Engineering Elephants

22/09/2016 17:20

In the eyes of some people, both other children and adults, three year old Jay can be quite a strange little boy. He is highly focused and very serious, asking questions that seem almost philosophical in nature. One of these was 'why elephants?' After Jay's dad had ascertained that Jay was perfectly aware that elephants were those huge grey animals with big ears that he had seen at the animal kingdom, and that they usually live in hot countries, he began to realise that Jay was simply asking why elephants were. So he did his best to explain evolution as simply as possible, and Jay seemed satisfied with that.

If we could look into the contents of Jay's mind, we would see that they look rather more like those streams of data that were used as a special effect in The Matrix than neat sets of words and pictures, but this is not an exact analogy, because Jay's mental data stream exists across three dimensions; even at three, he has a formidable understanding of three dimensional construction. From his perspective, the whole world is full of fascinating mechanisms. He really wasn't being naughty when he tried to take his sister's crawling doll apart. And he was honestly surprised when she burst into tears and screamed 'my baby'! What he had seen was a fascinating mechanism that he wanted to deconstruct and understand.

When Jay is older, his family will continually trip over odd-looking Lego constructions that he leaves all around the house. It doesn't bother him if they get broken, because for him, they have served their purpose. His parents will eventually understand that much of what Jay does in construction activities is try out different ways of putting things together to see if they 'work' or not. Once he has come to a conclusion on this, as far as he is concerned, the experiment is over. Sometimes he will enjoy putting together a pre-designed kit (The Millennium Falcon is always awesome, of course) but not always.

Today, Jay carried out one of his construction experiments at nursery. The teaching assistant wanted to know what he had made, but he couldn't explain it to her. When he went to put the model in the bin, she took it out and placed it at the front of the classroom 'because your mummy will want to see it'. Then his mother carried it proudly home, asking him 'is it a tall building? Is it a rocket on a launch pad?' In the end, Jay had explained in an exasperated tone: 'it's a paper towel roll stuck to a tissue box and I painted it'. The model will be left on the kitchen work surface for a few days until Jay bins it again. When both Jay and his mother are older and know each other better, she will guess that his experiment entailed sticking two objects together and then painting them the same colour to see if they would then look like one unitary object. She will ask Jay if that was what he was doing, but by then, he won't remember the incident.

The problem for Jay is that the government of his nation want to create a set of tests for four year olds that will allocate him to a particular level on the basis of his ability to sit with an adult and demonstrate to them that he can count objects and sound out letters and words presented to him on an iPad. But Jay is not the least bit interested in this; he knows he knows how to count, and in a year or so, he will become highly motivated to learn to read so he won't need his dad to read the instructions on the Lego kits that he consumes at an incredible pace. In a few years time, he will begin his custom of making the model on the box once and then breaking it apart and filing the pieces into boxes on the basis of shape and size to use for further original creations.

Jay has the potential to be a world class engineer, if he is given enough freedom to play at constructing and deconstructing his creations, and provided with considered answers to his questions. But if, instead, he is continually drilled to count inanimate objects and sound out words that don't interest him, he will begin to experience school as boring and irrelevant; and once that opinion is firmly entrenched in his mind, it will be very difficult to over-ride. Finland understands children like Jay, but unfortunately England and other similar nations (frequently Anglophone) do not. England in particular is obsessed with selecting children who are designated as 'clever' on the basis of such narrow-based testing and putting them into designated groups or institutions focused on transmit-and-test coaching towards even more highly structured pencil and paper exams.

At the same time, England has many unfilled vacancies for engineers and technicians; in fact entrepreneur James Dyson comments that the small number of engineers produced by England is 'not a sustainable situation' if we want our economy to thrive. But somehow, the politicians just never seem to connect this to the ways in which children like Jay are increasingly badly served in English state education. Why they continually fail to make this link is a mystery, because nearly a century ago, the children's writer A. A. Milne clearly demonstrated his generation's understanding of children like Jay in his much loved poem 'The Engineer'. Could it then be, that like Christopher Robin's brake, the English Department for Education is on balance 'a good sort of [thing] but it hasn't worked yet'?