Full PreFrontal

Ep. 169: Susan Engel - Every Child is a Curious Child

November 03, 2021 Sucheta Kamath Season 1 Episode 169
Full PreFrontal
Ep. 169: Susan Engel - Every Child is a Curious Child
Show Notes Transcript

What is an intriguing difference between a four-year-old's versus a forty-year old’s approach to the world? Only one of them is inquisitive and inventive with a rich inner explorer. However, by the time the curious and inventive four-year-old enters their late teens, there is a remarkable depletion in their sense of exploration. There’s something about the way we educate and raise children that drains their inquiring minds from investigating life’s mysteries and tackling problems that interest them.

On this episode, Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Founding Director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College and author of multiple books including The Intellectual Lives of Children, Dr. Susan Engel, discusses what fuels children’s curiosity: a sense of inquiry and inventiveness. To raise self-sufficient children who possess strong executive function means to figure out ways to hang back while nurturing their inner Dora the Explorer.

About Susan Engel
Susan Engel is Senior Lecturer in Psychology and Founding Director of the Program in Teaching at Williams College. She is co-founder of an experimental school in NY State, where she was the educational advisor for 18 years. Her research interests include the development of narrative, curiosity, and invention. Her current research examines how children pursue ideas. Her scholarly work has appeared in journals such as Cognitive Development, Harvard Educational Review, and the American Education Research Journal. Her writing on education has appeared in The New York Times, Bloomberg View, The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, Salon, Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. Her books include: The End of the Rainbow: How educating for happiness (not money) would transform our schools, The Hungry Mind: The origins of curiosity in childhood, and The Children You Teach: Using a Developmental Framework in the Classroom. Her ninth book, The Intellectual Lives of Children, was published by Harvard University Press, this past January.  She and her husband Tom have three sons and two very young grandchildren.


About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.

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Sucheta Kamath: Welcome back to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. I'm your host Sucheta Kamath, I believe by trying to find solutions in neuroscience and psychology and education, we can all accomplish everyday transformations. And these transformations is what allows us to grow personally. And collectively. As you know, I've shared this with you all, many times. This podcast is fueled with three particular goals. One is to explain what executive function is, how crucial it is to our personal development, self-sufficiency, and even moral development. Second is to help motivate the current self to invest time and effort in and become the confident that the future self needs to take care of itself. And lastly, to help people create some sort of playbook, a blueprint, so to speak, so that we can really accomplish the goals we have for ourselves. And as you know, I always am bringing you guests that hold some sort of key to unlock this mystery. And with that, you will be very thrilled to know who my guest is, which is Dr. Susan Engel. But before I introduce you, to her, I wanted to share a quick story of from my childhood when I was younger, I've shared this before I grew up in India, India, but I was a voracious reader, I love to read and Indian. I speak five languages, you know, Indian, there are many epics, so to speak, that, as a child growing up in India I'm familiar with and I have read in my mother tongue, so to speak, or in our national language, but one particular epic that was very popular when I was a teen, and that was called Qissa-e-Hatem-tai, which is the translated loosely translated as the tale of Hatim al-Tai. And the protagonist of that story was Hatim, who goes on adventures. And it's told over seven episodes or seven adventures, so to speak. So the story goes that you know, there's a king who falls in love with this beautiful rich maiden woman called Husn Banu, and he wishes to marry her, but she has a condition that in order to marry her, he must solve seven riddles. And however, the king I don't know if he was dumb or not, but he was not able to solve the riddles. So he reaches out to this very generous man Hatim al-Tai, who undertakes the quest to find answers to these seven questions. And these seven questions the search for these and these are very big questions, you know, questions such as, do not evil, if you do, such shall you meet with? The second question is what I saw once I long for a second time. So what the reason I'm telling you this story is this was one of my first distinct memories of getting introduced to ideas of creative ways of thinking about the world and mysteries in the world. And exploring minds of others, you know, how people live lives that you do not have access to, is one of the things that the books did for me. And this part is probably one of the reasons why I find that everyday life for me is full of creativity, inquisitiveness, curiosity and a self-created adventure. So with that in mind, I My guest today is Dr. Susan Engel. She's a senior lecturer in psychology and founding director of the program in teaching at Williams College. She's a co-founder of an experimental school in New York state where she was the educational advisor for 18 years. Her research interests include the development of narrative, curiosity and invention. Her current research examines how children pursue ideas her scholarly work has appeared in journals such as cognitive development, Harvard educational review, and the American Educational Research Journal. She's highly accomplished, amazing human, you will get to know soon. But you can also find a lot of her writing in New York Times Bloomberg review, view, the nation that Atlantic Monthly salon, etc, etc. She has written multiple books, three of my favorite books, but the book we will concentrate on today is going to be talking about the curiosity and how the book we'll be talking about the intellectual lives of children. So with that, welcome to the podcast is and how are you today?

