes words), and linear (it puts things in a sequence or order). The left brain loves that all four of these words begin with the letter L. (It also loves lists.)
The right brain, on the other hand, is holistic and nonverbal, sending and receiving signals that allow us to communicate, such as facial expressions, eye contact, tone of voice, posture, and gestures. Instead of details and order, our right brain cares about the big picture—the meaning and feel of experience—and specializes in images, emotions, and personal memories.
…the basic idea is that while the left brain is logical, linguistic, and literal, the right brain is emotional, nonverbal, experiential, and autobiographical—and it doesn’t care at all that none of these words begin with the same letter.(8)
Put that way, it seems that our educational system is mostly designed to only educate the left side of the brain. And because the left side of the brain also controls the right side of the body, we have been practicing an almost exclusively right-handed approach.
This lamentation, that we are not balanced in our education system, is not a new one. Betty Edwards in her famous book from 1989, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, not only begrudges this left-brained approach, but suggests that by the time children enter adolescence, they begin to shut down access to the creative right side in deference to the left.(9) The methodology of her book is to teach adults to trick their brains into ignoring the left side long enough to access the creative/visual centers on the right side. From this vantage, creativity looks to have been left behind, in childhood.
Getting back to children: John Berger, in his Ways of Seeing, from 1972 said, “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.”(10) David Eagleman, in 2011, wrote: “Babies, helpless as they are, pop into the world with neural programs specialized for reasoning about objects, physical causality, numbers, the biological world, the beliefs and motivations of other individuals, and social interactions,” in his book Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain.(11) This all points to a justification of Steven Pinker’s claim that children are indeed not blank slates. Perhaps though, children need some help expanding upon their unique talents and abilities to take them into adulthood.
Children are born with an amazing gift for visual perception. As Rudolf Arnheim stated in Visual Thinking (back in 1969) “children under five years of age do not turn pictures around which they happen to hold upside down, and they recognize objects in an abnormal position more easily than do adults.”(12)
So, with all these things in mind, I’ll now return to the Ant illustration from back at the beginning of all this discussion and how obvious it is that it is too complex for a toddler.
Because Rudolf Arnheim was such an amazing thinker in terms of visual perception, I will use here examples from him to suggest how visual perception works and to discuss what this might indicate for how even preliterate children might perceive things.
To understand an object, Arnheim wrote:
The object under observation must, then, be abstracted from its context. This can be done in two fundamentally different ways. The observer may wish to peel off the context in order to obtain the object as it is and as it behaves by itself, as though it existed in complete isolation. This may seem to be the only possible way of performing an abstraction. However, the observer may also wish to find out about the object by observing all of the changes it undergoes and induces because of its place and function in its setting.(13)
While this quote comes from more than 60 years ago, it is still quite relevant today. It describes well the processes the brain must perform in order to perceive and then to recognize things. As is hinted at above, we are all equipped, from infancy, to perform these functions.
Now, because the Ant illustration under consideration is arranged in a square format, perhaps we should examine where we would expect to find something in such a composition regardless of our artistic abilities or knowledge. In other words, what do we naturally expect?
In Art and Visual Perception, Rudolf Arheim gave us a clear and concise example in his presentation on The Hidden Structure of a Square (which I’ll reproduce somewhat here).(14)
I think you’ll notice that the disk in the square composition below is off center. You have no need to measure its distances from the edges to be certain of this. It’s a natural sense we all possess. By the time babies are old enough to be tested they are already making assumptions about the workings of the world.(15) We are born with expectations.
Arnheim showed in his demonstration, that for a disk in this position, our natural tendency is a desire to pull it towards center. If the disk was closer to a side, or to a corner, different forces come into play. It’s as if there is a specific gravity to the composition that effects where we would desire the object be placed. Here’s a force diagram like the one he used to describe this phenomenon.
[T]he disk is influenced not only by the boundaries and the center of the square, but also by the cross-shaped framework of the central vertical and horizontal axes and by diagonals. The center, the principal locus of attraction and repulsion, establishes itself through the crossing of these four main structural lines. Other points are less powerful than the center, but the effect of attraction can be established as well.(16)
In other words, we naturally expect to find an object depicted at the center of a square. I would think that an ant centered in a square could be found and understood quite easily by almost any toddler who has been told what an ant is. The image shown here is the ant where we have peel[ed] off the context in order to obtain the object as it is and as it behaves by itself, as though it existed in complete isolation.(17)
So, what of context? The illustration at the beginning of this article is certainly not devoid of context. The ant there is surrounded and immersed in context. Does this not make the understanding of the image more difficult?
