Respecting divergent thinking

“I’m so confused.”

 A couple of three year old children are intensely engaged in a spontaneous game of “messy and dirty”: dumping small plastic foods into one bucket or another depending on the arbitrary distinction the children made around “if it is messy and dirty.”  Spaghetti, hot dogs, and sushi into one bucket; challah, apples, and strawberries into another.  The teacher, seeking clarification, asks, “So, what we’re doing is putting foods in this bucket if they are messy, and this bucket if they are not?”  The children confidently respond, each with contradictory answers: “Yes.” “No.” They smile at each other, with no pause in their activity.  The teacher says back, “I’m so confused.”  The children do not notice; their conflicting responses are not a source of confusion for them.

As adults, we are prone to seeing the world in a linear model.  Life moves forward, not sideways (or so we hope).  Once a stage is accomplished, we move on to the next.  We are drawn to this idea of “what’s next?”  And for us, what’s next must build upon what came before.  We mimic our computers in this digital age: our world is binary.  Truths are not falsehoods; verifiable facts allow us to share common knowledge. We often shy away from the discomfort of not knowing what is next, from the discomfort of a non-verified truth.

Our children do not see the world like this. The three year olds above were not as concerned as the teacher about qualifying their activity. The joy was in the process, not the explanation; they were not impeded by the lack of clarity. Where we are confused, they are excited. Where we are linear, they are divergent.

It is our responsibility to respect the divergent thoughts of our young children.  I always struggle with this.

I find myself responding to a child’s presentation of a work of art with “What’s next”, as if the child needs my not-so-subtle suggestion that they keep moving forward.  Twice this week my thoughts of “What’s next” were rebuked by our students.  Fortunately I kept my thoughts in my head, and watched silently.  One child spent several minutes on an intricate drawing, proudly held it up to show to her classmates and me…and then spent the next several minutes slicing it up into dozens of pieces with scissors. Another child found me from all the way across the room and showed me a drawing she had made.  I smiled, and kept my “what’s next” to myself.  She came back moments later, a look of sheer excitement and discovery on her face: she had crammed the paper into a small cup of water and now had a thoroughly soaked, rapidly dissolving piece of art in her hands.  She continued to dunk the paper until it disintegrated, discoloring the water along the way.

In my binary world, these were acts of destruction of art. In my linear world, they were steps backwards from creation. In the child’s divergent world, they were simply acts of exploration. The children were not concerned about moving forward; they were concerned with movement in general, in any direction.

Respecting our children’s capacity for withstanding confusion and seeing through linearity is significant because frankly, we as a society need it.  None of us are so haughty as to believe that every idea worth having has already been had; none of us are content that our current body of knowledge will right the wrongs we face in the world.  We need our children’s creativity, and as such we must pay careful attention to not impose our sense of order too stringently on our children. 

Do the examples above represent major contributions of thought to the world? No. But they represent the budding of those ideas; they represent the ways in which significant ideas will eventually develop.  Thomas Edison once famously said of his many non-successful inventions, “I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Imagine if we allowed our children to do something 10,000 times before we redirected them, before we imposed our sense of clarity upon their ideas. What might they come up with?

In a preK room earlier this week, I watched as children and a teacher sat down to play “Memory.” Respecting the power of the child’s perspective, the teacher opened with, “How do you play this game?” A child responded, “We look for faces that rhyme.”  The class had begun discussing poetry days prior, and the concept of rhyming was fresh in the child’s mind.  Rhyming faces? Perhaps this is a more lyrical and deep manner of saying “We look for faces that match.”  Significant? Maybe not. Innovative and creative? Most certainly.

Ryan Tate (author of "The 20% Doctrine: How Tinkering, Goofing Off, and Breaking the Rules Drive Success in Business") wrote on this summer that “knowledge workers are most valuable when granted protected space in which to tinker.” He cited ways in which workers at Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Apple, and more, are given time and space to tinker.  Out of these opportunities many hugely significant products have been developed.  Tate wrote that while gmail was being discussed at Google, one team member reportedly said, “this will destroy our brand; this will crush our company.” Imagine that! Thankfully, the idea was given room to be tinkered with, and is how many of you will be reading this note today.

For our children to succeed and flourish throughout their lives, and for our society to ultimately benefit from their unbounded potential, we must provide them with foundational experiences in which their divergence and creativity is shown the ultimate respect.  We cannot meddle in their process or compel their thoughts to mimic ours.  Our children need to find, in our classrooms and your living rooms, the time and space to tinker.  Together, as parents and educators, we can provide them with these spaces.  And I just can’t wait to see what they come up with on the 10,001st time.

Shabbat shalom,