Navigating Education

I almost never go back to the things I highlight on my Kindle.

So a mini-holiday project was to stop me being quite such a knowledge tourist. I’ve built a little tool to make it easier to export, browse and actually think about my Kindle highlights.At the moment it’s set up to randomly send me a highlight by email every day and am kind of enjoying that.

Today’s quote was from Wade Davis’s wonderful book, “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in Today’s World”.

And it made me think about how we use feedback as teachers, the quantitative and the qualitative, and balancing a focus on the particular with a focus on the whole.

Expert navigators like Mau, sitting alone in the darkness of the hull of a canoe, can sense and distinguish as many as five distinct swells moving through the vessel at any given time. Local wave action is chaotic and disruptive. But the distant swells are consistent, deep and resonant pulses that move across the ocean from one star house to another, 180 degrees away, and thus can be used as yet another means of orienting the vessel in time and space. Should the canoe shift course in the middle of the night, the navigator will know, simply from the change of the pitch and roll of the waves. Even more remarkable is the navigator’s ability to pull islands out of the sea. The truly great navigators such as Mau can identify the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of the canoe, knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its own refractive pattern that can be read with the same ease with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint.

All of this is extraordinary, each one of these individual skills and intuitions a sign of a certain brilliance. But as we isolate, deconstruct, even celebrate these specific intellectual and observational gifts, we run the risk of missing the entire point, for the genius of Polynesian navigation lies not in the particular but in the whole, the manner in which all of these points of information come together in the mind of the wayfinder. It is one thing, for example, to measure the speed of the Hokule’a with a simple calculation: the time a bit of foam or flotsam, or perhaps a mere bubble, takes to pass the known length separating the crossbeams of the canoe. Three seconds and the speed will be 8.5 knots; fifteen seconds and the vessel slogs at a mere 1.5 knots. But it is quite another to make such calculations continually, day and night, while also taking the measure of stars breaking the horizon, winds shifting both in speed and direction, swells moving through the canoe, clouds and waves. The science and art of navigation is holistic. The navigator must process an endless flow of data, intuitions and insights derived from observation and the dynamic rhythms and interactions of wind, waves, clouds, stars, sun, moon, the flight of birds, a bed of kelp, the glow of phosphorescence on a shallow reef — in short, the constantly changing world of weather and the sea.

What is even more astonishing is that the entire science of wayfinding is based on dead reckoning. You only know where you are by knowing precisely where you have been and how you got to where you are. One’s position at any one time is determined solely on the basis of distance and direction travelled since leaving the last known point. “You don’t look up at the stars and know where you are,” Nainoa told me, “you need to know where you have come from by memorizing from where you sailed.”

There’s a rich metaphor in there somewhere.

[If you want some more snippets, the rest of the highlights I made from the book are here: The Wayfinders – Wade Davis. The image is from Elizabeth Lindsey’s National Geographic series]


Delivery mechanisms for values

Two interesting things I’ve seen recently have got me thinking.

The first was Mark Slouka’s comment that

The humanities, done right, are the crucible within which our evolving notions of what it means to be fully human are put to the test; they teach us, incrementally, endlessly, not what to do but how to be…. They are thus, inescapably, political. Why? Because they complicate our vision, pull our most cherished notions out by the roots, flay our pieties. Because they grow uncertainty. Because they expand the reach of our understanding (and therefore our compassion), even as they force us to draw and redraw the borders of tolerance. Because out of all this work of self-building might emerge an individual capable of humility in the face of complexity; an individual formed through questioning and therefore unlikely to cede that right; an individual resistant to coercion, to manipulation and demagoguery in all their forms. The humanities, in short, are a superb delivery mechanism for what we might call democratic values. There is no better that I am aware of.  This, I would submit, is value-and cheap at the price.

The second was Lee Bryant’s fascinating talk about instiutions as delivery mechanisms for our values.

  • Humanities are a great delivery model for democratic values
  • Institutions act as delivery models for our values

Given that, doesn’t it make sense to keep the humanities in schools and for organisations to actively encourage that? If institutions are actively looking to act as stewards for values, then should they be trying to encourage the humanities in education as well as STEM and the like?

