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TED2010

Adora Svitak: What adults can learn from kids

February 13, 2010

Child prodigy Adora Svitak says the world needs "childish" thinking: bold ideas, wild creativity and especially optimism. Kids' big dreams deserve high expectations, she says, starting with grownups' willingness to learn from children as much as to teach.

Adora Svitak - Child prodigy
A prolific short story writer and blogger since age seven, Adora Svitak (now 12) speaks around the United States to adults and children as an advocate for literacy. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Now, I want to start with a question:
00:15
When was the last time you were called childish?
00:17
For kids like me,
00:20
being called childish can be a frequent occurrence.
00:22
Every time we make irrational demands,
00:25
exhibit irresponsible behavior
00:28
or display any other signs
00:30
of being normal American citizens,
00:32
we are called childish.
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Which really bothers me.
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After all, take a look at these events:
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Imperialism and colonization,
00:40
world wars, George W. Bush.
00:43
Ask yourself, who's responsible? Adults.
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Now, what have kids done?
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Well, Anne Frank touched millions
00:52
with her powerful account of the Holocaust,
00:54
Ruby Bridges helped to end segregation in the United States,
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and, most recently,
01:00
Charlie Simpson helped to raise
01:02
120,000 pounds for Haiti
01:04
on his little bike.
01:06
So, as you can see evidenced by such examples,
01:08
age has absolutely nothing to do with it.
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The traits the word childish addresses
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are seen so often in adults
01:16
that we should abolish this age-discriminatory word
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when it comes to criticizing behavior
01:20
associated with irresponsibility and irrational thinking.
01:22
(Applause)
01:25
Thank you.
01:31
Then again, who's to say
01:33
that certain types of irrational thinking
01:35
aren't exactly what the world needs?
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Maybe you've had grand plans before
01:40
but stopped yourself, thinking,
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"That's impossible," or, "That costs too much,"
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or, "That won't benefit me."
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For better or worse, we kids aren't hampered as much
01:48
when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things.
01:51
Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations
01:54
and hopeful thinking.
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Like my wish that no one went hungry
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or that everything were a free kind of utopia.
02:00
How many of you still dream like that
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and believe in the possibilities?
02:05
Sometimes a knowledge of history
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and the past failures of utopian ideals
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can be a burden
02:12
because you know that if everything were free,
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then the food stocks would become depleted
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and scarce and lead to chaos.
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On the other hand,
02:20
we kids still dream about perfection.
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And that's a good thing because in order
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to make anything a reality,
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you have to dream about it first.
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In many ways, our audacity to imagine
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helps push the boundaries of possibility.
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For instance, the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington,
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my home state -- yoohoo Washington!
02:39
(Applause) --
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has a program called Kids Design Glass,
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and kids draw their own ideas for glass art.
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Now, the resident artist said they got
02:48
some of their best ideas through the program
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because kids don't think about the limitations
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of how hard it can be to blow glass into certain shapes;
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they just think of good ideas.
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Now, when you think of glass, you might
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think of colorful Chihuly designs
03:00
or maybe Italian vases,
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but kids challenge glass artists to go beyond that
03:05
into the realm of broken-hearted snakes
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and bacon boys, who you can see has meat vision.
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(Laughter)
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Now, our inherent wisdom
03:15
doesn't have to be insider's knowledge.
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Kids already do a lot of learning from adults,
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and we have a lot to share.
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I think that adults should start learning from kids.
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Now, I do most of my speaking in front of an education crowd,
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teachers and students, and I like this analogy:
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It shouldn't just be a teacher at the head of the classroom
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telling students, "Do this, do that."
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The students should teach their teachers.
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Learning between grown ups and kids
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should be reciprocal.
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The reality, unfortunately, is a little different,
03:45
and it has a lot to do with trust, or a lack of it.