Susan Engel: I'm fine. And thank you so much for that nice introduction. I love the story about your childhood. 

Sucheta Kamath: Oh, thank you. Yeah, I your book actually got me thinking about what were the  influential questions I was thinking about at that age, I mean, this is a little bit later. And my mum lives with me. So I did ask her what kind of questions I asked her. And also, you know, you write about a little bit, maybe you can share with our audience about your childhood, how you grew up, and the freedom you had to, you know, bike to a local store and just explore and navigate relationship, I had a similar experience. But a lot of my creative endeavors were related to cooking, and observing, cooking as a culture. So one quick example. I've talked about this a lot, and people might think I'm afraid, but when I was, you know, I was growing up in India, and we have something called papadams. I don't know if you know what papadam are, right? These are very dry. Yes, so, but you make them over the summer and you it takes whole summer to dry them well, and then you store them, and then you use it throughout the year. And one of the job that children are designated to do is to watch the poppadoms like a hawk. Watch them dry, it is as boring and annoying as watching paint dry. But it just happens during the summer over the rooftop in the hottest Sun possible. And you need the problems to have the exposure to sun. But you need to be in the shade, but there's no shade. So this leads to a lot of chaos and amazing fun games that you play. So my brothers and I, we used to do a lot of sitting and I do idle game playing. So I was just wondering, this particular experience, kind of I vividly related to your question about the intellectual lives of children. One thing is so interesting that, you know, parents and teachers miss to view children as thinkers, and someone whose mind is pondering about life. And you talk a lot about that. I think people are often view children as someone with a blank slate, or an empty jar needing to be filled. Like our hands working on, but the brain is rather hands working with the playdough. So tell us how you conceptualize creativity in children are the thinking minds of children.

Susan Engel: Right? Okay, so I was gonna say right away, I actually, in my work don't focus much on creativity. And there's a reason why I don't it's because that word tends to be used in our culture to describe people as if you are creative or you're not. And in schools, it tends to be relegated to certain activities, art or theater or free time. And, to me, the the dual processes of curiosity or inquiry, and invention, putting things together solving problems. They're not, they're not they shouldn't be relegated to our time or free time. It's not as if some people have that capacity, and other people don't certainly not in childhood. So I like to stick to the words inquiry and invention, because those are active processes that anybody can engage in. Anybody can lift up a rock and see what's crawling around underneath it, or ask a question about why the poppadoms take off somewhere to dry. Or though the riddles the answers to those riddles which I could barely follow. But those the kind of inquiry that any of those puzzles lead to, is available to anybody. Hmm. And, and certainly when, when people are young, between the between birth and certainly the age of four or five, almost everybody does engage in inquiry. Everybody wants to find things out. They want to find out who's coming in the door, and what's under the couch, and what an unexpected food tastes like. And what's going to happen if you push the boat down to the bottom of the bathtub. I mean, there are million things to find out when you're little. So that's the inquiry part of it, and seeing what the invention is, you know, by the time you're an adult, only some people are truly inventive. And we tend to think in the United States of invention as being the the capacity of a certain great minds. But everybody's an inventor when they're three, because everybody figures out a way to put stack the pillows up. It's an example given the book to get up on the counter and get the cookie out of the cookie jar. And every three-year-old invents a game you know you were talking about the games you created with your brothers. Every three- and four-year-old invents games how to throw the stones so that they you know make a funny noise and and who's going to be this superhero and who's going to be the villain. Every every almost every three- and four-year-old can and does engage in the invention of stories. I asked my I told you before I teach a course on education and tomorrow is the first meeting of this semester and I was asking one of my sons who's 34 and a dad himself now, I was asking him about some wonderful memories of early schooling things that really made him just zoom ahead. And he said first, he said, the milk carton. What did he say? The milk carton popping contest we had every Friday? Well, I never heard about that in third grade. They drank their milk out of the little cartons, and then they all smashed on them to see who could pop it the loudest. Oh, so cute. And it was really cute. And then he paused, he said, and then after that, we went in and we got out all the milk crates, and we built forts with them. And I loved building those forts. Well, building forts is a great example of a process of invention that almost every child engages in no matter what materials or objects they have around them. So that's long-winded answer. But well, let me end that by just to go back to your question. That all ties together to say that, you know, children do have very rich intellectual lives. And grownups tend not to notice all the buzzing, sort of lively thinking that's going on. And some, I would say that even people who pay a lot of attention to kids, people who love their children who think kids are really cute or active and lively, they may miss the fact that just under the surface, every child is pursuing various ideas, mulling things over contemplating sort of important questions or questions that are important to them. And they're not always obvious questions. And the process of pursuing those questions is not always apparent, to the casual glance.

