It’s possible to teach an amazingly wide variety of maths, physics and engineering using homemade toys. There’s a lesson for investment managers here: the best way of understanding complex problems is often to start with something simple.
If there were a device that measured enthusiasm the intensity of evangelical zeal shown by Arvind Gupta, an Indian pioneer in science teaching, would probably break it.
On the other hand, Gupta, an accomplished toy inventor, would doubtless be able to make a new one to replace it.
In conferences and YouTube presentations Gupta briskly and enthusiastically conjures up teaching materials from objects habitually thrown away.
Using only matchsticks and the rubber tubes found on bicycle tyres, Gupta builds squares, triangles and more exotic shapes, often switching from one to another with a simple flick of the fingers.
Building on that, he can show the role that different shapes play in real-life engineering. If a square is easily compressed by the hand, squares won’t be much good at bearing up under traffic if used as the base of a bridge. However, the apex of a matchstick triangle can’t easily be pushed down.
Gupta also demonstrates how a rubbing a wooden stick along a pencil with grooves cut into it and another small stick attached to the end, turns the device into a revolving fan that illustrates the laws of motion. This is a child’s first lesson in physics.
It was this contraption, sometimes known exotically as a “gee haw whimmy diddle”, that fascinated Richard Feynman, a young child growing up in New York in the 1920s. Feynman went on to become one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, winning the Nobel Prize in 1965.
A great virtue of Gupta’s devices is that they can be made for nothing. For this reason, toys inspired by Gupta and other ingenious inventors have been used to educate millions of children in developing countries, including India.
Simple toys can also improve the daily functioning of the brain, as well as providing inspiration to the great scientific innovators of the future.
Recent research by psychologists at Rhodes College in Tennessee suggests that Lego and jigsaws improve the ability of young children in the Stem subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – by teaching spatial awareness.
As adults, we can learn a great deal about how to approach intellectual problems by seeing how useful toys are to children.
One lesson is to make things fun where humanly possible.
Another is that the road to comprehending complex problems often starts with simplicity.
You shouldn’t explain to a child how a bridge works by drawing intimidating diagrams and writing equations. You should begin with matchsticks and rubber. If the child’s curiosity is piqued, in future years they may well want to understand the complicated physics behind the structure.
The same principles of simplicity can be applied to every field, including finance, investment and politics.
Former US president Bill Clinton, dubbed “the secretary of explaining stuff” by the current president, Barack Obama, for his defence of quite complex Democratic economic policies in the language of Joe Public, is a case in point. The Republicans have also had their great communicators, including Ronald Reagan. Let life be a game, with fun props, fun explanations and a spirit of playfulness.