Thursday, December 9, 2010

First Principles: Categorizing & Classifying

Brick masonry patterns
N. likes categories.  Most of his major interests thus far in his life (construction vehicles, trains, cathedrals, butterflies, etc.) lend themselves to sorting and differentiating by categories, and one of the ways he masters a subject he is interested in is by learning all the iterations and types associated with it.  For example, recently, he and Tim have been studying styles of brick masonry (as a subset of N.'s passion for buildings) and everywhere we go they identify the brickwork of buildings as "running bond," "common bond," "Flemish bond," etc. and the positions of the bricks as "stretchers, headers, soldiers, or sailors."  N. loves learning specialized terminology! 

Tim drew on this mental tendency in order to introduce scientific classification.  In November, after reading about the classifications and the organisms in each category, N. copied out lists of the 5 Kingdoms of Organisms and the Classes of Animals and invented little accompanying illustrations, as you can see here.

We did not go into the full (fascinating!) history of scientific classification and the various schemes that have been introduced over the centuries and only lightly touched on the disagreement among scientists about the current "kingdoms" (are there 5 or 6? what should they be called?) and the classes of animals.  The idea of classifying organisms was the main concept to learn at this point, to think about why and how we can group living things for comparative purposes.

While building on N.'s interests in their learning together, Tim has tried to emphasize what John Barth (in a very different context) calls "first principles:"

"But my talent for doing correctly the small things that constitute the glorious whole was defective -- I never mastered first principles -- and so the finished product, while perhaps impressive to the untutored, was always mediocre to the knowledged.  To how many of my youthful achievements does this not apply!  I dazzled old ladies at piano recitals, but never really mastered the scales; won the tennis championships of my high school -- a school indifferent to tennis -- but never really mastered the strokes; graduated first in my class, but never really learned to think."  [The Floating Opera by John Barth]

We try throughout our life as a family to emphasize that process trumps product, that it is infinitely more important to learn to think than to graduate first in your class.  At the same time, the product of one's thinking is of course going to be much better if you've mastered the process.  

1 comment:

Bona Fide Mama said...

everything is so colorful! i just loved seeing those pictures!