An Epidemic of Listicles

I like this excerpt from Krista Tippett’s interview with Maria Popova, curator of the wonderful Brain Pickings [Thanks to the Centre for Teaching]

Culture needs stewardship, not disruption.

We seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. And there’s this epidemic of listicles. Why think about what constitutes a great work of art when you can skim the “20 Most Expensive Paintings in History?”  … there’s a really beautiful commencement address that Adrienne Rich gave in 1977 in which she said that an education is not something that you get but something that you claim.

And I think that’s very much true of knowledge itself. The reason we’re so increasingly intolerant of long articles and why we skim them, why we skip forward even in a short video that reduces a 300-page book into a three-minute animation — even in that we skip forward — is that we’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. I mean, the true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we should have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. And the only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else. It’s just time. There is no shortcut for the conquest of meaning. And ultimately, it is meaning that we seek to give to our lives. 

Gentling

Bonnie explains that there are two basic ways of taming a wild horse. One is to tie it up and freak it out. Shake paper bags, rattle cans, drive it crazy until it submits to any noise. Make it endure the humiliation of being controlled by a rope and pole. Once it is partially submissive, you tack the horse, get on top, spur it, show it who’s boss—the horse fights, bucks, twists, turns, runs, but there is no escape. Finally the beast drops to its knees and submits to being domesticated. The horse goes through pain, rage, frustration, exhaustion, to near death . . . then it finally yields. This is the method some like to call shock and awe.

Then there is the way of the horse whisperers. My mother explains, “When the horse is very young, a foal, we gentle it. The horse is always handled. You pet it, feed it, groom it, stroke it, it gets used to you, likes you. You get on it and there is no fight, nothing to fight.” So you guide the horse toward doing what you want to do because he wants to do it. You synchronize desires, speak the same language. You don’t break the horse’s spirit.

My mom goes on: “If you walk straight toward a horse, it will look at you and probably run away. You don’t have to oppose the horse in that way. Approach indirectly, without confrontation. Even an adult horse can be gentled. Handle him nicely, make your intention the horse’s intention. “Then, when riding, both you and the horse want to maintain the harmony you have established. If you want to move to the right, you move to the right and so the horse naturally moves right to balance your weight.” Rider and animal feel like one. They have established a bond that neither wants to disrupt. And most critically, in this relationship between man and beast, the horse has not been whitewashed. When trained, he will bring his unique character to the table. The gorgeous, vibrant spirit is still flowing in an animal that used to run the plains.

Source: The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence by Josh Waitzkin

Gramsci’s “Optimism of the Will”

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Isn’t it pointless to fight back? Antonio Gramsci, the Italian political writer jailed by Mussolini’s Fascist regime, believed in “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.” In other words, you can know your clapboard house is on fire, and you’re a long way from civilization. But you have to call 911, get out your garden hose and bucket, and keep acting as if the firetrucks are on the way.

Washington Post

A Little Game for Roald Dahl Day

I’ve rejigged a little adjective game I made so that it can be used for Roald Dahl Day.

It’s pretty straightforward:

  1. Load this webpage:  fantasticadjectives
  2. Read the text with the class
  3. Ask them to add their favourite adjectives in the boxes below
  4. Click “Fox It Up”
  5. And reread.

Happy to make some more if people like them.

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.”