Even idleness is eager now

From George Eliot’s Adam Bede [via the brilliant Brain Pickings]

Surely all other leisure is hurry compared with a sunny walk through the fields from “afternoon church”… Ingenious philosophers tell you, perhaps, that the great work of the steam-engine is to create leisure for mankind. Do not believe them: it only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in. Even idleness is eager now — eager for amusement; prone to excursion-trains, art museums, periodical literature, and exciting novels; prone even to scientific theorizing and cursory peeps through microscopes. Old Leisure was quite a different personage. He only read one newspaper, innocent of leaders, and was free from that periodicity of sensations which we call post-time. He was a contemplative, rather stout gentleman, of excellent digestion; of quiet perceptions, undiseased by hypothesis; happy in his inability to know the causes of things, preferring the things themselves. He lived chiefly in the country, among pleasant seats and homesteads, and was fond of sauntering by the fruit-tree wall and scenting the apricots when they were warmed by the morning sunshine, or of sheltering himself under the orchard boughs at noon, when the summer pears were falling. He knew nothing of weekday services, and thought none the worse of the Sunday sermon if it allowed him to sleep from the text to the blessing; liking the afternoon service best, because the prayers were the shortest, and not ashamed to say so; for he had an easy, jolly conscience, broad-backed like himself, and able to carry a great deal of beer or port-wine, not being made squeamish by doubts and qualms and lofty aspirations. Life was not a task to him, but a sinecure…

The Dynamo and the Social

Thought this was an interesting piece at Slate based on Paul David’s paper. There are some obvious parallels with personal or mobile computing and education and the difficulties we have with using it well.

“Electric light bulbs were available by 1879, and there were generating stations in New York and London by 1881. Yet a thoughtful observer in 1900 would have found little evidence that the “electricity revolution” was making business more efficient.

Steam-powered manufacturing had linked an entire production line to a single huge steam engine. As a result, factories were stacked on many floors around the central engine, with drive belts all running at the same speed. The flow of work around the factory was governed by the need to put certain machines close to the steam engine, rather than the logic of moving the product from one machine to the next. When electric dynamos were first introduced, the steam engine would be ripped out and the dynamo would replace it. Productivity barely improved.

Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will. The improvements weren’t just architectural but social: Once the technology allowed workers to make more decisions, they needed more training and different contracts to encourage them to take responsibility.

Last year’s OECD report was one of many to suggest that it might, just might, be a little more complicated than putting more computers in classrooms. I do wonder whether, at some level, the school as an organisation will have to undergo a similar redesign to make the most of our new dynamos.

The most important thing is insight

Another one less than enamoured with talent. William Faulkner in a Press conference, University of Virginia, May 20, 1957. (The audio is here)

“At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.”

Beware of Artists & Things You Want to be True

Just came across a nice quote via Euan on Facebook. It was attributed to the McCarthy era.

“Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous”

Alongside taking exercise and eating healthily, one of the things I keep trying to do more of, not always successfully, is check the sources of things like this. I instinctively like it, and, probably too often, take it as a given that it is true. Partly thanks to the wise advice of Euan and others, I’m getting better at catching myself before I swallow these sorts of tasty quotes whole.

Thanks to all Julian’s hard work , I found out the full quote was actually from a letter from Leopold 1 of Belgium to his niece, Queen Victoria.

“To hop to escape censure and calumny is next to impossible, but whatever is considered by the enemy as a fit subject for attack is better modified or avoided. The dealings with artists, for instance, require great prudence; they are acquainted with all classes of society, and for that very reason dangerous; they are hardly ever satisfied, and when you have too much to do with them, you are sure to have des ennuis.
…Your devoted Uncle, Leopold R. “

So yes, it’s a similar quote, but I like the add-on of the ennui at the end. I’m somehow happier buying in to the idea of artist as classless dangerous hero with the health-warning of “may become self-congratulatory self-publicist”.