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

6 Quotes to Keep Us Grounded in the Digital Age

We live in a media-rich world, but I’m still fond of words. I like words that paint pictures, that challenge me to look at things from different perspectives, that help me explore the possibilities, and that invite me to consider both the affordances and limitations of life in an increasingly technological and connected world. As one originally trained in qualitative and ethnographic approaches to research, I continue to seek out and cling to meaning statements, short or long quotes that embody a key insight in a larger narrative or discourse.

With that in mind, following are six quotes (five of which are Tweet-able) that keep me grounded in the digital age.

“You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion.” – G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s writings are full of rich and memorable meaning statements. This one reminds me to have patience in a world that celebrates immediacy; instant gratification; and a ready, fire aim approach to life and work. Ideas matter and have consequences, and our world is persistently in need of deep, thoughtful people. That tames time, study, and the kind grit that allows someone to grapple and persists with projects, explorations, inquiries, and causes over weeks, months, years, decades, even centuries.

“Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” – Dean Inge

The spirits of each age are transient. As much as we like to think that our conclusions, discoveries, and insights are destination points; that is rarely true. Inge’s quote reminds me that even the most compelling spirits of this age are best contrasted with the wisdom on the past and the possibilities and opportunities of the future. It reminds me to use the mind tools of this age with humility.

“It is appallingly obvious our technology has exceeded our humanity.” – Albert Einstein

Educational and social innovations are not exceptions to the wisdom in this quote. Early in life I was inspired by the spirit of the frontiersman, the inventor, the explorer, and the entrepreneur. It is easy to be some enthralled in bringing something new into this world that we fail to heed the warning that each new innovation always has affordances and limitations, benefits and drawbacks, winners and losers (as explained by the author of the next quote, Neil Postman). Einstein’s quote reminds me that critique and thoughtful consideration about moral and ethical matters is not simply the rumblings of the neo-luddite. It is the calling anyone who gives birth to new ideas and innovations.

“There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.” – Neil Postman

Postman had a way of reminding us that there are longstanding human questions, challenges, and yearnings that remain constant even amid some of the most promising innovations.

“A certain amount of opposition is a great help to a man. Kites rise against, not with, the wind.” – Lewis Mumford

Mumford is another voice that continues to have some much wisdom to offer our technological age. In this quote, I appreciate his reminder that challenge, disagreement, critique, and tension are not just about resistance. Our ideas and innovations can be refined and retooled in important ways as we subject them to healthy critique.

“The fact of knowing how to read is nothing, the whole point is knowing what to read.” – Jacques Ellul

In this age of information overload, we can be frozen or impassioned by the wealth of information and knowledge available to us. We partly define and distinguish ourselves by what we choose to read. As such, learning and choosing how to direct our attention in this age is an important part of developing agency.

How Bloom’s Taxonomy & Questions Changed my Life as a Teacher & Learner

I’m fond of Bloom’s Taxonomy because it helped me overcome one the earliest challenges of my teaching career. In my first year of teaching, I struggled with classroom management. I dreamed of walking into class and students treating me like Socrates, or maybe a mix between Socrates, Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society and that angel from Highway to Heaven. I imagined classes of students naturally leaning in to hear each word that comes out of my mouth, that they would love to learn whatever I set before them. In less than a week, I lived in a very different world, one where students were more interested in what others were doing during the weekend, where some couldn’t stay awake in class, where others found great joy in doing whatever it took to get me off-track and add some interest to their hour, and where the “good” students dreaded class because they hated the chaos. I didn’t know what to do, so I went to the principal and, afraid and embarrassed, I explained my problem, thinking that perhaps I was in the wrong profession. In response, he pulled out a photocopy from a book about Bloom’s Taxonomy and action verbs associated with each part. He suggested that I start using this to create thoughtful questions in advance of each class, building the questions from the lowest level of Blooms (knowledge and understanding) to questions about creation and evaluation. After each question, he advised me to develop a series of follow-up questions, ways to rephrase ideas if they didn’t make sense to students. These follow-ups would also help take students deeper into the subject.

