Saturday, November 2, 2013

The Butter Knife and the Infinity Knife

Recently, my eight year old spontaneously discovered an activity I've seen in the Moebius Noodles book and yet another version of infinity (read about others here, here, and here).

Scene 1: The Butter Knife

Waiting for the bread to toast. She picks up the butter knife off the counter and places it vertically over a design on the lid to the butter container.

"It turns into an arrow!  What a cool design."

She continues to play around with "cutting" the lid's design in half, one side the real the other the reflection.

Scene 2: The Infinity Knife

The kid calls to me from the other room to tell me she's cutting triangles in half into smaller and smaller pieces, trying to see how many times she can cut them.  When I ask her to show me she picks up another piece of paper and starts again.  She cuts one big triangle in half equally, then one of the halves in half again...

"It has something to do with infinity," she says, as the triangles get smaller and smaller and smaller. "I need something different [than the scissors she's using] -- a tiny knife like scientists have -- to cut infinity stuff like this."


I've been reading books by former colleagues and students of Jean Piaget who have carried his work forward and made it accessible to the rest of us. My take away so far, beyond the idea that all of us construct our knowledge by assimilating new information into what we already know or think we know, is that children think when they have something real, some phenomenon, to think about. Whether it's a butter knife or an infinity knife or whatever else, it's the interaction between the child and the object/idea that inspires the child to think -- what Eleanor Duckworth calls "the having of wonderful ideas." 

"There are two aspects to providing occasions for wonderful ideas," she writes in her book of essays The Having of Wonderful Ideas. "One is being willing to accept children's ideas. The other is providing a setting that suggests wonderful ideas to children --different ideas to different children --as they are caught up in intellectual problems that are real to them." [page 7]  

Whatever else we do as teachers and parents, I think we need to find multiple ways to allow kids the freedom to discover the world on their own terms, in their own ways. At the same time we need to create the time and space in our teacher/parent brains to catch our children and students in the middle of discovering something brand new (to them). Having wonderful ideas, as Duckworth says, is "the essence of intellectual development."  Honestly, being able to observe and even, sometimes, to interact with my kid when she's in the middle of a new thought is pretty much the prize of parenthood -- it is such a gift to see this happen up close.


  1. Probably the longest of longshots, but I'm reminded of THE SUBTLE KNIFE by Philip Pullman. Cutting little gateways into alternate universes. You and she read that by any chance?

  2. Cool! I totally see that connection! I've read the book (long time ago) but my kid will not be ready for it for a long while yet -- just too sensitive.


Thanks for reading. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!


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