There's More Than One Way

September 13, 1995|By JIM SOLLISCH

CLEVELAND — Cleveland. -- The other night at the dinner table, my three kids -- ages 9, 6 and 4 -- took time out from their food fight to teach me about paradigm shifts, the limitations of linear thinking and the how to refocus parameters.

Here's how it happened: We were playing our own oral version of the Sesame Street game ''What Doesn't Belong?'' where kids look at three pictures and choose the one that doesn't fit. I said, ''OK, what doesn't belong, an orange, a tomato or a strawberry?''

The oldest didn't take more than a second to deliver his smug answer: ''Tomato because the other two are fruits'' I agreed that this was the right answer despite the fact that some purists insist a tomato is a fruit. To those of us forced as kids to eat them in salads, tomatoes will always be vegetables. I was about to think up another set of three when my 4-year-old said, ''The right answer is strawberry because the other two are round and a strawberry isn't.'' How could I argue with that?

Then my 6-year-old said, ''It's the orange because the other two are red.'' Not to be outdone by his younger siblings, the 9-year-old said, ''It could also be the orange because the other two grow on vines.'' The middle one took this as a direct challenge. ''It could be the strawberry because it's the only one you put on ice cream.''

Something was definitely happening here. It was messier than a food fight and much more important than whether a tomato is a fruit or vegetable.

My kids were doing what Copernicus did when he placed the sun at the center of the universe, readjusting the centuries-old paradigm of an earth-centered system.

They were doing what Reuben Mattus did when he renamed his Bronx ice cream Haagen-Dazs and raised the price without changing the product.

They were doing what Edward Jenner did when he discovered a vaccination for smallpox by abandoning his quest for a cure. Instead of studying people who were sick with smallpox, he began to study people who were exposed to it but never got sick. He found that they'd all contracted a similar but milder disease, cowpox, which vaccinated them against the deadly smallpox.

They were refocusing the parameters. They were redefining the problems. They were reframing the questions. In short, they were doing what every scientist who's ever made an important discovery throughout history has done, according to Thomas Kuhn, in his book ''The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:'' They were shifting old paradigms.

But if this had been a workbook exercise in school, every kid who didn't circle tomato would have been marked wrong. Every kid who framed the question differently than ''Which is not a fruit?'' would have been wrong. Maybe that explains why so many of the world's most brilliant scientists and inventors were failures in school, the most notable being Albert Einstein who was perhaps this century's most potent paradigm-shifter.

This is not meant to be a critique of schools. Lord knows, that's easy enough to do. This is, instead, a reminder that there are real limits to the value of information. I bring this up because we seem to be at a point in the evolution of our society where everyone is clamoring for more technology, for instant access to ever-growing bodies of information. Students must be on-line. Your home must be digitally connected to the world-wide web. Businesses must be able to download volumes of data instantaneously. But unless we shift our paradigms and refocus our parameters, the super information highway will lead us nowhere.

We are not now, nor have we recently been suffering from a lack of information. Think how much more information we have than Copernicus had four centuries ago. And he didn't do anything less earth-shattering (pun intended) than completely change the way the universe was viewed. He didn't do it by uncovering more information -- he did it by looking at the information everyone had, differently. Edward Jenner didn't invent preventive medicine by accumulating information -- he did it by reframing the question.

What we need as we begin to downshift onto the information highway is not more information but new ways of looking at it. We need to discover, as my kids did, that there is more than one right answer, there is more than one right question and there is more than one way to look at a body of information. We need to remember that when you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.

Jim Sollisch is a free-lance writer.

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