Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Case for Irrationality

Looking for a little inspiration? Check out Adora Svitak’s recent TED Talk, “What Adults Can Learn from Kids”:

Just twelve years old, Adora has published two books, been interviewed on numerous radio and television stations, and has had speaking engagements throughout the country.

And as if these accomplishments weren’t enough, last February Adora gave an impassioned and provocative speech at the TED 2010 conference, a prestigious event reserved for the world’s foremost thinkers and doers.

Standing alone in front of an audience filled with eminent scientists, artists, politicians, and intellectuals (the majority of them more than twice her age) she is calm, poised, and articulate -- a task most of us would find daunting.

In fact, the thought of giving a speech in front of a uniformly brilliant international audience at an event renowned for its intelligence and creativity is enough to make most of us want to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over our heads.

It is this fear, these self-imposed restrictions, that Adora’s speech addresses. She argues that adults need to learn from kids because kids haven’t yet learned to be rational. 

She asks, “who’s to say that certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs? Maybe you’ve had grand plans before, but stopped yourself, thinking: That’s impossible, or that costs too much or that won’t benefit me. For better or worse, we kids aren’t hampered as must when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things.”

Kids are risk takers. They want to explore and learn. They haven’t learned to be afraid of failure. They haven’t learned to be afraid of taking the stage and voicing their ideas – until we teach them.

Adora draws a provocative comparison between top-down school systems and oppressive regimes:

“Now, adults seem to have a prevalently restrictive attitude towards kids from every ‘don’t do that,’ ‘don’t do this’ in the school handbook, to restrictions on school internet use. As history points out, regimes become oppressive when they’re fearful about keeping control. And, although adults may not be quite at the level of totalitarian regimes, kids have no, or very little, say in making the rules, when really the attitude should be reciprocal, meaning that the adult population should learn and take into account the wishes of the younger population.

Of course, experience is vital. We need to grow up. A society of utterly naive and overly idealistic adults is as disturbing and dangerous as one full of hyper-rational and restrictive adults. However, Adora’s argument that adults and kids have things to learn from each other is important. We need to help kids gain the experience they need to be responsible and contributing adults, and we need to learn from kids how to dream.

It’s up to us to develop an education system that encourages kids to gain experience without losing their drive to achieve the impossible. After all, that’s who many of the speakers at TED are: adults who have refused to give up the capacity to imagine.

All too often we shape our dreams to fit reality, when what we really need to do is shape reality to fit our dreams. 

Education is constantly in flux. How should technology be integrated into the classroom, what is the best way to assess a child’s learning, is social media a help or hindrance to participatory learning – these are just some of the questions that struggling with. During the creation of On the Path of Elders, we were constantly trying to find ways to empower students and to encourage exploration, rather than risk aversion

But sometimes it’s refreshing to have a reminder of what we’re struggling for: while not every child may be a published author, mathematical genius, or musical prodigy, Adora Svitak represents future generations of citizens who are confident, hard-working, thoughtful, sincere, and passionate. If we dare to dream it.

Collette Jackson, Content and Marketing Specialist at BlackCherry Digital Media, is writing on behalf of On the Path of the Elders, a free online educational resource that explores Cree and Ojibway history and culture, and the signing of Treaty No. 9.

Check out On the Path of the Elders at

For more information, email us at

Created in partnership with BlackCherry Digital Media, Archives Deschâtelets, the Doug Ellis Collection at Carleton University, Our Incredible World (Pinegrove Productions), the Mushkegowuk Council, Neh Naak Ko, the Archives of St. Paul University, Carleton University, and Wendy Campbell, Educational Consultant (Learning Methods Group).

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canadian Culture Online Strategy. Created with additional financial assistance from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the Inukshuk Fund.

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