Owls & Alligators

A grade or so ago, my daughter was given a little quiz at school. She was shown a piece of paper with pictures of four animals, and told to determine which one was not like the others. The animals were an eagle, a pigeon, an owl, and an alligator.

My daughter, I kid you not, said the owl. Why? Because it was the only one that’s nocturnal.

Lesson One: My kid is amazing.

Lesson Two: Nothing is actually the same as anything else; I could find a reason to choose any one of the four. A pigeon is the only seed-eater. An eagle is the only one that’s a patriotic symbol. Those kinds of questions, and their assumed answers, tell us to look for the obvious; to take the easy path. “Alligator” is the answer that requires the least thinking. That quiz also tries to tell us that things that are mostly the same should be categorized together.

Look, I get that I’m over-analyzing this. I get that the real point of the quiz is just to teach kindergartners that there’s a difference between birds and reptiles. But honestly, I don’t think that’s nearly as important of a lesson as teaching them that we can find differences – and therefore similarities – in anything.

That lesson has far wider-reaching applications. Honestly, I’d rather my daughter grow up not knowing the difference between bird and reptile as categories than have her thinking that just because three things look the same, they belong together – and the thing that looks different doesn’t.

I think a better version of this kind of quiz would be to just show four random pictures of anything, and tell kids to come up with things that they have in common. Look for connections. Look for reasons to draw threads from one piece of information to another. Reasons to group, rather than out-group.

Most importantly, I like that style because there isn’t an inherent “expected” answer. That might be the most important lesson of all – that knowledge and insight don’t have to stay in a box.

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