Sucheta Kamath: Some many important things you said that that totally reverberate with me, I think first, I am so happy to know the distinction that you put out right away, which is the distinction between, you know, this creativity versus curiosity, inquiry and invention. I do think that I cannot tell you how many times I hear adults, say so emphatically, that they are not creative. And one, not only it's it's wrong way of framing your life's experience, too. I think, to me, every single aspect of living a fulfilling life requires you to solve a problem. And you have to be inventive and creative. And you need to have a sense of inquiry about it.

Susan Engel: I mean, look, I would say this, by that every child inquires and invents, but not every older person does, I believe. So. It's not as if, because if we were all inventive, and solving problems in in ingenious and ingenious ways all the time, there would be no need really to study this or understand that it would be great we do it. The fact is to, for various reasons, some better reasons than others. Many people sort of give up on that process of invention as they get older, just as many people become less curious as they get older. Every two-year-old is curious, virtually every typically developing two-year-old is curious. Let's limit it to that. But not every 18-year-old is curious, and certainly not every 30-year-old is curious. And I just invite anybody listening to go into a room full of people, you know, it could be your family, it could be your colleagues and listen to who is really asking questions probing daring to not know something out loud. There, there are plenty of people who have lost that capacity by the time they grow up. So it and that's not inevitable. That's not it's not as if we're all you know, some things. Like I'm just not as physically energetic as when I was young. And that's inevitable. I think for most people, not my mom, she's 97 she's very energetic, but for most of us that's inevitable that kind of development but losing your energy and interest and capacity to inquire, invent and invent those. That's not an inevitable loss that has to do to some degree with our educational system.

Sucheta Kamath: And with that in mind, you know, I think no, the biggest, curious person I have known all my life is my mom, just like yours. Nice. She and not only she is incredibly curious, she's 79 and she lives with me, but she's incredibly inventive or she inquires her world and I'll give you a quick example. When we were growing up. We lived in a neighborhood where we had a swimming pool. But my mother grew up in a very rural part in comes from a very modest or poor family. And she learned to swim in a river. So she would take all three of us to the river. And she would Now mind you, this is a woman who were sorry, so she's not wearing bathing suit or anything, she would take a tin can a large tin can seal it, and then she would poke holes on each side, put a rope through it, hide around her and jump from a very high rock into the river.

Susan Engel: Oh my god, that's the greatest story. 

Sucheta Kamath: And she would jump and then we would follow suit. And so she created you know, for my younger brother who was younger, a smaller can and she'll just to watch her invent this little, you know, gadget for swimming?

Susan Engel: That's a fantastic story. Yeah.

Sucheta Kamath: And so then you take like every thing around the house, you know, she, I mean, one of the big things in India, at least, I don't know, if you follow. So I'll find out and send you a video. But, you know, living in a frugal and modest way. And being really mindful of your resources is a big thing for for Indian families who are living together, so you take a toothpaste, okay. And when the toothpaste is over, about to be over, but not fully over, there would be 100,000 ways to get squeezed out the last bit of toothpaste, right? Isn't that like amazing, inventive ways.

Susan Engel: That's this great story. The thing that's so interesting about that, is that it's true. You know, it's this old cliche that necessity is the mother of invention. I once wrote a piece for a magazine, I think, made in England called Eon. And I think I called I think I called the article, Invention's Other Mother. And it's because I was talking about curiosity being the other mother, is because necessity is one way, we can be one spur to invention, like with your mom and the floaties. But a lot of people might need as solution and they don't feel mentally flexible enough or with enough mental resources to come up with the solution. So necessity is one part of it. But so is a kind of a sense. Well, part of it is a sense that you can so whatever reason your mom felt that she could solve problems, and you know, I see this in at the college level all the time, I work with the brightest students in the world. I mean, I adore them, and they're incredibly smart. And they tend to have done very well in high school, or they wouldn't be at Williams, but not all of them feel they're good at learning other people's ideas, but they don't all feel the need to come up with their own. And it's true that when you get to the it's one thing to invent a game or afford or a way to pop the milk carton. Once your inventions are intellectual, once you're developing ideas, it takes, you know, a lot of work. It's not a one off. It's not like an idea pops into your head. And that's the end of it. You know, if you look at a book I love by Michael Lewis called The Undoing Project. I love that book. Yeah, it's a great book, about Kahneman and Tversky is development of their research. As social psychologist. It took them years and endless tinkering and research and conversations to come up with the idea they had, or to use an example. From my newest book, Anthony Greenwald, who developed the idea of unconscious bias and the use of the it the implicit app, what is it called implicit association tests measure people's unconscious bias that took them a long time to develop that idea wasn't just the technique that took time. It was it was the effort to think well, what's right about this idea? What's wrong about it? What would somebody else say if they heard the idea? What are the situations it doesn't apply to? Under what conditions would this idea fall apart? And that process, so the way that I like to think about it, or sometimes talk about it is that you have to build an idea, you don't just build a fort or floaty, you have to build an idea. And so, kids sort of overtime lose, not only the sense that they can, that they're entitled to have their own ideas, but they don't get the help. They need a lot of them too often. Not always, but too often. They don't get the help they need. Learning how to do that. Like it's not just that three-year-olds can do it and If we just let them be, they'd go on doing it. It is something you need guidance, you need role models, you need practice, huge amount of practice. And that could come from school, if we if we wanted it to, that could be the thing you could learn how to do in school, build an idea, but we just, we haven't oriented ourselves towards that.

