Thursday, 24 September 2020

The Gardener and the Carpenter

I've just discovered the work of Alison Gopnik, and it's very interesting. These two paragraphs from a review of her book The Gardener and the Carpenter jumped out at me:


n 2011, a team of psychologists did an experiment with some preschool children. The scientists gave the children a toy made of many plastic tubes, each with a different function: one squeaked, one lit up, one made music and the final tube had a hidden mirror. With half the children, an experimenter came into the room and bumped – apparently accidentally – into the tube that squeaked. “Oops!” she said. With the other children, the scientist acted more deliberately, like a teacher. “Oh look at my neat toy! Let me show you how it works,” she said while purposely pressing the beeper. The children were then left alone to play with the toy.

In the “accidental” group, the children freely played with the toy in various random ways. Through experimenting, they discovered all the different functions of the tubes: the light, the music, the mirror. The other group, the children who had been deliberately taught how to use the toy by the teacher, played with it in a much more limited and repetitive way. They squeaked the beeper over and over again, never discovering all the other things the toy could do.

For us teachers, this is momentous. Just by the act of 'being a teacher', in the sense of demonstrating something, we can close something down.

Here's another similar experiment from a talk by Alison Gopnik. (I suggest you just watch to the end of the part about the Thingamibob experiment and variations, or maybe carry on a bit to listen to implications.)

Two things come out of this: the impressive causal reasoning of three and four year old children, and how the stance of the adult ('clueless' or knowledgeable) influences whether children bring their powers to bear on the subject.

I'm still trying to work out what this means exactly for us teachers, especially us teachers of young children, but teachers of all ages - and I'd be interested in your thoughts.

So - I haven't read the book yet - I think the distinction between the gardener and the carpenter, is that a gardener creates conditions for the shaping of the garden (the plants themselves will create the garden), whereas the carpenter does all the work on the wood, shaping it themselves.

This reminds me of Socrates, who said his mother was a midwife and his father was a sculptor, and that he aimed in his conversations to be more like the midwife, to help his conversation partners to bring to birth their own ideas.

There's this thing called Socratic Ignorance. Partly it seems to be a genuine understanding of the limits of our knowledge, partly a device for getting back to the 'clueless' way of operating in a conversation. For instance this, edited for brevity from the beginning of the Meno dialogue:

Meno: Can you tell me, Socrates, whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice; or if neither by teaching nor practice, then whether it comes to man by nature, or in what other way?

Socrates (edited to keep the quote short):  ...And I myself, Meno, confess with shame that I know literally nothing about virtue...

Meno: No, Indeed. But are you in earnest, Socrates, in saying that you do not know what virtue is? And am I to carry back this report of you to Thessaly?

Socrates: Not only that, my dear boy, but you may say further that I have never known of any one else who did, in my judgment.

So, lots to think about.

I recommend this TED talk by Alison Gopnik too:

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