Remember, as Arnheim claimed: the observer may also wish to find out about the object by observing all of the changes it undergoes and induces because of its place and function in its setting.
In order to have a deeper understanding of an object, it needs to be observed within a context. After all, we find the things of this world in settings with plenty of stuff going on all around them, all the time. A toddler will find their cookie.
Now, how is that accomplished?
Most earlier discussions about the right and left brain have been framed in terms of the visual right versus verbal left. While there are discrepancies between their differing contributions in these terms, today a lot of the discussion has to do with attention—how the two sides attend to things differently.
In his book, The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist describes it this way:
In humans, just as in animals and birds, it turns out that each hemisphere attends to the world in a different way — and the ways are consistent. The right hemisphere underwrites breadth and flexibility of attention, where the left hemisphere brings to bear focused attention. This has the related consequence that the right hemisphere sees things whole, and in their context, where the left hemisphere sees things abstracted from context, and broken into parts, from which it then reconstructs a ‘whole’: something very different.(18)
McGilchrist also contends that it is the right hemisphere that sees, and seeks to make sense of something new, that it is open to offering differing solutions to problems it encounters; while the left hemisphere is more equipped to re-present things it already understands, seeking to generalize from a re-cognized type.
If it is the right hemisphere that is vigilant for whatever exists ‘out there,’ it alone can bring us something other than what we already know. The left hemisphere deals with what it knows, and therefor prioritises the expected — its process is predictive. It positively prefers what it knows.(19)
So, where does that get us with our ant and how to make sense of it in all that swirling context? It seems obvious that the ant by itself, on a white background, might be recognized as an ant, as a type called “Ant,” even by a toddler. This is what we are used to seeing in first word books. The ant image quickly becomes fixed as a general form and is recalled by name. This is the purview and strength of the left hemisphere. This is the type of understanding that we are used to accepting as knowledge. Ant, in this case, has become explicit. It has taken on a symbolic form that others accept in a similar way.
Implicit thought is a bit different; it’s like riding a bike. You execute many actions subliminally, below the level of consciousness, without knowing the details of how you perform them.(20) In a sense, it’s like you know something, but you can’t intellectualize about how exactly, or why, you know it. Unconscious actions, like bike riding, and tying your shoes, are one way we use implicit memory, but implicit thought is also involved in perception.
When we seek the new, we use the right side of our brains to discover. We create implicit memories that give us a variety of options for interpretation and understanding. We can use this for education. But how? How do we help our children to reach for that creative, multi-solution part of the brain in a positive way?
Perhaps a boost will help.
David Eagleman gave us a clue on how to approach this in his book, Incognito.
[I]f I ask you to fill in the blanks in some word, such as s_bl_m_na_, you are better able to do so if you’ve previously seen the word on a list, whether or not you remember having seen it. Some part of your brain has been touched and changed by the words on the list. This effect is called priming.(21)
The next example shows how priming might work for a preliterate child.
In this example, an image is presented on the right, separated, isolated in space. (If you were to think of it like a book, upon a page turn, you would first be confronted by the image on the right.) It is centered, and easily recognized as “Robot.” On the left side, that same image is centered amidst a hubbub of context.
The brain is likely to process these images somewhat like this: First, the eyes are drawn to what is known. They seek out, and find easily, the figure on the right. This is a simple and comfortable process. It takes very little effort. The left hemisphere of the brain handles most of this because recognition is involved. Once a figure is recognized, it is imprinted. The mind is now primed to find it within the context on the left-side page.
This where the excitement is. The image on the left is full of possibilities; there are many shapes, colors, viewpoints, and best of all, other robot examples to be found and identified. The act of discovery itself, to find what is new, is within the realm of the right hemisphere. This is an enactive operation, where the viewer must reach out to make sense of things. Possibilities shift as images slide in and out of attention. The symbol “Robot” expands beyond a one-to-one correspondence of image and word. An opportunity for deeper learning has been entered upon.
Ideally, in the case of a toddler, a parent or caregiver is there with the child, playing, exploring, having that bigger discussion of things that goes with finding what is new. This is the kind of experience that leads toward closing those “meaningful differences” by helping to expand a child’s innate understanding of the workings of the world. It’s a way of adding color, tone and texture to the figures displayed upon that not-so-blank slate.
In the final analysis, it is no longer obvious that the ant image at the outset of this article is too complex for a toddler. Too many things depend on how that image is met. The image is indeed complex. It should be. Engaging with and striving to discover things there is the point of the exercise. In order to bolster the whole brain, it is important that not everything is “understood.”
