Raising a World Builder

04 Feb 2024

A recent comment I made on the current state of education in the humanities on LinkedIn drew a fair amount of attention. I’m not linking to that comment here as it was of a moment, but there are some things I have observed based both on being a parent of a particular kind of thinker as well as documenting similar kinds of thinkers out in the world. I call them world builders here, but they might also be called immersive thinkers.


In the car one morning on the way to her school I commented to my daughter that the rain had made driving a bit more difficult than usual and that I would have to make sure to keep two hands on the wheel. It was, for me in that moment, simply a metonym for paying attention, and, I confess, a way of letting my daughter know that her dad may not be paying as close attention to our conversation as we both often enjoyed. Over the years of a morning commute that got her to school and me to work, we had enjoyed a wide variety of conversations, which sometimes ran sufficiently wild, especially at her end, that I had to remind her, as a way of reminding myself, that driving was the higher priority.

A little too often my reminders came out more as a chides, which I always regretted. As was often (thankfully) the case, my daughter performed some conversational judo on it by responding, “What if you had three hands?” Her first thought was that I could drive and wave to drivers nearby, but quickly she spun the idea out into a variety of possibilities before settling down into playing a variety of instruments with three hands: there was a three-handed piano piece, then a three-handed guitar melody, and then a three-handed trumpet call. The sounds grew wilder, weirder and her laughter built from giggles to squeals.

Her first move displayed the power of divergent thinking, something which has been explored quite a bit over the past few decades in creativity studies, but her next move was to dwell in a particular domain, to immerse herself in a world, and to play with the possibilities there. For the time being, I would like to call that immersive thinking. It is surely related to that kind of thinking that we sometimes call rich mode or right brain thinking in a way that I want to spend more time thinking about — and to which I am open to suggestions![*]

World-building was, and is, like a reflex action for my daughter. From the time she could speak, she spun out stories. She usually enacted the stories, dramatizing them with props and costuming if she was a character or animating a wide variety of objects, some of them more obviously meant for such use and others not. I can’t, for example, count the number of times objects at restaurant tables came to life and led complex social lives when adult conversation became uninteresting to her. My wife and I saw utensils be sisters, salt and pepper shakers be parents, and a tented napkin become a home.

It was, and is, an amazing thing to watch, but as many creative individuals know, such an ability does not come without its penalties. While her school labeled her a “deep creative,” it seemed largely a way of admitting they were unable to come up with a plan on how to make a space within which she could learn and grow to suit her own abilities and interests. Don’t get me wrong: she did well (enough) in school, but that’s largely because we worked hard at home for her to adapt to the regimen at school. And so she got high marks, but those marks were also regularly accompanied by comments from, well-meaning and really nice, teachers that she “did not pay attention” as well as she should, that she was “daydreamy” or that “sometimes she just phones it in.”

One could perhaps fault the teachers, but I rarely find individuals are the problem in these circumstances. More often a system is at work. In this case, I think it’s fair to blame a larger educational ideology that has come to rely upon standardized tests as one of its central metrics. In a moment that resembles the classical economics parables about unintended consequences, what we so many of us face, as parents in the paroxysms of our children or ourselves, is an entire educational system which many believe is headed precisely in the wrong direction for what looks like reasonable, well, reasons.

Indeed, an entire cluster of industries have arisen around the wobbling of the educational infrastructure in our country. The technorati favor two flavors that are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The first flavor is that articulated by Ken Robinson who argues that our schools are stuck in the industrial age, anxiously trying to turn out uniform widgets in a moment where standardization couldn’t be less useful – the assumption being that things are changing more quickly and more predictably than ever. I don’t subscribe fully to this latter notion, but it’s not hard to see that the current context for businesses favors only a few large incumbents with stability, but employment with those incumbents, as two decades of layoffs and jobs moving from one part of the world to another have provied, is not stable. In other words, institutions have stability, but only individuals at the top of those institutions get to enjoy the fruits of that stability.

Outside of those narrow mountaintop retreats, there’s a whole host of changes taking place as industries transform in the face of an amazing amount of computing power. My own industry, higher education, is facing such a transition, but think about even the way manufacturing is changing as building components becomes less about removing metal by mill and lathe work or stamping and cutting but more about “printing” them by building up a part molecule by molecule. Suddenly, economies of scale matter less and sheer imagination matters more. (Well, you’ll still need quite a bit of capital to have such a “printer” at your disposal, but that’s a return to a history we have seen already – i.e., the original printing press!)

What to do with our little geek, our world builder?

Here’s the short of it: our daughter was a geek. She had all the classic geek traits: she prefered to be fully immersed in a problem or project or world and she oscillated between wanting external affirmation for her accomplishments and not caring what others think. Most geeks I know are like this. Many of them truly believe they don’t need anyone’s approval, and for a few of them that may very well be true. I also know, speaking as a geek (I think) myself, that, yes, sometimes a nod from someone you respect is not only all you need, but it is something you really want.

A lot of curricula which have high geek probabilities have switched to more project-oriented pedagogies. We are seeing more of it engineering, and it has always been a prominent part of architecture. But what to do with our geeks, our world builders in other domains? How do we re-rig systems at least to allow them to think the way they think?

An example from her experience:

For a time, our daughter was in the school choir. Every year the choir put on a musical. One year it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; another it was The Wizard of Oz. Every year students auditioned for a role in the play. Now, how do you suppose those auditions took place? Did it come after a watching the film version or reading all or parts of the book? Did it come after listening to some of the story’s most famous passages and songs? That is, did it allow an immersive thinker an opportunity to do what they do best, get inside a world and look around, elaborate it, play with it? No, the auditions were songs from some place else, handed out the week or so before the auditions. Students were told to practice the songs, do their best, and decisions would get made.

Now, that approach works if a student is procedurally-driven and understands the necessity, or already desires, adult approval. It doesn’t work at all for the student that needs to live and breathe inside a thing, to get a sense of it, to find their excitement there.

Fundamentally, this comes down to the difference between teachers as the center of a curriculum and students at the center. As a teacher myself, I know I can’t be all things to all students, and in a post to follow, I want to think more about how education might be made better for more kinds of learners than it currently is. In fact, I worry about one recent trend in particular: the rise of the master teacher and what that means for learning differences — here, learning differences are meant much more broadly than they are in the education industry.

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