Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Talk on children's thinking

The talk mentioned in the previous post will be broadcast on Radio 3 at 11pm on Wednesday 5th November. You can see a few more details here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Off to Broadcasting House

I write this on a train to London, where I'm due to record a talk for Radio 3 on children's thinking. I'll be talking about Vygotsky's theory of inner speech development and drawing some connections to the experience of voice-hearing. I'll post further details on the talk when I know them. 

Writing the talk has made me think a lot about how we might get more reliable information about young children's experience. I see this as a big part of my fellowship at the IAS, and the book on thinking that I am working on. Watch out for some more ideas on this as I go on. As ever, I'd be fascinated to hear any ideas or suggestions! 

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Children's minds lead to big ideas

Join me tomorrow (Monday 20 October) for a talk at Café Scientifique, Urban Café, Dance City, Newcastle upon Tyne. My title will be 'How Studying Children's Minds Leads to Big Ideas', and I will be focusing on some biggies like identity, rationality, love and God. The event is free and you can just show up; no need to book.

The Newcastle Journal ran a piece by me on Saturday, unfortunately not available online. I will also be talking on BBC Radio Newcastle's morning show at 11.15 tomorrow.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The adjectival truth

'Daddy. I've got to tell you what I did last night when you were out.'

He has come into our bed for a cuddle. It is a dark early morning, and nobody really wants to get up.

'OK,' I yawn. 'What did you do?'

'I made something. It's to do with making.'

'What did you make?'

'I made a r... r... r...'

I know this game, because we play it with him all the time. We keep in mind the idea we want him to guess, repeat the initial phoneme, and see if he can fill in the rest. 

'A rabbit?'


'A racetrack?'

'No. A really...'

'Oh. I see. R for really. A really what?'

'A really g... g... g...'


'Uh huh. A really good c... c... c...'


'No, countryside. A really good countryside.'

Nouns and adjectives. Adjectives and adverbs. What makes a noun like countryside a better candidate for the 'missing ending' game than these other components of language? As words that stand for things, we tend to think of nouns as the support structures of our conversation. They are the pillars that the whole thing is built around. Words like adjectives and adverbs are just the decoration. But a four-year-old won't necessarily see it like that. For him, all words are created equal. They are all sounds that you have to labour to make, with your tongue, mouth and lips. They are all important in saying what you want to say. 

'A really good countryside? That you can put animals in?'

'M... m... m...'

'Mountains? Mice?'

'Maybe,' he says. 

Monday, October 13, 2008

God and the builders

'Did God get the world started and the builders finished it?'  

And so we have frequently, in recent months, come to debate the Big Fella's role in furnishing us with what there is. I am pretty convinced about evolution by natural selection, although I did spend much of my Cambridge interview trying to convince the indulgent don opposite that the universe had not been around long enough for us to have inched towards perfection by such careful degrees. So I find it hard to tell Isaac that anyone made anything, in the sense of setting out with an intention (that most human of mental quantities) and then assiduously seeing it through. I'm one of the group of people for whom Richard Dawkins reserves some of the largest doses of his prodigious contempt: those who would claim that religious belief gives human beings a rewarding, affirming narrative that helps them to make sense of their lives. (Read RD's preface to the revised edition of The God Delusion to see why he believes that this 'patronising' attitude won't do.) I can cope with the wrath of Dawkins, but not the disappointment of my own child. Isaac wants answers, and I'm the one who's supposed to be giving them. 

How creationist should we be with our kids? Some recent research suggests that, by coming over all Dawkins with our little ones, we might be wasting our time. In his wonderful Descartes' Baby, Paul Bloom reviews some findings that children's belief in creation stems from a natural tendency to attribute intention where in fact there is none. As part of the process of acquiring a theory of mind, children's mind-reading sometimes hits the wrong targets, and sees, for example, a mountain range as having been put there on purpose, by some higher, invisible miglior fabbro

Here's how I summarise Bloom's arguments in The Baby in the Mirror
It’s easy to see why people believe in a Creator. So much is mysterious: why the sun rises, how gases fuse to make water, how blind natural selection could have launched birds into the air. Through the centuries, children have wanted answers to these questions, and adults have had to try to find ways of explaining them. If Bloom is right, those adults needn’t have bothered. The explanations were already at hand. Until children’s thinking is sufficiently developed to cope with the hard science, the belief that God or some other supernatural being is responsible for all these miracles comes to youngsters as naturally as language does.
So I have to manage Isaac's perfectly natural creationist leanings while still being honest to my own truth. It has the makings of a classic fudge. God made the world possible, I tell him, and then Nature did the rest. I'm starting to sound like the Archbishop of Canterbury:

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Feedback welcome!

Many thanks to all who have been following the blog. I'm constantly looking for ways to improve it, so if you have ideas about things to be included or changes to make then please let me know. You can find me on Facebook here, or you can send an email through my website by clicking here. Otherwise just leave a comment on this post. 

I look forward to hearing from you!