This happened at a Bolivian Children's Home where I volunteered for 2 months. I was playing badminton, using a big red rubber ball instead of a shuttlecock, with a boy from the home named Marvin. As we were playing, I asked Marvin, "¿Cuántos años tienes?" ("how old are you?"), to which he replied "Diez años" ("Ten").
I decided to take advantage of the moment and turn it into a teaching lesson. I paused the rubber-ball-badminton game and said, "Tú tienes un mitad de mi edad. ¿Cuántos años tengo yo?" ("You are half of my age. How old am I?")
I was answered with a blank stare.
Again, I asked "¿Si tienes un mitad de mi edad, cuántos años tengo yo?" ("How old am I if you are half my age?").
Still nothing. Just the blank stare.
No matter how many times I tried to paraphrase the question, he could not answer.
I thought that maybe he couldn't understand my Spanish.
"¿Qué es el doble de 10?" ("What is double 10?")
I was becoming frustrated at this point. Why couldn't he answer my simple question? Was it too difficult for a 10-year-old? I personally remember already learning multiplication when I was 8 and in the 3rd grade. Why couldn't he add?
Finally, he said, "12?"
I said no.
In the end, I just made him count from 10 and stopped him at 20, and told him that was the answer. Half of 20 is 10.
I was very disappointed. Why couldn't this 10-year-old answer such a simple math problem? I knew he understood the question, my Spanish accent isn't that bad. Plus my 10-year-old niece could answer this question correctly in a heartbeat, so I knew it wasn't overly difficult.
I thought that maybe I had tested the wrong person, so I repeated this experiment with three other kids.
I asked them, "How old are you?" and "If you are half of my age, how old am I?" As a result, my age was always different depending on the age of the kid I asked.
Of the three kids I tested, only one answered correctly. The only kid that passed the test was 7 years old, and he correctly determined that I was 14. But this kid looked Asian and everyone called him "Chino", so maybe he wasn't a good test subject.
Nevertheless, although Chino figured out that I was 14, he couldn't figure out the right answer after I asked him how old I really was if half of my age was 10. He guessed "100?", and some other irrelevant numbers until I finally told him that I was 20.
I don't know. Maybe my experiment had errors and I should've only asked 10-year-olds for consistency, and maybe I should've asked Bolivian kids outside of the Children's Home for variety. But regardless, this "experiment" really made me think.
First, I couldn't help but feel disappointed. I was disappointed NOT in the kids, but in their nation's inability to teach them critical thinking skills. How is it that these kids are so left behind, playing badminton with big rubber balls, while their counterparts overseas are excelling in math and science?
It wasn't hard until I found my answer. All I had to do was look around the Children's Home and note the awful facilities they had -- the old, rusted, and broken-down playground was all the children had to play on.
Their playground was a safety hazard. When I was a kid, my public elementary school had a huge playground with slides and bars and that zip-glide handle-bar thing that everyone loved to hang on as they glided from one platform to another. And for safety, the entire playground floor was covered in soft bark so that kids wouldn't hurt themselves if they fell.
I mean, just looking at my elementary school's ordinary playground could mentally stimulate any kid. Even the homework packets we received as children were enough to rack our brains back then. What kind of stimulation do these kids get when their playground is crap and the homework they receive is pointless bell-work that includes thinking of 3 words that start with the sound "ma"?
These kids, and the precious little brain muscles inside of them, are noticeably lacking stimuli. Obviously, this is not their fault. Again, when I was a kid, my imagination was constantly being catered to. I was always being made to think outside the box through various activities and assignments. I was unceasingly being stimulated and I didn't even realize it. I guess that's what good teachers do; stimulate the kid without him realizing it.
I cannot believe how much I have taken my childhood for granted. Families overseas spend a fortune for their children to receive an education that I received for free in the US of A. And what happens to those kids in Third World Countries who don't have rich parents to send them to rich private schools? Well, in the case of the kids in this orphanage-like Children's Home, they remain unstimulated because they are taught by people who themselves were unstimulated. It's a vicious cycle - Third World Countries always stay poor because their education sucks and the young minds aren't taught to be innovative and creative.
I've complained before that in America, you need to have money to make money and that wealth always stays in the hands of the wealthy - because rich people teach their kids how to get rich. But now, I realize that this concept is much greater, and can be applied in a much broader sense. It is the exact same with countries; rich countries remain rich, and poor countries remain poor. In this case, I'm on the other side of the spectrum. I'm with the rich, with the fortunate.
Okay, I'm making a huge generalization with the things I'm saying. I understand that I can't make judgments on an entire country based on the kids I met and the conditions that I saw in a Children's Home. I know that there are a lot of factors that I haven't addressed that play a huge role in this equation. But, at least now I realize how fortunate I was to have a "normal" American childhood, how well it prepared me for the world, and how much more I need to appreciate it.