I took his advice, spending the night building a list of thirty questions for a class the next morning. In fact, in less than a couple hours I had over a hundred questions that I then winnowed down. I went to 1st hour the next day, questions in hand. The principal agreed to sit in the back and debrief the lesson with me afterward. I started the class with a short “hook”, shared some content with them, and them started with my questions. The result was life-changing. I had a group of 7th and 8th graders engaged in a wonderful blend of questions where we analyzed, applied, evaluated, and created. I played devil’s advocate. I started to ask “What if…” questions and others that invited them to use their imaginations.  I asked about how this could be used in the real world or if we were better off not learning it. I asked question that challenged them to compare what we were learning with aspects of popular culture and ideas that I gleaned from the top teen magazines of the time. I asked them to be advocates, critics, then advocates again…then critics. Soon they started asking better questions than I could have planned, and we started to have genuinely interesting conversations about United States history or any other subject in the curriculum. I don’t want to mislead, suggesting that everything became perfect. It was not, and I did not become an amazing teacher. The “sleeping” students didn’t instantly turn into Arnold Horshack overnight, but I saw subtle signs of interest. The atmosphere changed from one of pain and drudgery to one of curiosity, creativity and hope. More students were interested, engaged, sharing ideas, and asking questions. Class started to feel less like crowd control and more like…well more like a community of learners.

I fell in love with questions. I created long lists of them, and more than once imagined turning these lists into a coffee table book. I also implemented a weekly question of the day, where we spent the first few minutes of some classes…each responding to some imaginative question, sometimes related to the lesson for the day, but often just a way to explore ourselves and the world.

  • If you could travel anywhere in the universe for 15 seconds without harm and then appear back in this room, where would you go?
  • If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
  • If you had to give up one sense for a year, which one would it be?
  • If you could snap your fingers and instantly have any one book memorized, which book would you choose?
  • If you could be known as the inventor of any new idea, product, or anything else in the future, what would it be?
  • If you had a million dollars to give away, but you only had five minutes to do so, what would you do with it?
  • If you had to eat the same two foods for the rest of your life, what would they be?
  • If you could interview any person from history, who would it be?

Class became more about questions, occasionally about answers, but almost always about a ha moments, exploration, experimentation, imagination, and the desire to know and understand. Together we started to learn the power and possibility of asking and exploring questions. We learned how a single question could help break through disinterest, irrelevance, confusion, doubt, anger, and a sense of isolation. We discovered the truth in Michael Card’s question, “Could it be that questions tell us more than answers ever do?” We started to discover the wisdom behind Voltaire when he wrote, “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” We experienced firsthand why Einstein said, “To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.” We decided to conjure the magic of childhood and not simply pursue the ways of the adult, as explained by Locke when he wrote, “There is frequently more to be learned from the unexpected questions of a child than the discourses of men.” And being a U2 fan, I found new meaning in the words sung by Bono, “We thought that we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.”

Over time, I started to realize that my questions were not the essence of an amazing education. I was learning more than ever, but what about the students? How might I invite students to his wonderful world of asking and exploring questions? The following presentation represents where this line of thinking took me.

Then I met Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner through their book, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. They affirmed my love for questions and helped me turn it into a philosophy of education that believes in nurturing curiosity, exploration, and self-direction. Postman wrote,

“Good learners have a high degree of respect for facts (which they understand are tentative) and are skillful in making distinctions between statements of fact and other kinds of statements. Good learners, for the most part, are highly skilled in all the language behaviors that comprise what we call ‘inquiry’. For example, they know how to ask meaningful questions; they are persistent in examining their own assumptions; they use definitions and metaphors as instruments for their thinking and are rarely trapped by their own language; they are apt to be cautious and precise in asking generalizations, and they engage continually in verifying what they believe; they an careful observers and seen to recognize that language tends to obscure differences and control perceptions.” p. 30

In this little book of less than 200 pages, Postman and Charles Weingartner referred to questions over 60 times! They explained how simple black and white questions foster a mindset of compliance and conformity that does not represent much of real life. They argued for asking and inviting learners to move from convergent to divergent questions. As a result, they wrote about the “inquiry teacher” in this way,

“His basic mode of discourse with students is questioning. While he uses both convergent and divergent questions, he regards the latter as the more important tool. He emphatically does not view questions as a means of seducing students into parroting the text or syllabus; rather, he sees questions as instruments to open engaged minds to unsuspected possibilities.” p. 32

I remember reading this book and later looking at the front matter, noticing that it was published in 1971, the year I was born. I liked to think of that as more than a coincidence. My professional life is not one that perfectly reflects the philosophy that Postman and Charles Weingartner describe in the text. Mine is more paradoxical. I continue to the be drawn a the philosophy of education that values creativity, curiosity, inquiry, experimentation and exploration. It shows up in my work around self-directed learning and project-based learning. It is evident in my writing about self-blended learning, unschooling, informal learning, human agency and alternative education. It informs my desire to explore alternatives to letter grades, standardized tests, and industrial age attributes of our system. And much of it started with Bloom’s taxonomy, a way of categorizing knowledge that is largely unsupported by solid research and increasingly questioned as a valid and useful tool in education. Yet, for me, it was a means to explore a new way of thinking about teaching and learning.