“What makes it go?”

mastermind-how-to-think-like-sherlock-holmesI’m reading Maria Konnikova’s book Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes right now, and enjoying her take on the great detective and logical reasoning, even as I feel myself more and more like Watson with every page. Early on in the book she tells a story about Richard Feynman that resonated with me as an educator. She writes:

After World War II physicist Richard Feynman was asked to serve on the State Curriculum Commission, to choose high school science textbooks for California. To his consternation, the texts appeared to leave students more confused than enlightened. Each book he examined was worse than the one prior. Finally, he came up on a promising beginning: a series of pictures, of a windup toy, an automobile, and a boy on a  bicycle. Under each was the question: “What makes it go?”

Feynman’s hopes that students would see in these examples mechanics, chemistry, and biology, would be dashed, Konnikova goes on to explain, by the clunky one word explanation that followed: energy. The textbook simply used the pictures as window dressing, not challenging students to puzzle about the question. As any good textbook from the middle of the last century would, this one came from the perspective that students needed to be given information that they could memorize and return (potentially unused) to the teacher on a test.

But what if that question was asked of the kids and not immediately followed up by a lecture?

I see glimpses of what I think might be the answer in my own kids. As I scribble these lines, they’re focused (and occasionally frustrated) twisting miniature rubber bands on their rainbow looms. Watching his older sister, my six year old son has learned how to find videos on my phone (he cracked the password himself) that show him how to make bracelets of increasing complexity.

He doesn’t get them all on the first or second or even third try, but he sticks with it, motivated both externally (he was very pleased to get a smile from a girl he gave a double fishtail to today) and internally, as he answers for himself the question of how?

The middle school students I see in classes at Diegueño are curious and creative. Posed with a challenge like the one that captivated Feynman, they aren’t afraid to struggle with concepts they don’t yet understand. This willingness to engage with a question meaningfully and in an environment that doesn’t punish failure, but sees it as part of the process, may be the single biggest opportunity education has seen in a long time.

I could see asking the student in English class about an essay by Emerson using the same language I heard my math teachers use: “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”

I could see students asking the same questions as they come upon chemical reactions, perspectives in art, poetry, basketball, or coding. I could see teachers holding up a sonnet by Shakespeare, a map of Machu Picchu, or a geometrical shape and asking some variation of: “What makes it go?”

…and I can imagine the kids figuring it out.

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