I spent this past weekend in Ontario, California, speaking at the California Homeschool Convention, which is part of the Great Homeschool Conventions series. There are a lot of wonderful things I could say about the Great Homeschool Conventions, but the thing I most appreciate is the eclectic mix of speakers they invite. You see all the “standard” speakers from the homeschooling circuit, such as Jim Weiss, Andrew Pudewa, and Heidi St. John, but you also see speakers that aren’t typically a part of a homeschool convention. This year, for example, they had Holocaust survivor Inge Auerbacher as a speaker. I interviewed her before the first convention, and I later reported on her talk at the convention, which was nothing short of incredible.
The other interesting speakers they had this year were mother/son team Kristine and Jacob Barnett. I didn’t get a chance to hear them at the other conventions, but since this was my last opportunity, I made a point to go to their talk. I am so glad I did! If you have not heard about them, Jacob was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. His mother (Kristine) initially followed all the experts’ advice, which ended up meaning hours of therapy for Jacob every day. Eventually, however, she decided that all this therapy was robbing Jacob of his childhood. As a result, she stopped all the therapy and simply played with him. She blew dandelion puffs in his face, listened to music with him, and helped him search for patterns in the clouds.
She found that this was helping him much more than therapy, so she started encouraging other mothers of autistic children to do the same. In fact, she was so sure that this kind of nurturing was the best “therapy” autistic children could get, she began working with other autistic children. Her goal was simple: just enable them to do what they really wanted to do. She would get them what they needed, and she would simply help them do whatever it was that interested them. For some, this meant making robots. For others, it meant creating amazing paintings. For another, it meant chasing storms and trying to analyze them. In her own words:
I was not teaching them. I was letting them.
I don’t know much of anything about child development, especially when it comes to children with special needs. Thus, I have no idea how effective her strategy would be for most autistic children. However, she says that it was very effective for those that she helped. I can tell you for certain that it was effective for her son, Jacob, because his talk was one of the best I have heard in a long time.
Now don’t get me wrong. He wasn’t polished in any way. It was clear he was distracted the entire time he spoke, and at one point, he lost his place and got very frustrated with himself. However, the message of his talk was powerful. He was deeply concerned that there isn’t enough creative, original thinking today, and he wanted to encourage the audience to be creative. He said that since what he knows best is science (he is currently 17 and working on his PhD in theoretical physics), he wanted to tell us three steps for creativity in the sciences. He then hoped we would apply them to whatever interested us. As a scientist, I can say that this teen has a better grasp of scientific creativity than most of the PhD’s with whom I have worked. Here are his three steps:
1. Ask lots of questions
Most people understand that scientists must ask questions. They make observations and then ask questions in an attempt to understand their observations. However, Jacob encouraged us to ask the right kind of questions. Too often, we exclude questions because they aren’t the typical ones that are asked. He suggested that the more outlandish the questions, the more creativity they could spark. I agree. We often don’t even ask the right questions, because we are trying to conform to the ways that others want us to think. Your questions are your own. Ask them freely, without constraint.
2. Don’t work alone.
For someone who is both autistic and only a teenager, this is remarkably insightful. He said that we often hear about the “lone scientist,” but these days, such a scientist doesn’t do much to change the world. There are essentially two reasons for this. First, science has (by necessity) become a collection of very specialized fields. Within each specialized field, there are further specializations. If you want to do serious science today, you need to build a team of people from different specialities so that you have access to the best knowledge regarding what you are investigating. Second, teamwork sparks creativity. The best way to attack a problem is to have lots of people look at it from lots of different angles. The more angles from which you attack a problem, the greater your likelihood of solving it.
There is another reason you shouldn’t work alone. Other people can evaluate what you are doing and catch your mistakes. If you follow this blog, for example, you know that a new revision of my high school chemistry course was recently made, without my input. It is particularly awful, and I have to assume that one reason is the book wasn’t the result of a serious group effort. If any group of people with a knowledge of chemistry were to look at that book, they would have caught many of the blatant errors it contains. That’s why I have all my books reviewed by several different people with several different areas of expertise. This doesn’t guarantee that the books are error-free, but it does reduce the number of errors significantly.
3. Learn, then rebel.
This is the most important of the three. Jacob says that too many people try to be original by looking at an idea, dismissing it, and trying to come up with something better. The problem, of course, is that unless you really learn the idea first, you won’t know whether or not it needs to be replaced. You also won’t know how to properly go about replacing it. I see this all too often in the sciences. Consider, for example, the hypothesis of evolution (in the flagellate-to-philosopher sense). There are a lot of people who don’t like the idea, so they go about attacking it without learning much about it. As a result, they don’t understand that some aspects of the hypothesis are quite valid, while other aspects are not. Without knowing the valid and invalid aspects of evolution (or any other hypothesis), you won’t know what ideas need to be kept and what ideas need to be discarded. As a result, you most likely won’t come up with anything better.
Of course, once you have learned, you also have to rebel. Too many scientists learn and then accept. They work within the confines of the theory they have learned without ever questioning it. As far as science goes, that’s just as detrimental as rebelling without learning first. Science isn’t in the business of proving things. It is in the business of understanding how the universe works, and that understanding is almost always flawed. As a result, nearly every theory needs to be improved. Working within the confines of a theory without ever questioning its validity is not scientific. It is foolish.
While Jacob Barnett is obviously very young, he has great insights into science, as well as creativity in general. I expect that he will accomplish some amazing things the older he gets, and in the end, you can thank one person for that: his mother. She realized that a mother’s love and attention was what he needed to overcome his challenges, and she gave them to him in abundance.