Learning is way more than knowing things. Learning is learning how to learn. It is a process, maybe not one so obvious, or easily defined, but one that is necessary if we are to advance our children toward a higher level of creativity.
In art, images are meant to confound. This is a good thing. This is the goal of art. To confound is to cause one to struggle for clarity. The best art is not just an ironic image/message relationship (that’s too easy, for it allows viewers to fall back upon preconceived notions). Instead, art is a blossoming of clarity on many levels. The experience of it is wonderful. It is only possible when the mind can make sense of interwoven elements from within a bountiful context.
The illustrator, Mison Kim, who made the Ant and Robot illustrations above, wasn’t thinking about educational studies when she set about her work. To her, the process was intuitive. As an artist, she sees this way of creating deeper meaning as obvious. The struggle to understand, even for a child, is a big part of it. In this case, Ms. Kim has given the child lots of help engaging, too.
People are always concerned with being right. We like to comfort ourselves with what we know, and we want agreement on our terms. This is a what state of mind. It’s objective, explicit, and left-brained. And it’s stilted.
If meaningful changes in education are to be achieved, perhaps what is needed is a shift to a how state of mind. Questions of how things exist are what lead to high-quality thoughts. They are concerned with more than the learning of noun objects, but also include a grasping at significant modifiers and ways of being. Efforts must be directed toward implicit discoveries, to an array of possibilities. These are right hemisphere investigations and they lead significantly toward inventiveness and originality.
Here is the part of Malcolm Gladwell’s chapter on the 10,000-Hour Rule that most people choose to forget: “what truly distinguishes their histories is not their extraordinary talent but their extraordinary opportunities.”(22) Gladwell insists that a good bit of success is based upon rare opportunities and impeccable timing.
We might try to push our children to extreme measures of practice, to achieve a semblance of expertise; but are we so certain about what types of expertise will be valued in our children’s future? This could be the all-important question.
Alva Noë claims that we enact our perceptual content through skillful looking.(23) Perhaps we should put a little more emphasis on developing those skills and less emphasis on trying to force genius upon our children. It sure would make for more enjoyable childhoods. With luck, we will find a way to help our children retain their creative abilities, and take them into adulthood. This seems a more fitting avenue for success than a forced specialization of tasks with the hope of generating expertise. Having the ability to find creative solutions, could be just the thing for gaining an advantage on the playing field—on what ever field it is they choose to play.
Because this is meant as a discussion, not a monologue, I’d really appreciate your feedback, input and advice.
1. Gladwell, M., Outliers, The Story of Success, Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group,
New York, 2008. pp.35-68
2. Pinker, S., The Blank Slate, The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Penguin Books, New York, 2002. p.375
3. Ericsson, A. & Pool, R., Peak, Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, First Mariner Books edition.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, 2017. p.109
4. Hart, B. & Risley, T., Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children,
Paul H. Brookes Publishing, Baltimore, 1995. p.252
5. Suskind, D., Thirty Million Words, Building a Child’s Brain, Tune in, Talk more, Take turns, Dutton, Penguin Random House, NewYork, 2015. p.255
6. Ibid. p. 68
7. Shenk, D., The Genius in All of Us, New Insights into Genetics, Talent and IQ, First Anchor Books edition, Random House, New York, 2011. p.234
8. Siegel, D., & Bryson, T., The Whole-Brain Child, 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s
Developing Mind, Bantam Books paperback edition, New York, 2012. pp.15-16
9. Edwards, B., Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Jeremy P. Tarcher / Perigree Books, Putnam,
New York, 1989. p.36 & p.63
10. Berger, J., Ways of Seeing, Penguin Books, London, 1972. p.7
11. Eagleman, D., Incognito, The Secret Lives of the Brain, Pantheon Books, New York, 2011. p.83
12. Arnheim, R., Visual Thinking (35th Anniversary Printing), University of California Press, Los Angeles
& Berkeley, 1969. p.71
13. Ibid. p.38
14. Arnheim, R., Art and Visual Perception (The New Version), University of California Press, Los Angeles
& Berkeley, 1954, 1974. pp.10-18
15. Eagleman, D., Incognito. p.83
16. Arnheim, R., Art and Visual Perception. p.13
17. Arnheim, R., Visual Thinking. p.38
18. McGilchrist, I., The Master and his Emissary, The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,
Yale University Press, New Haven, 2009, paperback 2012. p.27
19. Ibid. p.40
20. Eagleman, D., Incognito. p.56
21. Ibid. p.64
22. Noë, A., Action in Perception, The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2004, paperback 2006. p.73
23. Gladwell, M., Outliers, The Story of Success. p.55