Sucheta Kamath: And what was so clear in in, in the way you describe it also is one, I think this requires a a true genuine understanding of distinction between learning content and ideas, other people's ideas versus becoming very good at and skillfully, nurturing ideas. And, and these ideas are plenty, and then they go through editorial process. But this is a self-editing process, not other editing. So I see a lot of like, I mean, what I mean by other editing is very prematurely parents say this is a good idea. Oh, and you know, you know what I mean? Why don't you know, why don't you enter a competition? Well, this is something I want to like this conversation just happened this morning with a friend who noticed her son is now into magic. And everything is about magic. And she said, he has stopped watching TV shows, unless there are magic shows, you know. So this is a very early, amazing interest, curiosity now that can if he's playing Magic cards, now this can really be picked up by an adult and saying, Oh, you're really looking talented in this area. Let's now make it a craft.

Susan Engel: That's really funny. You know, it's so interesting, because so this year, I'm doing some new research with a former student of mine, Whitney Sanford, who's a lab director and in a, in a research lab in Boston. But she and I are pursuing her thesis research, which was wonderful research on the conditions under which four-year-olds invent. But now the new research is looking at the questions that young children pursue over time. And I can't say too much about because we're right in the middle of looking at the data, we're very excited by it. But one thing I would say that goes with what you just said is that, you know, this idea that everything a child, every interest a child has must suddenly be a great talent or go to a contest or be in a show or whatever, is antithetical to true intellectual pursuit. And all you have to do is like look at our data, kids get interested in in really important, weighty complex intellectual topics. The nature of infinity, or what happens after you die, or how what extinction what the process of extinction really is, it's amazing what they the questions they raise, that you can find out about if you just poke but they truly mold these things over, over a course of weeks and months. So it's not as if they just do something is wonderful, talented, cool. And that's the end of it. And no one's paying attention enough to these questions, to try to get them to be in a contest for them, or, you know, make it get a lot of attention for it. And I suppose the silver lining to that is the children really have a chance to mold them over these questions in their own way. You know, you could pay attention, just by listening to their questions and talking to them about the ideas they're interested in. But it's sort of the opposite of of suddenly making it into a big deal.

Sucheta Kamath: I'm going to kind of combine two thoughts that came one is, you know, I, I would describe that I have really, really inculcated my mother's incredible curiosity and inquiry and desire to invent and in, I don't know if you ever heard the term jugaad, have you heard of the term or science about jugaad, this term MIT professors have written about it and it's actually a creative problem solving process in very common in Indian culture. And they have actually scientifically studied which is shortcuts effective, most effective shortcuts. And in growing up in India, one of the things and as you said, Mother of Invention, either always having, you know, shortage of access to stuff. So then you have to be very mindful of resources and repurpose them and But secondly, also becoming very efficient with so that you can do things without wasting resources or time because both are high price commodity so to speak, and when but it's so infused in the household, so it's not just parents are doing and the kids are oblivious to it. So you're watching how like four example my grandmother. Now this is so funny, but so my grandma, like I said, my grandparents lived next door river, there was no running water. So she would have to carry, you know, these containers, which is called Metka on and bring them like instead of buckets, you put them on your head, and you roll up a sari, put it on your head, and then on top of it, you carry it. It's a very common thing. And I've seen my grandmother do it when we are younger. And so now you're carrying three on top of each other stacked up. So now that requires incredible balance it requires but then how once you have stacked them, how do you take carry two more buckets? So you need to figure out like incredible balance. So many things go into it, right? Yeah. So now when you once you bring the water, you have to now unload it. Now that requires another whole load of strategies, right? And watching this again and again, use become very mindful of if I'm want to carry seven bags of groceries, then what is the most effective way of carrying groceries like I remember doing a little demonstration to my kid, when he was 10. How to compact the garbage bag. Yeah, and accommodate more garbage in it, which I thought because it was I see so many garbage bags, like half full and people throw the garbage bag and not compacting their trash. Now, people may think it's a utter waste of life, but it's a priority, you know, and my husband. So I'm just thinking, when we talk about is there a role of culture that plays in the way we think about needing to constantly be mindful of new ways of doing so that we are effective or useful or impactful on our...

