Cause and Effect

Equipping gifted children with perceptions of causality

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
published in The Stream, June 2003
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In my hunger for any kind of reading material, I had read quite a bit of history before I even entered elementary school. My class- mates and peers had not. And most of what I’d read to that point, and for several years after, was popular-level history. It was always proposing or arguing cause-and-effect relationships. Thus the concept of causality was pretty familiar to me by the time I reached elementary school.

It didn’t occur to me until decades later, April 2003, that because of this I was perceiving many relationships, and nearly all of even the most obvious of these relationships were quite invisible to my classmates. (And I think some of them were invisible even to most of my teachers.) To them, things “just happen.” Therefore, nothing has much meaning or significance, and there’s nothing anyone can do and nothing that can be done. I was living in a world of “OhMyGoshWhatIf”, and they lived in a world of “duh”. Of course, causality can be highly complex, a hugely tangled and interwoven web of dynamic interactions, not just a linear domino-tumbling effect alone.

Lev Vygotsky did this beautiful experiment some years ago with young children trying to draw butterfly wings. He demonstrated that having words for what we perceive enables us to effectively “perceive our perceptions.” I briefly describe his experiment in the parent’s appendix to my story for children, The Philosopher’s Stone. Having used the “advanced” word “iridescent” in the story, I argue in that appendix that young children, who ordinarily wouldn’t encounter that word for some years yet, if familiarized with it and its description, would be discovering and delighting in iridescence everywhere.

I propose here something a bit more ambitious.

INFLUENCE. Being influenced by. Influencing other people, other things, events. Multiple influences. Interactions ……

OBJECTIVE. To equip the kid to see, normally, multiple causality and interaction dynamics where otherwise he’d be stuck for years and years in a world where things just happen, with no perceptible meaning or significance and where there’s not much anyone can do.

Here are several possible preliminary elements in the unit of proposed instruction:

  • DEBRIEFING. Almost any game situation when one kid is trying to advance the ball and the other to prevent him. Questioning immediately after a play:

Why did you go that way?
Why then did you go this way?
And similarly question his opponent.

And, by extension, to situations where a kid is trying to “work” his parent for something, or “work” his teacher…. to some situation in a story or even to a real person outside of the classroom, such as the school principal, where such dynamics can be identified….

  • ATTRIBUTES. Make a list of identifiable attributes of that person. What are some of the things you are less likely to do when you are short than when you are tall? What are some of the things you are more likely to do? Why? Why do you think (that person) does such-and-such? Could there also be other reasons why he does that? What else does he do that maybe something else could be causing?
  • DEFERRED GRATIFICATION. Stay put for now, but – when you are hungry, what do you want to do? Who here’s hungry right now? Stay put – but why AREN’T you running off right now to get some food? (On into an analysis of other considerations, even their interactions, and rudiments of strategy…)

Those of you with much experience with young children: Is my observation correct, that to the vast majority of young children today, cause-and-effect relationships are mostly invisible, even the obvious ones, much less multiple causality and interaction? That there are consequences to their living in a world where things “just happen,” without meaning or significance, and that nothing can be done about it anyway, so why pay attention?

Does something like this seem do-able to you? Would it have the significant effects I’ve pointed to?

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