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Monday, July 26, 2021

Review: The Gardener and the Carpenter

 The Gardener and the Carpenter begins with an audacious declaration:

parenting is a terrible invention. It hasn’t improved the lives of children and parents, and in some ways it’s arguably made them worse. For middle-class parents, trying to shape their children into worthy adults becomes the source of endless anxiety and guilt coupled with frustration. And for their children, parenting leads to an oppressive cloud of hovering expectations. (pg. 24)

Her argument in the book is that the parenting approach assumes that parents can shape the outcome of a kid's childhood like a carpenter shapes a cabinet --- that what comes out on the other side is a virtuous, competent exemplar of humanity. Her contrasting approach is that parenting is like gardening --- you can provide all the resources needed for the plants in the garden, but they will do what they do. A plant might refuse to grow in one spot but a flower might spread out of its plot.

The preponderance of parenting books, like the preponderance of diet books, should, just by itself, be a sign of their futility; if any of them actually worked, that success ought to put the rest of them out of business. And the gap between private goals and public policy, vivid enough in the case of food, is a yawning chasm in the case of caring for children. A society that is obsessed with dieting has the highest obesity rate—a society obsessed with parenting has the highest child poverty rate. (pg. 25)

Gopnik has an even lower opinion of school than she has about parenting. She notes that schools do even more damage than parents in reducing curiosity, inquisitiveness, and depth:

in one study researchers gave parents and children a bowl of water and a bunch of objects and asked them to figure out why some things sink and others float. The middle-class highly schooled parents and children treated this like a school activity—they spent more time talking about how the lesson would proceed than they did about sinking and floating. The less advantaged parents, with much less schooling, actually talked more about the actual problem, and their children asked deeper, more conceptual questions. (pg. 132)

One of Gopnik's big emphasis is on the important of play. One of the themes in this book is that play is purposeless and looks like it accomplishes nothing in the short term, but in the long term, play improves all aspects of a mammal's overall ability to learn, both socially and intellectually. This is as big deal for success in a highly social environment:

As adults, the play-deprived rats have difficulty dealing with other rats, and their difficulties are instructive. They can do the same kinds of things as the rats who played. They know how to attack and defend, how to make overtures to others, and how to retreat. But they don’t know when to do what. Whether they are fighting or courting, they can’t react to the other rats in the swift, flexible, and fluid fashion of the roughhousing rats. They may sting like a bee, but they sure don’t dance like a butterfly. That ability to dance, to take in a complex social context at a glance and know how to respond to it intuitively, is what makes a rat, or a human being, so smart and sociable...the rats who had played when they were young still maintained the ability to change even once they had grown up—their brains were more plastic. Play didn’t help the rats to do any one thing, in particular. Instead, it helped them to learn to do many things in a more flexible, varied way. (pg. 153-154)

 Translating that to schooling, she observes that children behave differently when observing an experimenter who behaves like a teacher vs that one who behaves like a scientist:

When the experimenter activated the toy accidentally, the children were fascinated and they played. Just by randomly trying different actions they discovered all the things that the toy could do. But when the experimenter acted like a teacher, the children would squeak the beeper, and then squeak it again and again, ad nauseam, instead of trying something new...The children played with the toy longer, tried more different actions, and discovered more of the “hidden” features when the experimenter squeaked the beeper accidentally than they did when she deliberately tried to teach them. So teaching is a double-edged sword. The children were remarkably sensitive to the fact that they were being taught, just as we saw in previous chapters. But teaching seemed to discourage the children from discovering all the possibilities the toy had to offer. The children were more eager to imitate the teacher than to discover things themselves. (pg, 174)

She heavily criticizes  the American approach to play as sucking the joy out of everything:

contemporary middle-class parents may allow themselves license to play only if they are convinced that it is part of the work of parenting. There is a famously puritan streak in America. We have a knack for taking what are simple pleasures in other cultures, from food to walks to sex, and turning them into strenuous work projects. We follow a Mediterranean diet instead of just eating spaghetti and tomatoes, take aerobic hikes instead of after-dinner promenades, and practice The Joy of Sex instead of, well, the joy of sex. (pg. 177)