Susan Engel: I guess I would say two things that are going to sound kind of opposite. One is your story is a reminder. And actually, there's such wonderful research on this, you know that one of the things about human beings is they learn from each other. And they are very savvy at learning from what elders have to teach them. In fact, there's this phrase over imitation, you know, they imitate what other people are doing in order to learn what the culture has to teach them. So for instance, in your story about the water, you could imagine that force in some communities, it would be better to learn how your how other people have carried the water, so that you could save your mental energy for inventing something that hasn't yet been invented. And so that's, that's complicated. That's a, that's a big topic that invites would should invite a lot of research, which is how do people decide when to invent and when to learn from others. And the reason it's so interesting is, of course, you can't invent without having a lot of knowledge. You talked about this earlier in our conversation. Too often in at least in US conversations about education, you hear this false sort of polarization, you either have to learn facts, or you can just think your own thoughts and be creative and come up with things. And I hate that way of framing it because no one ever invented anything if they didn't already have some facts. Most inventions, certainly when we're talking about the invention of an idea, require the input of a lot of people. There's not a scientist, working today, who isn't building their scientific work on the shoulders of previous scientific work. So we're always learning from others. And I suppose you could frame this a little differently, you could say one of the cool questions to ask is, how do kids learn when they should learn from others? And when they should try to come up with something of their own? Oh, brilliant. Yeah. And so when you ask about the cultural piece, one part has to do with learning information and skills from other people so that you can invent and so that you can decide when invention is the right way to go. But there's another piece I think that was more where you were actually going with it, which is the culture of invention itself. And you're talking about household, your household, for instance, where you people valued the process of coming up with a better way of doing something. I would push that even further because mostly I push it this way, because this is where I'm interested in my research. I'm very interested in the culture of valuing ideas. And so you can listen and again, I invite anybody who watches your podcast now to pay attention to this. Do grownups talk to children about ideas? I give an example in my book. The person I told the story but wouldn't allow me to use his name, because he's too modest. But it's a wonderful story of a young father, who was telling this dad about how interesting it is the way in which children show such an interest in death. And this little girl said to her dad, what happens to people when they die. And this dad, who's a very thoughtful person said, a lot of different people have different ideas about that. And then he went on to tell her a few of the ideas. So in some families or communities, you will hear if you listen carefully, a lot of talk about ideas themselves, that's a good idea, or that's an interesting idea. Let's think about that. Or, well, what did you mean, when you said that, I wonder if that would work. And it slips by it's very natural, that kind of talk to the people who do it a lot. It's very natural. But there are other households where people don't do that, where they don't say, oh, that's an interesting idea, or, well, that's one idea about it. But here's another idea about it. And so along with the kind of culture of invention that you experienced, I would add that there's variation in whether there's a culture of inventing ideas or paying attention to ideas. After all, you know, all the cool things that children invent, and that some grownups invent that are physical for every one of those is an idea that you can't put your hands around. It's an it's purely intellectual. But every bit as powerful. I'll give you one because I talk about in the book, and I'm obsessed with it. The idea of capitalism. Yeah. And there's this incredible article by Steven Metcalf called the idea that swallowed the world, some ideas are so big that once they get in our heads, we can't think outside of them. And I don't say that, to to praise or condemn capitalism, I'll stay out of that for this podcast. But to point out that ideas are every bit as powerful and important, even the purely intellectual ones, as you know, garbage compressors, and airplanes, and floaty devices and white out an example I give in my book of a very cool invention. So one thing I would say, just to go back is that some, you know, children, I think, are affected by whether they're around people who value ideas. And that goes for teachers as well as, as parents.

Sucheta Kamath: I think the interesting thing about these, you know, the book Sapiens, in that way, kind of maps the trajectory of how human culture got shaped by newer ideas, right? When we started thinking about religion, they are rather had a label of some unseen power that governs the way nature works, and we can decipher it, so we're going to call you know, or think that God is operational here, or then capitalism, and then nation and boundaries. Those are all very complex ideas of how you know, what makes a boundary of a nation. Right, right. And, and I was thinking about in my like, I, because of multilingual, some of the things I was thinking about, I can't offhand think about the word idea or a synonym for idea in my mother tongue, but rarely have we say, which are, which means thought. And so there's a and which are a Shakti, which actually means the strength to think. And so it's interesting that idea as an innovation is, or inventing as a not a separate, it's cultivating this strength to think,

Susan Engel: Interesting, I did not know that.

Sucheta Kamath: And so I was just wondering that, you know, if we can talk about this, which I'm shocked at the strength and think so reading plays such an important role in creating experiences for children where they get to visit place, people and places and landscapes that there is someone not physically sometimes possible to visit. Yeah. So how does raising reading influence cultivation of this curiosity?