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Now, if you don't trust someone, you place restrictions on them, right?
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If I doubt my older sister's ability
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to pay back the 10 percent interest
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I established on her last loan,
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I'm going to withhold her ability to get more money from me
04:00
until she pays it back. (Laughter)
04:03
True story, by the way.
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Now, adults seem to have
04:07
a prevalently restrictive attitude towards kids
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from every "don't do that,
04:13
don't do this" in the school handbook
04:15
to restrictions on school Internet use.
04:17
As history points out, regimes become oppressive
04:20
when they're fearful about keeping control.
04:23
And although adults may not be quite at the level
04:25
of totalitarian regimes,
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kids have no, or very little say in making the rules,
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when really the attitude should be reciprocal,
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meaning that the adult population should learn
04:34
and take into account the wishes
04:36
of the younger population.
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Now, what's even worse than restriction
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is that adults often underestimate kids abilities.
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We love challenges, but when expectations are low,
04:45
trust me, we will sink to them.
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My own parents had anything but low expectations
04:51
for me and my sister.
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Okay, so they didn't tell us to become doctors
04:56
or lawyers or anything like that,
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but my dad did read to us
05:01
about Aristotle
05:03
and pioneer germ fighters
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when lots of other kids were hearing
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"The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round."
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Well, we heard that one too, but "Pioneer Germ Fighters" totally rules.
05:11
(Laughter)
05:14
I loved to write from the age of four,
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and when I was six
05:18
my mom bought me my own laptop equipped with Microsoft Word.
05:20
Thank you Bill Gates and thank you Ma.
05:23
I wrote over 300 short stories
05:25
on that little laptop,
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and I wanted to get published.
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Instead of just scoffing at this heresy
05:32
that a kid wanted to get published
05:34
or saying wait until you're older,
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my parents were really supportive.
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Many publishers were not quite so encouraging,
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one large children's publisher ironically saying
05:44
that they didn't work with children --
05:47
children's publisher not working with children?
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I don't know, you're kind of alienating a large client there.
05:52
(Laughter)
05:55
Now, one publisher, Action Publishing,
05:57
was willing to take that leap and trust me
06:00
and to listen to what I had to say.
06:03
They published my first book, "Flying Fingers," -- you see it here --
06:05
and from there on, it's gone to speaking at hundreds of schools,
06:08
keynoting to thousands of educators
06:12
and finally, today, speaking to you.
06:14
I appreciate your attention today,
06:16
because to show that you truly care,
06:18
you listen.
06:20
But there's a problem with this rosy picture
06:22
of kids being so much better than adults.
06:25
Kids grow up and become adults just like you.
06:28
(Laughter)
06:31
Or just like you? Really?
06:33
The goal is not to turn kids into your kind of adult,
06:35
but rather better adults than you have been,
06:38
which may be a little challenging
06:41
considering your guys' credentials (Laughter).
06:43
But the way progress happens
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is because new generations and new eras
06:47
grow and develop and become better than the previous ones.
06:50
It's the reason we're not in the Dark Ages anymore.
06:53
No matter your position or place in life,
06:56
it is imperative to create opportunities for children
06:59
so that we can grow up to blow you away.
07:02
(Laughter)
07:05
Adults and fellow TEDsters,
07:08
you need to listen and learn from kids
07:10
and trust us and expect more from us.
07:12
You must lend an ear today,
07:16
because we are the leaders of tomorrow,
07:18
which means we're going to be taking care of you
07:20
when you're old and senile. No, just kidding.
07:22
No, really, we are going to be the next generation,
07:25
the ones who will bring this world forward.
07:28
And in case you don't think that this really has meaning for you,
07:31
remember that cloning is possible,
07:34
and that involves going through childhood again,
07:36
in which case you'll want to be heard
07:38
just like my generation.
07:40
Now, the world needs opportunities
07:42
for new leaders and new ideas.
07:45
Kids need opportunities to lead and succeed.
07:48
Are you ready to make the match?
07:51
Because the world's problems
07:53
shouldn't be the human family's heirloom.
07:55
Thank you.
07:58
(Applause)
08:00
Thank you. Thank you.
08:03

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Adora Svitak - Child prodigy
A prolific short story writer and blogger since age seven, Adora Svitak (now 12) speaks around the United States to adults and children as an advocate for literacy.

Why you should listen

A voracious reader from age three, Adora Svitak's first serious foray into writing -- at age five -- was limited only by her handwriting and spelling. (Her astonishing verbal abilities already matched that of young adults over twice her age.) As her official bio says, her breakthrough would soon come "in the form of a used Dell laptop her mother bought her." At age seven, she typed out over 250,000 words -- poetry, short stories, observations about the world -- in a single year.

Svitak has since fashioned her beyond-her-years wordsmithing into an inspiring campaign for literacy -- speaking across the country to both adults and kids. She is author of Flying Fingers, a book on learning.

The original video is available on TED.com
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