Monday, April 04, 2005

Inflection Points: Personal Discoveries that Redirected Children's Lives

If we look back at the childhood histories of innovative people, we often find important events that sparked a lifelong interest. Einstein liked to tell a story about being shown a magnetic compass at the age of 4 or 5 years old. He became fascinated by the fact that an invisible force always directed the needle North, and thought about the need to "something behind things, deeply hidden."

Other inflection points in famous peoples' lives:

“I loved to read and I spent a lot of my time at the public library…one day I found a big book on the table. It was a book of engraved prints after the works of Michelangelo." - August Rodin, Sculptor

"When I was twelve, I contracted measles and was put to bed for two weeks…My father read to me when he came home from the office…The spaces between the shade and the top of the windows in my bedroom served as crude pinholes, and vague images of the outer world were projected on the ceiling. When anyone moved outside to the east, the highly diffuse image would move along to the west above me…My father explained it and I then grasped the theory of the camera lens and why the picture was upside down on the film. He opened his Kodak Bullseye camera, placed a piece of semitransparent paper where the film usually resides, set the shutter on open, pressed the button, and voila- a camera obscura!" - Ansel Adams, Photographer

“…the stomach pains returned, preventing him from attending first grade, and his mother decided to school him at home for the rest of the year…(his mother) read aloud from Ossian, Poe, Wordsworth, Longfellow, and Bryant, among other poets…” - Robert Frost, Poet Laureate

As a child, this boy's parents taught him to think unconventionally: he’d play games over the breakfast table with imaginary numbers (what’s the square root of minus 4?) and make pretend computers out of cardboard boxes and five-hole paper tape. He would later remember “One day I came home from high school, I found my father working on a speech... He was reading books on the brain, looking for clues about how to make a computer intuitive, able to complete connections like as the brain did. We discussed the point…but the idea stayed with me…” - Tim Berners-Lee, Inventor of the World Wide Web

“When I was about 6 years old, I was sick in bed for a few weeks with a serious illness. My father brought a tape recorder home from the university. At that time, tape recorders were gigantic. I could sit there and make noises and tell stories and I could listen to things and play them back. It became a form of entertainment. I started recording off television, my favorite television shows, and listening to the sounds back without seeing the picture. That led to a real interest in the use of music and sound effects, how they were used to tell a story, how they augmented the presentation…” – Ben Burtt, Sound Engineer Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET…

The physicist Edward Purcell once said, "The wonderful thing about science and about teaching is that all you need is one good example." If we look at some of the most motivating events for young people who later grew up to be great innovators, we find that their 'one good example' often had two shared characteristics: Beauty and Mystery.

In the rush to have all our school children 'meet standards' and be taught "what every n'th grader needs to know", we shouldn't forget that some of the most memorable experiences are those which make children yearn to learn more.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice selection. I totally agree.

    In Germany, too, there is a huge discussion about education standards and I see a great danger of everything becoming over-regulated, not leaving any room for that kind of "unplanned" discoveries.