Susan Engel: What a super great question. And it goes back to your first story about the book you love when you were a kid? Because you said, it allowed you into these? I don't know if you said lives of these other people. But the thing of what's amazing about reading is it allows you into somebody else's mind. Yes, so there's the lives of the characters. But if you read enough, you begin to think about the mind of the writer. And you might also think about the mind of the characters, I mean, both. So, you know, reading well, how will I answer that? I mean, first of all, for I was a voracious reader to, like, where are you? Yeah, oh my god, I think I told the story my book about curiosity about like, asking to be excused from the table every night. So I could go in the other room. And the two things I like to do from the living room. So it was connected to the kitchen. They weren't separate rooms. I like to lie on the couch. And there were two things I love to do. One was to read, like, let me back to my book, please. And the other was to got listened to their gossip the grownups gossip. Yeah. And I talked about that my curiosity book, I think gossip is the single most underappreciated form of curiosity in the world. And I say that, because I'm such an avid gossip. And if you love fiction, which I do, of course, you love gossip, like you can't really separate those two things. But so one reason it's so important is it feeds you all this information. It might be like, in this book, the intellectual lives of children at you know, if you looked at it, I start off talking about loving these books about movie stars, when I was little, yeah, just get enough of Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo, and Clark Gable. And it was very salacious my curiosity. But it also allowed me to develop some expertise, and got granted expertise about what about these sort of weird lives that they were living, but it gave me a taste of what expertise was like. And we know from research, and this is true in childhood, that expertise matters as much as age as development. So Michelle, and she and her work shows that a child knows a lot about dinosaurs, organizes them at an intellectually higher level the dinosaurs than a kid who doesn't know about dinosaurs or chess pieces, as another example. And so, if you're a kid who loves to read, you have a chance to develop expertise in any number of topics. It could be movie stars, it could be trucks, it could be the lives of people in Mumbai, I mean, it could be any number of topics, or ways of thinking about the topics. So that's one thing, of course, there is research that suggests that the process of reading allows you to engage in a certain kind of analytic thought that you can't get without reading. And so literacy confers a lot of intellectual benefits on people. But just even if you don't get that far in thinking about it, if one doesn't, the stuff you get to reading is such is food for a hungry mind. And, and on top of all of that, it allows you to enter other people's minds. And that's such an important so so, you know, the building of ideas is a very social process, which we were talking about before. And that's another reason why reading is such a powerful piece of this,

Sucheta Kamath: You know, just the glasses of peace that you just said, No wonder I love these amazing, you know, stories I'm getting ready to interview, Jonathan Gottschall was the, you know, storytelling animal author of storytelling animal. But I think this idea that if you think about the role gossip plays in social regulation, right, to gossip, is to actually be able to observe, observe behaviors of others, and whether they're using some, you know, failing in moral discretion or not. And by also talking about somebody's behaviors, you're kind of seeing where your moral compass lies. Absolutely. By criticizing that I do not permit myself doing that.

Susan Engel: You know, there's some great old research, I feel so terrible. I can't remember her name right now. He said, she said, Oh, yeah. I wrote about in the, it's cited in the book, but anyway, about young children using gossip, to transmit to each other in the schoolyard, or, you know, on the school bus, and social norms. I mean, they do it too. And one of the most fun things to do is to go into schools, as I've done a lot, and listen to various ways that children express curiosity, and they express curiosity about any man or any range of topics. It's their, you know, huge range, but a lot of kids love to find out what the other kid is doing. Did they get in trouble? Did they throw up? Yes. Did they get a big present for their birthday? Did they break up with their best friend over lunch and so forth and so on, so that that impulse starts very early in life. And we shouldn't underrate it as all I want to say.

Sucheta Kamath: And, you know, in, in the population that I've worked with, with children with autism spectrum disorder, this is a genuine difficulty. Yes. And two things I see happen. One is they are not interested in the gossip when the gossip comes their way and which we comes at quite a defeat defeated purpose the person who's gossiping because it's not reciprocated with. Yeah. And so because they're not benefiting from this knowledge of other people's behaviors who have other minds and ideas and thinking. And secondly, they do not observe others to pick up on Gossip worthy details.

Susan Engel: Absolutely. You know, I always tell this funny story about my husband, who is my opposite. And in so many ways. He's quiet, I'm a blabber mouth. And he, you know, we're good at different things, we like to do different things. But we'll go to a party, and we'll come home. And I'll be talking only about everybody subtle, little mean glances and who was being friendly to whom and who had seemed to create too much distance with another person, blah, blah, blah, he's bored to death by that. And then he'll tell me about the flooring, or the shade of paint that the windowsill was had on it. And we're just, we're both we're looking at different worlds. And he, I have to say he's a good gas apart, but, but he's picking up on a different level of reality when we go out.

Sucheta Kamath: Different level of reality. That's pretty, I wonder if that's also gender difference? You know, I see the same thing with my husband. I always used to accuse him that you're not providing me with enough juicy material about our social encounter. Come on. I'm building like capital on this. You're not helping. So another question I have is, I had a young 15 year old once, you know, who introduced me to this idea called Six Degrees of wiki? Do you know what that is? No. So it is like, you know, he used to say you start with a one wiki page. And in six moves, you connect back to the original wiki, which is silly, but very, I have a way of thinking you. Yes, there's it's labor of love it's executive function process of regulating your thinking to connect that. So I'm curious, can exploring the internet be considered the same as exploring the physical world?

