Thursday, September 1, 2011

One of these things just doesn't belong....

We like PBS Kids.  It's a good line-up of shows, with some fun tidbits in between featuring Miss Rosa, Hooper, and (Ben's favorite) SteveSongs.  We don't sit there and watch all morning, but we usually enjoy Curious George and some Cat in the Hat action over breakfast.

In one of the segments with Miss Rosa, she holds up picture cards featuring a snake, a whale, an elephant, and a dog, and she asks which one of these is different from the others.  We've seen this a few times now, and we never get it "right".  An obvious answer is "whale," because it lives in the ocean.  But the snake is the only non-mammal, the dog is the only domesticated animal, and, well, you can ride on an elephant.  My point is that any one of these could be the "right answer," and we never remember which one was right in Miss Rosa's eyes.

This hearkens back to the old Sesame Street song and game, "One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong...."  And even when I was a kid, I found this a little bit disturbing, but I could never figure out why until recently.

Now, they're addressing an important cognitive skill, namely sorting objects according to the properties they have in common and the properties that distinguish them.  But why load on the emotional baggage of "what doesn't belong," as if something that is "different" should be excluded, removed?  You have a characteristic that others around you don't, so you shouldn't be here.

Not to make myself out as a pity case, but I spent much of my childhood feeling like I didn't belong.  For a variety of reasons, I was one of the picked-on kids.  It's always handy, in any social group, to have an example you can point to of someone who does everything wrong, who just fundamentally is wrong, and who is publicly punished for this, as a cautionary tale for others who might occasionally consider going against the grain.  I had a few good friends and I had a wonderful family, so I made out okay -- and ultimately I was grateful to have a family that values authenticity and substance, rather than conformity and appearances.  But on a day-to-day basis, it was rough.  I spent much of my time at school feeling like everyone around me would be a lot happier if I just disappeared, so I could stop offending their delicate sensibilities.

So any suggestion that something that is different should politely remove itself from the premises is naturally going to rankle with me.

I think Miss Rosa should take advantage of a teachable moment to have a more expansive discussion.  First of all, just because the snake is different in one respect from the other animals, this is cool and interesting, rather than bad.  Second of all, no two of these animals are identical; each has something about it which sets it apart from the others.  And this is cool and interesting.  Thirdly, all four of the animals have a lot in common.  In some ways, the things they have in common (they are alive, they require food, they are mobile, they are driven to reproduce, etc.) are more profound and mysterious than their differences.

Not that Miss Rosa explicitly stated that the animal which she claims is "different" from the others is "bad."  But given all the overwhelming pressures to conform that children face from the rest of society, as well as our hardwired fixation with distinguishing kin from competitor (which served us well in our evolutionary past, and perhaps today as well), it's wise to counter this with an explicit positive message whenever we can.

Of course, such a discussion would take a lot more than the thirty seconds or so that Miss Rosa has at her disposal before the next show comes on.  But I guess that's why it's important for parents to watch TV with their kids.  It's up to us to fill in the blanks.

The fact that my child will be the only one in his school with large pieces of plastic hanging off his head may add a little sense of urgency to this project.


leah said...

This is going to drive me crazy... so which animal IS different? Is it the snake? Goodness. There are so many variables for those four animals (excuse me, Rosa, but the snake is exothermic and the other animals are endothermic, but the elephant is the only one which uses infrasound to communicate with its herd... so I am confused)!

I suppose there will be a lot of "choose the different one" activities in preschool because noting differences is an important cognitive step. But one wonders if simply using two pictures with the scenes slightly altered would be just as effective as picking out one different item from a group of four.

I do think that it is HIGHLY important to include a frequent and daily conversation about diversity and kindness, compassion, and other topics which encourage emotional maturity in children. We are VERY fortunate with Nolan's preschool teacher this year - we could not have asked for a better one! She is simply amazing, and I know that (for this year, at least) she will encourage each child to be proud of their little unique selves.

krlr said...

Oh, YES! I knew I liked you. A/long comment about my folk's refusal to allow even token conformity as a kid (horrendous then, much appreciated now) but B/my son's "pre-math" work which I've sporadically been trying to sort through & box up now that he's an elderly 1st grader? It's ALL (*ALL!!!*) about sorting into groups & identifying the outlier... and then we wonder why there is this compulsion to assimilate & such discomfort with "differences". I've been wanting to write about this too (had kinda hoped to have the ton of papers sorted thru first but that's clearly not happening so, yeah.)

Julia said...

Krlr, did we have the same parents?!? This is not the first time I've wondered about that.... I'm thinking of the next great tee-shirt to be sold at math conferences, something like, "Einstein was an outlier." Regression toward the norm is great for certain data sets, but not for people.

Update: This morning over a Miss Rosa segment (a different one), we got to talking with Ben about the animal differentiation one, and Neil and I got in some good comments about appreciating both differences and commonality. We are *such* cool parents.

leah said...

Julia - a neighbor told me about this book ( a while back, and I really want to get it. I have a feeling it will be on my Kindle soon, lol!

krlr said...

he-he. My sister is 3rd generation engineer. I suspect that explains it ALL. :)