I read an article recently that confirmed some suspicions I’ve been harbouring for a while. That is, that children make the best scientists. Every time I feel I am close some kind of answer in my exploration of deep-sea coral along the eastern Australian seaboard I come back to the same question, ‘yeah but whhhyyyy?’. We have nitrogen isotopes from individual amino acids and they appear to be changing through time. Yeah but why? Okay well there could be a number of reasons…the food source is changing. Yeah but why? Hmmm well that could be environmental, the water is getting warmer. Yeah but why? Shifting bifurcation point of the equatorial currents in the coral sea? Why? Long term oscillations in the PDO/IPO. Why? Why? Why?
Sound familiar? Been to a preschool recently? Well researchers have published findings in Science that discusses how children really do reason like scientists. According to the research kindergarten age children observe their surroundings actively testing hypotheses, they experiment (albeit informally), analyse results and make inferences about cause and effect. They also collect information from a variety of sources by watching and listening to asses the best way forward. The authors use Bayesian inference to describe this learning and when I first read the abstract I thought the children were using Bayesian inference. I was rather impressed because I only learned about this particular branch of statistics in a lecture series last week!
But on a serious note this discovery has serious implications for the style of education that we expose our children to. The childhood learning experience is extremely important, and as I have long thought, the rigid structure associated with academic programs is ‘misguided’. Go in to any Honours room, where for the first time students are in control of their own project, and therefore learning, and you will often see a very confused bunch (myself included). It is by no means their fault that they have been spoon-fed up until this point, but it is certainly not best way to create a lateral thinker. The best thing to do is cast your mind back to a time before learning was by rote, when being inquisitive was the only way.
From my own personal experience I had a fascination with gravity and experimented with classical mechanics and Newton’s laws by falling over almost everyday in the playground. My mother brought a spare outfit whenever we went out because if there was even a puddle of water I fell in it. I was looking for deep-sea coral? My brother on the other hand was more interested in conductivity and explosives, experimenting by sticking a metal knife straight into the power socket. My dad made him eat his dinner with the gnarled knife for weeks and I learned of the beauty of fireworks. Okay perhaps these are not the best examples. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to show my latest set of data to my niece, she can probably make sense of it better than I can…
If you want to read more, then you’ll need access to Science and “Scientific thinking in young children:theoretical advances, empirical research and policy implications“.