Ian Macdonald: Learning from the Children


LEAP School students

Learning from the Children, by Ian Macdonald.  From South Africa Good News, Friday, 18 September 2009

This week I delivered a talk to the Grade 6s of SACS junior school on the good news in South Africa and the power of positive thinking. It was a fantastic experience and I was so impressed and inspired by the attitude of the kids.

I’ve delivered a few talks to corporate audiences and I was intrigued by the difference I noticed when speaking to children.

What struck me about these young boys was just how receptive they were to ideas, concepts and information. They were so attentive; I saw a hundred pairs of alert and awake eyes staring at me as I droned on about crime, corruption, service delivery and public transport – hardly the stuff of school lunchtime conversations!

But these kids were really informed and knowledgeable. I asked them at the beginning who read newspapers regularly and the hands of about 80% of the class shot up; not bad for a bunch of 11 year olds.

They grasped some pretty profound concepts. I didn’t ‘dumb down’ the talk that I normally deliver to an adult audience, I just spiced it up with more pictures and offered examples they could relate to. I thought that some of the talk might have gone over their heads, until I heard the questions they asked at the end.

Oh, the questions! They were excellent, insightful, complex, challenging. One of the pupils even likened Robert Mugabe to Caligula and had me sweating as I tried to answer his question without admitting that I didn’t know who Caligula was! The questions also seemed to be borne from curiosity, of wanting to learn more and even though I think my answers were sometimes contrary to their opinions, I felt that they accepted and respected my views, without judgement.

I was also impressed by their politeness. Each boy stood up to ask their question, which was always preceded with “Sir,…”. They listened to their teachers and were impeccably behaved.

They were a fine credit to their school and their teachers.

The audiences I am more used to speaking to are generally more cynical, less responsive and seem to have more difficulty accepting information or ideas that are contrary to their own world view. The adults’ questions are often statements in the form of a question, and not really an attempt to gather information. And the adults ask fewer questions than the children did after my talk.

Of course, these are gross generalisations and our message has touched and inspired many who have heard it, but I think it is more of a reflection of how jaded we become as adults.

A friend of mine told me that her grandfather used to say “if you aren’t an optimist when you are young, then you have no heart and if you’re not a realist when you are old, then you have no brain”.

We seem to think that being realistic is the opposite of being optimistic, that to be positive is to be naive. But it is quite tragic that we lose our innocence and belief that anything is possible as we get older. Children look at the world so clearly, so purely and without judgement. When I was speaking about the power of positive thinking, I was preaching to the didn’t-even-have-to-be-converted.

The harsh realities of life will almost inevitably grind the sense of optimism and hope out of most of them, but those that are able to stay positive will probably go on to do great things in this world. As Helen Keller once said “no pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.”

Pessimists (or realists as they prefer to be called) are more often right, but optimists achieve more.

The openness, positivity and inquisitiveness of children are qualities worth re-discovering. We could learn a lot from them. I went to tell them what I knew and believed. They taught me a lot more.

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