Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Is Our Room the Room Where it Happens?

"If you want to build a ship...teach [people] to yearn for the vast and endless sea." 
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

There was a joke I used to hear quite often, growing up. In the joke, a Jewish synagogue (Reform, like the one I went to) is plagued by an infestation of rats, and the congregation can’t seem to get rid of the pests, no matter what they do. They try poison, they try traps, they try sonar, they try cats—nothing. Finally, the rabbi comes to president of the congregation and says he can help. He stands in the middle of the sanctuary, raises his arms in benediction, and utters some prayers in Hebrew. Then he turns to head back to his office. “Wait a minute!” the president says. “That’s it? What did you do?”  “I gave the rats a Bar Mitzvah,” the rabbi said. “You’ll never see them in here again.”

The joke definitely rang true for my generation. Once we had gone through the obligatory lessons and delivered our obligatory prayers and speeches, most of us had no desire to hang around for…whatever. There didn’t seem to be anything worth hanging around for. We had learned all there was to learn, and most of it held little meaning or relevance to us. It was dumb. It was kid-stuff. We were over it.

Of course, we didn’t know what we didn’t know—a cognitive lapse that now has a name to help us define and describe it: the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The effect explains why the least knowledgeable and least competent among us are often the most confident: we simply don’t know any better. With limited horizons, we think we can see the ends of the earth. And we are wrong.
Fortunately, in my generation of suburban, assimilated Jews, many of us made our way back to temple, or at least to a library, and discovered that there was far more to our history, our culture, and our faith than what we were taught as children. And the same is true of many people who find the core subjects they study in high school and college to be a snooze, but who wind up, in their 30s and 40s, as history buffs or passionate readers of Neil Degrasse Tyson. It’s a version of the quote attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Mark Twain:

When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.

What informs the joke is precisely the Dunning-Kruger Effect. What it’s really saying is: when I was a boy of 14, I was a bloody genius. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how little I knew.
The more we learn, the more we understand that there’s more to learn. Unfortunately, (though I hate to disagree with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry), you can’t really teach people to “yearn for the vast and endless sea” if they aren’t aware there is a vast and endless sea. You can’t make people hungry for something they don’t know exists. If you don’t keep learning, you’ll be just as convinced of your brilliance at 21, 31, and 41 as you were at 14.

What does this mean for us as educators? It’s hard enough to get students to grasp the academic content we’re cramming into our curriculum. There is so much to teach, so much to learn, so much to do, and there’s never enough time. What’s missing, I think, and what we need, isn’t more stuff to teach. It’s an awareness in our students of how much else is out there, how much we’re not going to teach them today. Senior year—of high school or college—isn’t supposed to be the end of your education, with a sharp break between Learning (what you’re done with) and Doing (the series of jobs you’re about to start); it’s supposed to be the end of your introduction to the great, wide world, and the beginning of an adult life of exploration and discovery. Our students need to know that what we’re bringing them is just a drop in the bucket.

How do we let them know that? Well, first of all, we have to know it. We have to know and love our subject matter far beyond the limits of what’s in the textbook or the curriculum map. We have to know how what’s in the course connects to what’s outside the course, so that we can make hints and references to the Great Beyond all the time. We have to tantalize our students with the richness and depth and breadth of what’s out there. Instead of apologizing for having to teach them so much (whether we do so out loud or just in our minds), we need to be apologizing for teaching them so little of what there actually is to know. We have to bring bits and pieces of grown-up level knowledge to their attention, even it’s a little above their heads—whether it’s piece of a Brian Greene video on wormholes or string theory, or a few pages from Stephen Jay Gould’s exposé of how racism infected 19th century science; whether it’s a scene from Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, or a scene from Ken Burn’s epic series on the Civil War.

We err grievously by dumbing-down academic content for our students and pre-chewing their food for them. The simpler, more straightforward, more black-and-white we make our material, the less valuable, interesting, and intriguing it becomes to students, and the less compelled they feel to engage with it within the classroom, much less beyond it. Yes, we need to teach them the basics, the fundamentals, the core skills. Yes, they need to walk before they can run. But we also, from time to time, need to dazzle them—awe them—blow their minds—with a true picture of what lies beyond the ABCs and 123s, so that they get a sense of what running feels like—so that they know what’s worth running towards.

The world is built to support self-service learning in such profoundly different ways than I grew up with. Whole universes are out there, in the cloud, for the taking. It’s our job to point at things they haven’t seen yet—things that are strange, perplexing, confusing, amazing—and say “LOOK!”