Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Charm of Understanding Reality: Captured in a Children's Book Written by Richard Dawkins – Part 1

by Gary Berg-Cross

Pioneering Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget spent a professional lifetime observing children to understand their thinking. It sounds strange today to say that what he found was revolutionary. But it certainly was and contrary to much of the learning thinking holding sway in his time 50 -80 years ago. A prevailing, simple assumption was that learning is just a unitary process and children start “empty”. Learning pumps in more knowledge over time so the quantity of their intelligence grows to be that of an adult. But there were few studies with actual children & toddlers to test this idea.

After thousands of interactions with young people some barely old enough to talk, Piaget began to see a developmental pattern to children’s actions, utterances and perceptions. Like most parents he could see that infants are active explorers from birth and prefer to look at novel objects. By 6 months infants seem to understand that objects continue to exist even if hidden under something. After many studies Piaget concluded that the differences weren’t so much quantitative, but qualitative and process driven. Young children don't think like grownups. From infancy they employ schema, a kind of mental structure to guide interacts with the outside world. As schemas develop their thought processes take on their own kind of order and have their own special “logic”. It’s not a linear accretion of knowledge. Instead using a child actively constructs different models about reality using their own reasoning “logic”. Early reasoning may include magical explanations, but it evolves over time as different ideas are tested out and more abstract thought is supported. In a phrase the young child is like a junior scientist who constructs their own knowledge from experimenting on the world. They struggle to understand why things happen. This ranges from why is the sky blue, why the moon doesn’t get smaller as we travel around and why do people die. Einstein, a friend of Piaget, provided the right sort of praise for the discovery - "so simple that only a genius could have thought of it."

Piaget's insight opened not only a new window into the inner workings of the mind, but like any other pioneer it’s not the last word on the topic. By the 1970s there was neo-Piagetian work. And there are grand fusions of Piagetian thought with more social theory. Such syntheses are driven in part by breakthroughs in other fields as is still happening to evolutionary theory.
One of Piaget’s lasting contributions was to educational applications. Schools of education have housed many of Piaget’s disciples. The obvious idea is that educational material should be structured to help the advance children’s understanding and answer questions of interest things according to their logic. It also provides insights into higher order and critical thinking where we reflect not only on a problem to solve but our own thinking to solve a problem.

Now a new book The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins helps fill a need for book geared towards critical thinking. It provides a nice spark for adolescent, rational and scientific minds taking first steps in hypothetico-deductive reasoning. Susan Jacoby wrote a glowing review in WaPO on Dawkins teaches children how, not what, to think, noting its intellectual merits.
Dawkin’s motivation for book is something Piaget would have loved with broad sections, such as “What is reality? What is magic?” Each chapter starts with a clear interesting questions such as – “Why is there a sun? What is an earthquake? What is a rainbows? Why is there night and day, winter and summer? Why do bad things happen? Are we alone?” He then describes a myth which tries to answer the question. This is contrasted with scientific explanations of reality. This is an exciting aspect of the book partly because Dawkins is the first of the prominent member of the “new atheist” generation to take on the task of helping children distinguish between (ancient) mythical & magical view of reality and how it is understood by science.
To do this Dawkins uses some proven literary techniques. Each chapter begins with different versions of myths from different cultures. So the Sumerian creation stories and desert religion miracle tales are not a central feature elbowing out other ideas. In the 2nd chapter titled, “Who Was the First Person?” we get a Tasmanian aboriginal story, with a god injured in a star-god battle who is dying. The god decided to create humans as his parting gift but in haste forgets to give people knees and instead tacks on a kangaroo tail. The rival god from the sky, seeing that the new race of people is unhappy with limited mobility, descendes to earth to cut off their tails and replace them with knees. Juxtaposed with such stores Dawkins will employ evolutionary explanations and cites philosophers, such as Hume, to present the ideas of magical explanations and myths in a fair light. Myths aren’t so much silly or stupid, since the may capture the magical and informal thinking young minds. They are, instead, just early attempts to understand the world using an immature logic, just as young children have been doing in their own lives. By showing the weaknesses of magical explanations and myths we are lead to more satisfying ones.

Along the way Dawkins provides clear, clever and uncluttered rational answers with base definitions. “Reality,” Dawkins describes simply as, “ everything that exists.” This juxtaposed with a fuzzier idea of Magic which he notes “is a slippery word.” To claify Dawkins proposed 3 kinds of magic:
· Supernatural - what we experience in myth stories, fairy tales and, miracles
· stage - pulling rabbits out of hats
· poetic magic - such as the oceanic experience of music, sunrise and double rainbows.
In Dawkins' able hands children can experience a bit of this poetic magic in understanding reality. It comes not from tricks or supernatural infusions, but as a coming together of a deep, relational pattern of ideas.

Piaget would have appreciated the message and also the approach. Facts aren’t piled up in a heap to say what they should believe. Instead Dawkins leads a young reader along a logical chain of thinking to logical conclusions.

Something that reviewers also appreciate about this volume is the enchanting illustrations provided by Dave McKean that help grasp topics showing both myths and science in graphical form. Again this fits with Piaget’s notions that younger children need concrete examples to supplement more abstract concepts and processes.

Not everyone is happy with this book and Dawkins' gentle debunking of myths which seem like rants to some true believers and this a topic for Part 2 of this blog.

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