Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Tesseract

Original dust jacket of the novel
When I was eleven our class read Madeleine L'Engle's novel A Wrinkle in Time. It's the first novel of a sci-fi trilogy in which a kid gets trapped in fold in the space-time continuum, which is referred to as tesseract- a fourth dimension in geometry. Our teacher asked "If there was another dimension, how might beings communicate?" The idea of another dimension threw me. Another dimension? Dimensions that could exist alongside us that we can't see or know? Say WHAT?  And what was she getting at with that question? It seemed like something just on the edge of being knowable. I couldn't reach it. But I couldn't have no answer. She expected me to have an answer. I always had an answer. I guessed wildly. "Music?" I was sure I was wrong. Music isn't a language! The other kids said things like French and Spanish. I knew that if I was wrong, at least I wasn't as wrong as they were.

Flash forward to today. I have three adult children. They can speak a bit of French. They know the language of music. And they know another language as well.  One is a PhD candidate in biotechnology at Cambridge. One is a geophysics summer student working with a 1.8 million dollar data set. The third is in computer science. They speak the language of science. They have understandings in another dimension, a dimension I was unable to enter.

When my kids get together they talk about math and physics and chemistry. They have real conversations about these things. They tell jokes about these things. I did not know these things could be be discussed, especially not with enthusiasm, humour and passion. When I listen to my kids talk, I feel as if I am the person in the fourth dimension, trapped in my own tesseract.

How did my children enter this other dimension? Where did they learn the language of science? They did not learn it from their parents. They learned it from their teachers, teachers with knowledge. Teachers with  passion for their subject. Something about what they taught triggered something in my children, encouraging them to push on and learn and grow and speak that other language, a language that is not their mother tongue. My children's teachers showed them that other dimension I still do not grasp- ideas that for me have always felt beyond my ability to comprehend.

Would these teachers have been considered "excellent? They were traditional in their approach. They used textbooks and the blackboard and lectures and experiments and sometimes even worksheets. They had higher than average participation rates and lower than average diploma marks. Yet despite their lack of the inquiry approach, their limited implementation of technology, or failure to be "architects of learning," many of their students are engineers, doctors, geologists and geophysicists. Their former students have an understanding of that other world thanks to their instruction.

When Madeleine L'Engle wrote A Wrinkle in Time, she was reading quantum physics. She made the realm of science the setting for a children's novel. She worked to make the unknowable knowable. And she had a hell of a time getting published. My teacher opened my mind to the possibility of other dimensions of knowledge by pushing me to think.  I may never understand quantum physics, but I did learn that there are other dimensions inhabited by others that may be unknowable to me. And I want to thank my children's teachers for opening their minds to that other world.