Susan Engel: Oh, boy, oh, boy. The million-dollar question that no one can avoid anymore? Um, well, I'm gonna have a very unsatisfying answer for that. So, you know, here, I'm not speaking about evidence. I'm just giving you an educated Yes, yes. I don't think anything replaces the physical world. I agree with you only when you're young. I mean, I have two grandchildren who were two ones, two, and once two and a half. And nothing can replace the physical world when you're when you're young. I don't think anything can replace the physical world when you're 60. To my age, either. But, um, but I also think, Well, I think two things I, I wouldn't be too disparaging of the internet, because I do think there it is a way to satisfy your curiosity. I think that story about wiki is interesting, because actually, there's some very cool marketing research, actually, but I think they were psychologists working in a marketing department, about the way in which people go online, and some people are hunters and other people are, there's another word for like raisers or gatherers raises gathering. But in that context, I don't know if it's grazing or gathering. And, and so the hunter, I'm a bit of a hunter, I get a question in my mind, I got to stick with it. And I go deeper and deeper, but I've got to get the answer to my original question. Other people grace, they go from one topic to another, and oh, look, Henry the Eighth was married to Queen Elizabeth. Oh, now I want to know about Queen Elizabeth. Oh, now I want to know about the tutor, whatever. And I have no opinion on which is better? I don't think anybody knows. But they both are ways to satisfy curiosity. And so I don't know that that's, I don't know that that's bad. I don't think we have enough evidence yet to know, bad or good. I will say two more things about that. One is very often and I'm guilty of this as well. You get you go online and you're not actually satisfying, either kind of curiosity, the hunting kind or the gathering kind. You're just kind of, it's sort of like giving yourself a little piece of sugar or something. It's just, it's very distracting. It's very quick. It's very superficial. By the time I'm done doing it, I forgotten what the first thing was I looked at, I don't think that's too good for kids. And I think there's some evidence that it's not too good for kids, that's a different process. But to end that question, or that answer on a on a, on a better note. You know, the thing about curiosity is like, like appetite itself, it has to be fed to continue if you don't eat long enough, you lose your appetite and the only time It's really good to feel hungry is when you know you're going to eat. And the same is true of curiosity. It's good to have your curiosity fed. And some of the time, the internet is a great way for kids to do that they really want to know something, and how cool that they can find it out. No, no adult can give them the answer. It's something that they can't learn through physical experience. It's something about the past or something about the invisible world of unseen things. And it's better to feed your curiosity at least some of the time or, you know, it withers up and, and dries. Just like actual appetite. So that's a kind of wishy-washy answer, because I don't think we know yet. And finally, I'll just say, whatever the answer is, it's not going away. So true. If there are ways to get kids to engage with it in it that are good, great. I hope we learned those ways. But with not as if children are going to grow up without the internet starting now.

Sucheta Kamath: I think you know, what's so interesting about that, which I really appreciate your answer about, that the relationship of curiosity needing to be fed, for it to build on itself, because then you will go either deep or high, whichever way you want to conceptualize. But I do think if you, the other piece that you often talk about is this curiosity, inquiry and invention. I don't know if that may lead to invention, unnecessarily. Because I think one thing I feel in my work, particularly since I work exclusively with children who are more distracted and executively dysfunctional. And I find that they're, they're the invention requires you to pause, step back and connect all the things that you have inquired about, or have understood, and I feel there's not enough time left, or they don't afford that time. So then, now they are completely in the consumer consumption mode. Yeah, that's where invention doesn't happen. Invention is really creating something when you're doing nothing.

Susan Engel: I mean, I'm sure you're right. It's a super interesting thing to think about. But I suppose the point is, there are different ways to use a computer, right? And one way is the awful thing I do sometimes where you just browse, I don't know what a browsing handbags, something or, you know, like I said, tutor history, I don't know, whatever it is, is kind of but on the other hand, kids also can watch my my former students and I are collaborating on a new project that involves getting kids to create comic strips. There are all kinds of ways that kids invent and, build things and make things online. Now, maybe that's something maybe there are researchers looking at this already, or teachers who are thinking about this in their classroom, you know, steering children towards more, more active ways of engaging with it. Computer, I imagine that would be a good thing. But you know, when you read? I mean, when you read, you're just lying there, it's your mind that's active, not your body. So I suppose that's the question, What can we do to make sure that when kids are online, it's active, if not physically, at least, certainly intellectual?