Turning her attention to society, Gopnik claims that schools should turn away from the "teaching" approach to the apprentice approach. She explains the attraction of sports and music as a result of the fact that those are taught in practice format, with constant, adult-provided feedback rather than with problem sets and textbooks:

Many of the most effective teachers, even in modern schools, use elements of apprenticeship. Ironically, though, these teachers are more likely to be found in the “extracurricular” classes than in the required ones. The stern but beloved baseball coach or the demanding but passionate music teacher let children learn this way. Poor, inner-city children have a tendency to focus on sports and music, even though these skills are far less likely than math or science to help them to actually make a living. Perhaps this reflects unrealistic cultural expectations. But I think it also reflects the fact that sports and music are much more likely to be taught through apprenticeship than math or science or literature...There is no particularly good reason why ballet or basketball should be taught through apprenticeship while science and math are not. As any scientist will tell you, our profession is as much a matter of hard-won skill as piano or tennis. In graduate school, where we really teach science, we use the same methods as a chef or a tailor. My students begin by writing up the easy part of a paper, or designing a substudy of a big grant, and slowly graduate to doing a completely original experiment themselves. And though I don’t exactly wield a wooden sword—or even a wastebasket—I’m told that my “track changes” comments on a student manuscript can be pretty ferocious...Imagine if we taught baseball the way we teach science. Until they were twelve, children would read about baseball technique and history, and occasionally hear inspirational stories of the great baseball players. They would fill out quizzes about baseball rules. College undergraduates might be allowed, under strict supervision, to reproduce famous historic baseball plays. But only in the second or third year of graduate school, would they, at last, actually get to play a game. If we taught baseball this way, we might expect about the same degree of success in the Little League World Series that we currently see in our children’s science scores...Schools aren’t institutions that promote discovery, and they aren’t centers of apprenticeship, either. Instead, what schools do best is teach children how to go to school. School-age children are fascinated by adult skills and inclined toward apprenticeship. It’s natural for them to imitate and practice the activities that are most important to the adults around them. In school, intentionally or not, that means paying attention, taking tests, and getting grades...By the time they arrive in our classes, many Berkeley undergraduates are absolute Matajuros of test-taking. It’s no wonder we’re gravely disappointed—and they’re resentfully surprised—when we ask them to actually be apprentice scientists or scholars instead. Skilled adults continue to face difficult challenges, of course, but passing exams isn’t one of them. Being the best test-taker in the world isn’t much help for discovering either new truths about that world or new ways of thriving in it. (pg. 186-190)

The problem with the apprenticeship model, of course, is that it's labor intensive. I've had the fortunate opportunity to mentor many bright kids as part of various internship programs. In no case could I have had the bandwidth to mentor more than a couple of interns at a time, and do a good job on it. You can't really scale that to the 1:40 or 1:20 teacher/student ratio that we see in most schools. But maybe the approach is to do away with schools completely and ship kids to work along with their parents for appropriate mentoring and teaching. Ok, that's not going to work and it's going to lead to even more inequity/inequality in society.

My takeaway from this book is as follows:

  • Play with your kids. As in really play. Don't turn it into an educational experience. If your kids go to a conventional school, they're going to get plenty of schooling (Gopnik will say, Too much schooling!). But play is the one thing parents can provide that schools won't.
  • Try to give them apprentice-ship opportunities. Give them small jobs, and scale it up from there as they gain competence. This is going to be hard --- they're going to screw up in the kitchen, while camping, or fixing a bicycle. I'm going to try to do this more going forward.
  • Maybe kids should get more "bring your child to work" days.
Anyway, the book gave me lots to think about. Recommended.

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