Dr. Gereboff's Head Notes
This past week, I was sitting with one of our first grade students who showed me his new Minecraft books. The process that he engaged in as he shared fascinated me. He thumbed silently back and forth through the book. He would hold different pages apart with his fingers, flipping through all the pages several times. A few minutes later, he would explain to me a sequence of possibilities that would occur with different combinations of the items. Then, he would repeat this process over again with new combinations.
This observation occurred just after I had read that morning an article in the New York Times. The article chronicles Albert Einstein’s “visual thought experiments” that were integral to Einstein’s way of working. As a young boy, he would visualize what it would be like to travel so fast that you caught up with a light beam.
He continued creating a series of thought experiments – all visualizations of “what if”, and eventually through this process, he claimed that space and time were not independent. And so, in time, his mind gave birth to The General Theory of Relativity. The author of the article concludes, “That ability to visualize the unseen has always been the key to creative genius. As Einstein later put it, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’.”
The line between imagining different plays in a Minecraft book at the age of seven to something as seminal as the Theory of Relativity is neither assured nor direct; however, the ability to take time imagining and engaging in ‘visual experiments’ is key to developing a creative thinker – someone who can look at a combination of factors, reimagine it in a new way and continuing taking it apart and putting it back to together again in his/her mind. I realized that this is exactly what this first grader was doing.
Psychologists, neuro-scientists and educators agree that imaginative play is a critical feature of a child’s cognitive and social development. Among the documented benefits are increases in language usage, perspective-taking, empathy, reduced aggression, problem solving and creativity. Unfortunately, we tend to encourage imaginative play among young children, and rarely appreciate the need for older children and adults to take the time to imagine.
One of the hallmarks of the Singapore mathematics approach that we use at Wornick is ‘mental mathematics’. Teachers read a mathematics problem to the class and, without pencil or paper, children visualize the problem and create a solution. Until I read the article about Einstein, I didn’t fully understand the importance of this practice. Feel free to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the general theory of relativity with a few visual experiments.
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