Thursday, September 23, 2010

Little kids and smarts

Back in the very early 1970s, I committed a grievous sin against the education of our youth. Here's what happened:

I had read somewhere that up to certain age - five or six or so - little kids are invariably bamboozled by a simple experiment. Pour the contents of a low, wide glass into a tall, narrow glass. Ask the kid which glass had the most liquid. Up to a certain stage of development, the child - in some way certain that the higher the liquid, the more there is - always will point to the tall, narrow container. Well, I decided to do the test on my four-year-old boy, Donny. Yep, his answer was the glass with the higher level - right in step with the research. I went on to explain to him that pouring a fixed amount from one glass to another didn't change the amount, no matter how "high" it ended up. He looked at me with big eyes that said: "Cool!"

Sure enough, within a week or two the gods of psychology school pulled one of their whimsical tricks and caused our neighbor, a young woman taking a psychology course at nearby Carroll College, to ask if she could administer a few tests to our son. Sure enough, one of the tests was the water-pouring thing. Sure enough, Don blew her away with his precociousness. I felt like a cad, and of course explained what had happened.

But as I was remembering this incident, I also recalled learning about studies that show that while kids have to pass through various stages of mental development, they also can blow us away with what they know, and with how early they know it. I'm thinking of a test given to four-month-old infants. The babies are shown a picture of box sitting on a table. They look at it briefly. Then they are shown a picture of a box sitting right at the edge of the table. They look at it a little longer, but not much. Then they are shown a box hovering in the air beside the table. The infants stare at it for a long, long time.

Way back in 1997, a lecture by Professor Daniel N. Robinson of Georgetown University ended with a quip: "The more we study infants, the smarter they get." Earlier this year, in the spring of 2010, I noticed a magazine article about how much smarter babies are than we think. It seems Robinson was on to something. So, apparently, are infants.

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