“Der-glumph went the little green frog one day.”
All young children know that frogs go “ribbit”. Yet anyone who has ever actually heard a frog is well aware that it says nothing of the sort. Our local frogs mostly go “bock”. Some go “creek-creek-creek”. Others make a sound that is utterly irreproducible in text. They make all kinds of noises, but the one noise they almost certainly don’t make is ribbit.
Teaching kids that frogs go ribbit is a kind of understandable short hand. Cows go moo. Sheep go baa. (Although, as Terry Pratchett points out, what they mostly do in our world is go “sizzle”). Either way, we are lying to our kids, about that and many other things. Ideally, they will wake up one day and start to question these things (some earlier than others).
“Mummy, why does that frog say ‘bock’ instead of ‘ribbit’?”
“Daddy, why did you tell me there was a santa when there’s really just you and mummy?”
“Mummy, why do we have two ‘major parties’ when you can’t tell one from the other?”
Asking questions is the way kids make sense of the world. It is also the way scientists make sense of the world. Questions are the way progress happens – scientifically, socially, economically, you name it. Progress is made when the right questions get asked.
Serious progress happens when the questions strike at the heart of the status quo. A lot of what we do is simply historical accident. Like the story of the cook who always cut a quarter of the beef roast off before putting it into the oven. (When asked why, she explained that she had always done that, because her mum did it that way. When she went back and asked her mum, it turned out that her mum’s oven was too small to fit a whole roast.) So many of our actions fall into this category. We do this because we have always done it – lovely circular logic, with no loose ends.
It’s the scientists who can question the accepted facts who make amazing, world-shaking discoveries. Like Ignaz Semmelweis, who realised in 1847 that puerperal (or childbed) fever was caused by doctors not washing their hands (frequently coming straight from performing autopsies). His theory contradicted the established medical perspective utterly, and took years to become accepted, despite how incredibly easy it was to prove it. Had the rest of the medical profession been able to think divergently, or outside the box, as Semmelweis was, countless lives would have been saved.
There is some startling research on divergent thinking reported by George Land and Beth Jarman, in their book “Break Point and Beyond”. It was a longitudinal study that measured the ability of kids to think divergently at kindergarten, through to adolescence. Fascinatingly, 98% of ordinary kindergarten kids came out at genius level on a test that measures divergent thinking.
Just five years later the proportion of those same kids who was at genius level was 32%.
Another five years later: 10%.
Our kids rapidly lose the ability to think outside the box. We ourselves have, for the most part, already lost it.
Much of what we think we know is wrong. Just ask Jeff Kennet about Kool mints. We can’t question everything and start walking on the ceiling. We need to focus, to concentrate on what we need to get done. Some of us need to focus just to stay upright and avoid doorways. But we can, and must, ask more questions.
Even more importantly, we must remember to value diversity. Being different is often seen as a threat, or a rejection. If you choose a different way of parenting, some people see it as a direct criticism of their own parenting style. If you wear different clothing, some see it as a rejection of normality, and, in the same way, some people see gay marriage as a threat to their own normality. Being different involves questioning the rules.
But questioning the rules is far from a threat – it is, in fact, a fundamental way of securing our safety and well being. From diversity comes discovery. That’s where we will find answers to our crises. “Hey! Look! There is a different way you can do things, and it doesn’t trash the planet!” We can’t get those answers from staying the same, or from incremental changes to what we do. It is radical change that creates new possibilities. ‘Radical’ is often used as a pejorative term, but it is really a compliment.
In order to grow up, we have to question what we know. We become adults when we form our own opinions and diverge from what we were told growing up.
Kids learn the real story about frogs from Play School:
Der glumph went the little green frog one day. But we all know frogs go lah-dee-dah-dee-dah.
What kind of frog will you grow up to be?