Education is a Narrative More Than a Dictionary

Education is a narrative more than a dictionary. It is better informed by an inspiring and uniting narrative than a carefully constructed list of terms and definitions. Dictionaries are good resources, but most don’t enjoy them as the main source of reading. What am talking about? This one might take me a few words to explain, but if you stick with me to the end, I think you’ll see what I mean.

Have you ever wondered why so many great ideas emerge as accidents, unexpected results on the journey to a different destination (Christopher Columbus?), after self failed attempts, while directly experiencing the challenges of a given line of work or part of life, or as sudden leaps amid otherwise iterative developments? It is because people  are usually inspired by executing, diving into the story, and figuring out where they are going one page at a time. That is why it is extremely rare for innovations to emerge without some form of play and experimentation. While there are some people who devise grand inventions in their mind with no direct or practical experience, sandbox or real-world tinkering is the more common pathway.

There is something to be said for starting with clear goals and a desired outcome and working from there, but that isn’t how it works in many circumstances. Instead, people just start exploring something and see where it takes them. This summer I decided to spend time reading a book on character strengths and virtues, a text represented as the positive alternative to The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Each chapter was a carefully crafted summary of the best and most current research about a different strengths or virtues. A month into the book and I had only read about 80 pages. That is because each section had a rich bibliography, leading me to exploring dozens of scholarly articles about the topic. From there I explored ways that this research was informing education, the workplace, counseling, even raising children. For example, one of the early sections was on the trait of curiosity. I was so…curious about it that I spent close to three weeks just reading through the work of the authors cited in that chapter.

I could have set the goal of simply reading through the book, but it would not have led to nearly as many discoveries and ideas. I have close to a hundred pages of notes and scribbled ideas about possible applications in education, workforce development, and my own life. I began by doing something, exploring a book of interest with a sense of what I wanted from it but not a carefully constructed list of goals. The learning journey emerged one page at a time.

I realize that learning and innovation can’t always be that way. Eventually you need to reach an intended goal or produce a given outcome. Yet, history seems to suggest that often giving people space to play, experiment, pilot, and explore has led to some brilliant discoveries and inventions, not to mention joy and a growing love of learning. I suggest that there can be a helpful balance between the world of measurable results (the dictionary) and curious exploration and experimentation (the narrative).

While some critique the countless buzz words and what they define as fads, these oftentimes represent creative explorations in the education space. The same is true for the many different types of schools and approaches. While we must be cautious not to carelessly or flippantly treat learners as lab rats, there is still ample space to explore the possibilities. Just get started. Try something new, monitor the results, get feedback from learners and other stakeholders, and adjust accordingly. Why not even engage the learners directly in conducting the teaching and learning experiments and analyzing the results?

Some argue that we must wait for the best research to inform best practices and build an education system based on those practices. That sounds neat, clean and reasonable; but in practice, that is not how learning works all the time. Well-researched practices can flop alongside more spontaneous experiments. What we thought was generalizable doesn’t turn out to be so. What we thought might transfer from one context to another doesn’t.

In Neil Postman’s classic, The End of Education, he argued that education had lost a cohesive and informative narrative to shape our efforts. As such he proposed six possibilities, one of which is “The American Experiment.” It is the story of America as a grand and extended experiment, one strengthened by healthy debate and disagreement, along with ample exploration and experimentation. As I consider many modern debates about education, this American Experiment strikes me as a far more inspiring and helpful narrative than what seems to instead drive our work.

As it stands, we often seem to be deriving our direction from a dictionary more than a narrative, and only a minority of us can get excited about reading a dictionary. Dictionaries are logs of dissected and defined words, stripped from context, largely void of unanswered questions. We talk about credits sold, the most efficient use of classroom time, time to completion. We argue about distinctions between a 92% and a 94% on exams, and we devise measures like adequate yearly progress. We talk about University score cards and carefully constructed rankings of students, schools, teachers, and anything else we can find (except, it seems, for board members, politicians and policymakers; they seem to get a pass on the dictionary mindset). We treat the dictionary as the main text instead of a resource for the real text, the inspirational narrative that we are collectively writing. Dictionaries have their roles, but they don’t make great lead actors in a performance.

A great experiment, on the other hand, is something that gets people out of their seats. It is messy. It includes failures and successes, along with opportunities to learn from both. It invites people to try something, learn quickly and try something else. Along the way, we are likely to discover and rediscover valuable ideas that lead us on yet another exploration together. This is because education is a narrative more than a dictionary.

And let a scholar all earth’s volumes carry, he will be but a walking dictionary: a mere articulate clock. – George Chapman