Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Does Katie Really Know Where Taiwan is?

A 23-month-old girl, Katie*, received a fair amount of publicity on the internet and news reports because of her “geography skills”. In a YouTube video which has now been viewed more than 4.5 million times, her parents ask her to locate on a map more than 40 different countries, one after another. Quickly and correctly, she is able to point those out. Katie has demonstrated this ability on talk shows with hosts Rachael Ray and Oprah Winfrey. She was acclaimed by the local media as a “child prodigy” and a “very talented” girl.

Katie’s ability is unusual given her very young age. Most two-year-olds are able to speak and use only a few simple words. How does Katie manage to locate so many different countries on a map? One clue is provided by her parents. When asked by Rachael Ray how they discovered her “skills”, her father explained: "Katie's uncle went to Taiwan when she was 16 months old, and she wanted to know where he went. So we found a map and pointed to Taiwan. The next time she saw the map, she pointed to Taiwan." Let us put this in Katie’s perspective. When her parents first showed her Taiwan on the map, Katie must have associated the sound “Tai-wan” with that particular shape located on the chart paper. Later, when she saw the map, she recalled the associated visual pattern and pointed at its location. In essence, her method was pattern recognition. It is by this process that Katie is able to locate all those countries.

It must be stressed that Katie is too young to grasp the concept ‘country’. She cannot even conceive of organized societies or large stretches of land, let alone their complicated international division. For her, the map is nothing more than a piece of paper, over which countries are nothing but colored shapes. They do not correspond to anything else in reality. If you doubt this, note an incident that happened during Rachael Ray’s show. After Katie was done showing her “skills”, Rachael, while announcing a reward, asked her: “How’d you like to go to Hawaii?” Of course, Katie had no clue what it means to “go to” a location on a piece of chart paper. It is not surprising that she proceeded to do the only thing she knew to do whenever she hears “Ha-wa-ii”: she pointed her finger at Hawaii’s location on the map. This leaves us no doubt that, although, some sounds and patterns are associated in her mind, they are completely disconnected from reality.

Such disconnect between “knowledge” and reality is actually very common; it could be found not only in kids, but also in adults. For example, for many people, “knowledge” consists of miracles and magicians presented in “holy scriptures”. These people evade the fact such “knowledge” contradicts with a rational view of reality based on the evidence of our senses. They are unable to distinguish between arbitrary assertions and verifiable truths. Epistemological disability of this magnitude results when one dogmatically adopts assertions without integrating them with the rest of one’s knowledge. The pedagogical method – commonly used in schools and colleges – that is responsible for such disintegration consists of demanding from students that they accept instructions on faith. It is the method by which Katie was “taught” about countries.

A proper method of learning about a country would be based on the hierarchical structure of concepts. Every country has an identity. To know about a particular country means knowing about some of its unique characteristics. These characteristics are not limited to shape and location, but also include historical and current events, natural and man-made structures, people, cultures, languages, climate etc. Let us take an example. Say, you are reading a detailed account of a historical battle that was spread across many different regions. Assume that the location and other geographical features of those regions played an important role in the battle. At this moment, if you take a look at that country’s map, it would hugely benefit you in pursuit of your knowledge. You will be able to easily associate progression of historical events with geography of the regions. The names of the regions will enable you to retain all their unique characteristics as one mental unit, just like names of people enable you to retain unique behavior or events associated with that person. In short, a proper method of learning about a geographical region begins by learning about its unique characteristics, and ends with retention of its name.

In case of Katie, I am not advocating that she should have been taught about Taiwan via history, but that a two-year-old is very immature to really understand where Taiwan is. Katie’s intelligence, by virtue of which she is able to remember so many countries, would only help her in future if she is taught by methods based on epistemology of a rational being, not of a parrot. Otherwise, she may remain vulnerable to any mystic who preaches that earth was created in seven days.

*I have replaced the actual name of the child with a fictional one


  1. Very nice post! This kind of method is also been taught in schools. Like a state board educational system in India where they teach history and other subjects with a lot of "facts" and "dates" which you would not really find interesting to know or make anything out of it. Finally, the whole purpose of learning history is not really achieved. This is the sad state of today's education system.

  2. One contrasting observation: psychologically, memory is a very good predictor of intelligence when assessing very young children. Thus, "Katie's" exceptional memory is a valid index of her intellectual prowess.
    That doesn't change the fact that her performance is misunderstood by most.