Sucheta Kamath: Well, this is again, I can have ongoing conversations with you for hours, I do want to be mindful of our time. So I do want to ask you this. Again, I think I don't know if this is the last question or not, but what is it then that we can do to support the intellectual growth of our children? And what can we what can adults do to actually pick up on this intellectual growth? That is a lifelong intellectual growth?

Susan Engel: Great question. The question of my life. Well, a couple of things. Adults who are intellectually alive tend to encourage it in children. I mean, if they like children, if you don't like kids, we're not going to do that. But...

Sucheta Kamath: No, you should love children.

Susan Engel: Yeah, well, if you do you do if you don't, you know, but like kids, being intellectually alive is the best thing you can do. Because, like so many things, like being a reader, like being a language user, like being kind, like being ethical, these things rub off on the children that you spend time with. And that's true whether you're a parent or teacher, teachers, I agree. I have a huge influence not only in what they do, but who they are as people. So read, talk, be interested in things show how much You love not knowing something that you're then going to know. I love that and show them the pleasure of expecting to know something new, or changing your mind. One thing I don't know who listens or watches your podcast, one thing I always warn against is certain kinds of parents who are eager to improve their child in every single way. Hear this kind of conversation and they think of the new lessons they're going to engage. I'm going to talk about an idea every night at dinner, I'm going to use the word idea six times a day, don't do that. Please, don't make this into a chore. Here's what I would end with. Sure, most children most typically developing children are born, loving to use their minds. They live for, to think about things to ask about things to solve problems, it doesn't have to be taught them, it's what they want to do. So if you remember that, then you can, rather than imposing something new on them a new skill, a new accomplishment, a new thing to get good at. You can remember that this is can be the greatest pleasure in life, to sit around, do nothing, talk about ideas, listen to one another. mulled things over, met, imagine new realities. And it's a, it'll be way more fun for you and your child or you and your student. If you think about it in that way. And I will just end by saying, and periodically, just listen. Observe, so that you have a better sense of what your kid is thinking about. I'll stop there.

Sucheta Kamath: I love that, you know, you remind me of, of our sage. Mr. Rogers? You know what, you know what he said to this ophthalmologist if I remember my story correctly, that these ophthalmologists wrote a little chapter or something, instructions how to. And they went to Mr. Rogers and asked like, how do we get children to be? Quite I don't know cooperative or engaged in the eye exam. So what do you have in mind? Like, we want some instructions do and so he says. So he takes all the things that they had written, put a line through it, cancelled it and said, just remember you were a child once.

Susan Engel: You know, oh, my god, it's so great.

Sucheta Kamath: So it to me, I think what you're saying is, I think people are so not in touch with their own curious minds. And I'm not faulting people for it. But I think they may think I'm, or even to call yourself, I'm not creative, or I'm not a thinker, or whatever it is. I am, I am your ideal candidate. I am so curious about the world. I'm, I love exploring, I love to know, I'm interested in people, I think that to me is one of the source of great curiosity for me how people think and be, I have five patents. I'm inventor in that way, which is formal way of like, kind of sealing the deal for your invention. But as we end, I do want to ask you about your own innovative thinking, I see your research is very creative, the way you investigate how children think creatively. How do you see that influence your personal life?

Susan Engel: Oh, what a great question. And no one's ever asked me that question. Oh, I'm sorry. Yes. Well, like you, I'm very obsessed with cooking. As so and eating. So yes, yeah, we spend a lot of time in our family. In fact, there's a wonderful book written by an Indian author, I forget her name, I think book is called Shards of Glass, where she talks about her family in India sitting around on hot days, they eat breakfast, and then they spend from breakfast to lunch, talking about what they're going to eat for lunch. And my family, my family. So yeah, and we're not Indian, but that's what we do. But I guess I would say this is a slightly less fun, colorful answer than the food part. You know, my invention is tends to be intellectual. I'm not, I'm not well coordinated. I have very bad visual skills. I'm not artistic in that sense. But I like to play with ideas. And I like to get their senses and I like to develop arguments. And the one other way in which invention has served me well isn't teaching, you know. So the thing I really love to do is constantly come up with a new way of teaching, getting not teaching, getting someone to learn something. Ask question coming up with a good activity thinking of a good paper assignment, and I'm not always good at it, but I will like to do it so?

Sucheta Kamath: Well, we have certainly benefited from your creativity and your incredible commitment to continue to invent because teachers need this kind of, you know, at the end of the rainbow, for example, is such a great book that talks about actually how to go about engaging in the classroom. So we will be listing all these amazing contributions. Susan, thank you for being here with us today.

Susan Engel: Thank you so much, so much fun to talk to you. Absolutely. 

Sucheta Kamath: So that's all the time we have everyone. Thank you for tuning in. And as you can see, these are important conversations for us to have, particularly with knowledgeable, incredibly qualified and highly passionate experts with their unique perspective. And so continue to tune in. Share this if you like it and leave us a comment. You can always reach out to me by email and thanks again for tuning in. Until then, have fun