Mario Valle Web

The creative child in science

I am a father of a sixteen-year-old boy who has attended the Montessori school in Varese and a “computer scientist” at the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre in Lugano, where I spend my days in the midst of advanced technology working with scientists who, fortunately, remain curious children capable of wonder.

We all know that a teacher cannot make a genius. But the school could provide an environment in which a genius and a creative child could flourish. In my experience a Montessori school provides exactly this kind of environment. Here we prove this by tracking few creativity traits that I see in my scientific professional work.

Good morning and thanks for the invitation!

At the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre in Lugano, I work with a special kind of children: scientists. In their scientific work, …

… but also in the computational work I and my colleagues do, I always see how the visible outcome, that could be a software application, a simulation model or a mathematical formula, is just the last step of a path that starts from an intuition or a rough mental image. From my experience, to thrive in science, we need, even before specialized scientific knowledge, a set of qualities that we hardly associate with science. The first of them is imagination, creating and manipulating images and models in our head. Imagination …

… that we often make visible at the supercomputing center by gesturing or scribbling on a whiteboard trying to communicate an abstract image we have seen so clearly in our mind.

The second most important quality in my list is the ability to “leave the beaten track behind occasionally and dive into the woods” as said by Alexander Graham Bell, whose path crossed the Montessori’s one. All clever scientists know that the various scientific disciplines are not isolated trees; they are a dense forest connected by unexpected paths, …

… where discoveries, more often than not, happen on the boundaries between research sectors or mixing unlikely scientific ideas. One example is this material that repels water, which originates from a connection between botany, chemistry and materials science.

My list goes on with other qualities important for a productive scientific work: curiosity, perseverance, passion and so on. In my experience, good scientists need all these traits even before specialized knowledge.

For example in the supercomputer field where I work, we do not need Mister “Know it all” because in six months knowledge becomes obsolete. We do not need solitary geniuses either, because today…

… discoveries arise very often from collaborations composed by hundreds or even thousands of scientists, as it is common at CERN.

Instead, the kind of “genius” I want to work with is primarily a person, like Feynman and Montessori, that were able to revolutionize science remaining nonetheless marvelous human beings.

I argue that scientists are a special kind of children because, on closer examination, children already have all the skills needed to be genius scientists: imagination, curiosity, perseverance, adaptability, passion. Furthermore, children ask questions. Children do not know the word “impossible”. Children are not afraid to explore and eventually fail. Children are not frightened of being wrong. Overall, they are the R&D (Research and Development) department of the human species. In this movie, the child formulates five hypothesis in two minutes on how to put things on those boxes to makes them lit, much more than an adult at the same task.

This is the reason why the developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik calls babies “The scientist in the crib“.

These baby scientists makes me wonder why it is so difficult to find these characteristics in adults.

In 1968, George Land conducted a research study to test the creativity of three-to-five year old children. He then re-tested the same children at 10 and again at 15 years of age. The results were astounding. As seen in this chart, the proportion of people who scored at the “Genius Level”, decreased from 98% to a mere 2% for adults.

Yes, we can blame the school, as Sir Ken Robinson does in this deep and entertaining TED talk. I want, instead, to stay on the positive side asking: what can we do to preserve the child scientist? What can we do to grow a genius? We all know that we cannot force the plant growth by pulling them by their leaves, just as we cannot force anyone to become a genius.

However, we also know that we can give to children a nurturing environment to grow their potentialities even up to the genius level, if the child has this inherent capability.

In a Montessori school, I see exactly this. No wonder Maria Montessori was a scientist.

In the Montessori schools, I see “good” imagination nurtured; the imagination that allows grasping the invisible structure of things by creating and manipulating models in the mind, not the “reverie” that abstracts children from reality. Imagination, which is the starting point of every scientific effort, …

… as shown by the famous mental experiment of a sixteen-year-old Einstein wondering, “What happens if I surf a beam of light?” thus starting the chain of thoughts that led him to Relativity Theory. This use of imagination was so important for science that Feynman once observed that all the great Einstein’s work had come to an end because Einstein “had stopped thinking in terms of actual physical images and became a manipulator of equations” (James Gleick, “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”, p. 310).

The first limit of imagination is that, even with all the good will, if there are no materials to be assembled in images and models, it will be difficult to imagine something new. A fish will have trouble imagining something different from a winged fish, if all it knows are fishes and butterflies flying over the water. It is therefore essential to acquire these building materials through culture, through incursion into varied fields of knowledge, through experiences as happens every day in a Montessori school.

Life is messy. Science, as we have seen, is a messy intertwining of different paths and fields. Therefore, school, to grow future scientists, should not artificially impose walls around knowledge’s areas. In a Montessori school, this is exactly what happens, because everything finds its place in the unifying …

… background of the Cosmic Plane. For example, we show to the child the order that reigns in the universe not by describing, listing and systematizing, but by unfolding and understanding the connections and relationships that create this order, because, “we cannot understand a stone without understanding at least something of the great sun!“. This attitude is so critical in science…

… that the scientist Maria Montessori condensed her thinking in a phrase: “teaching details means bringing confusion; establishing relationships between things means giving knowledge.” (Dall’infanzia all’adolescenza, p. 100).

Therefore, this way of approaching knowledge shows that is more important to arouse curiosity than to fill the brain of the child scientist with sterile details, concepts and information.

Another thing a Montessori school does to prepare future scientists is to help them observe and notice things, stimulated by the example of their teachers that observe them.

The Swiss engineer George De Mestral gives us one example of the importance of this trait. He was sick of removing the hooked fruits of the burdock from his trousers after hunting. However, he did not dismiss this as a nuisance, instead he began to observe them with care and curiosity, and Velcro was born.

Unfortunately, as remarks Winston Churchill, most people pass over these connections but do not see them.

At the beginning, looking at Montessori schools, I was surprised to find a kind of school that does not judge, in which error and failures are not only tolerated, they are valued and celebrated as an aid to growth and learning. If you want to hear adults answer as Thomas Alva Edison did during the light bulb development: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”, you must start making children friend of the “Signor Errore”.

Last but not least, the movement and the senses. Although computational work and science are mostly sedentary and intellectual activities, they are physical processes too, as Gleick remarked and as I see in my colleagues and center’s researchers that think by scribbling, walking around or doing sport. For all of them…

… making abstract ideas and information tangible or at least visible as images and structures on a screen is extremely important to reason about their scientific research. At the supercomputing center, we try to help them making…

…abstract phenomena visible, for example here the reversal of the earth’s magnetic field, the same way Montessori materials do by “materializing abstractions”.

It is time to recap.

Any Montessori school prepares children to use all their potentialities. If some of them will become a genius, so much the better. However, for all children Montessori will be an “imagination amplifier”, as the videogames pioneer Will Wright remembers, and a Montessori school …

… will be a place that awakens curiosity, as Gabriel García Márquez wrote.

In his school, what have done the teacher Rosa Elena Fergusson to raise a Nobel medalist? I bet she has done nothing special, besides being simply a passionate, serious, competent Montessori teacher, …

… as all of you surely are.

Thank you for your loving attention!


Useful references

Johan Bollen et al., Clickstream Data Yields High-Resolution Maps of Science, PLOS ONE 4(3): e4803 (2009)
Lotuseffekt an Lotusblatt im Botanischen Garten der Ruhr Universität Bochum
Alison Gopnik: What do babies think? (The extract starts at 12:14)
Alison Gopnik research
George Land: Evidence that children become less creative over time (and how to fix it)
Ken Robinson: Do schools kill creativity?
Swiss National Supercomputing Centre (CSCS)
Return to the Montessori resources (English)Go back


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