Raising a World Builder

In the car this morning on the way to 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 enjoy. We have, over the years of our morning commute that gets her to school and me to work, enjoyed a wide variety of conversations, and sometimes they run sufficiently wild, especially at her end, that I have to remind her, as a way of reminding myself, that driving is the highest priority.

A little too often my reminder really comes out more as a chide, which I always regret, unless of course she simply performs some conversational judo on it, which she did, 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, but I am not sure how.1

World-building is like a reflex action for my daughter. From the time she could speak, she spun out stories. She usually enacts the stories, dramatizing them with props and costuming if she is 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 have come to life and led complex, social lives when adult conversation became uninteresting to her. My wife and I have seen utensils be sisters, salt and pepper shakers be parents, and a tented napkin become a home.

It’s an amazing thing to watch, but as many creative individuals know, such an ability does not come without its penalties. While her school has labeled her a “deep creative,” they really have been unable to come up with a plan on how to make a space within which she can learn and grow to suit her own abilities and interests. Don’t get me wrong: she does well in school, but that’s largely because we have lobbied hard at home for her to adapt to the regimen at school. And so she gets high marks but those marks are regularly accompanied by comments from, well-meaning and really nice, teachers that she does not pay attention as well as she should, that she is “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 are facing as parents, as the paroxysms of our own child, 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!)

We are, we thought, paying the difference between a public school education with two dozen kids in a classroom and a private school education with only a dozen kids in a classroom as a way of giving our daughter’s particular abilities, and inabilities, greater attention. She needs to adjust to the conventions of the world, but as the world itself seeks to explore differences more for the value those differences contribute, we think there is also a place for her differences within any given curriculum. (More on this difference between a teacher-centered and a student-centered pedagogy another time.)

Here’s the short of it: our daughter is a geek.

She has all the classic geek traits: she prefers to be fully immersed in a problem or project or world and she oscillates 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. I’m less sure of it in the sciences, but the sciences have always had really cool laboratories and other kinds of experiences at the upper levels — plus their upper-level ranks thin out and they can spend more time one-on-one with the students. (Some of it comes down to self-selection: people often find the curricula which suits their own learning preferences. More on this later, too.)

But what to do with our little geek, our world builder?

She wants to do well, but she can’t when the system is rigged to work against the way she thinks, the way she processes information. Let me give an example from recent experience — and it’s not to pick on any one teacher — but it grabbed my imagination and I think it provides a useful contrast:

Our daughter is in the school choir. Every year the choir puts on a musical — last year it was_Charlie and the Chocolate Factory_; this year it is The Wizard of Oz. Every year students have to audition for a role in the play. Now, how do you suppose that audition takes place? Does it come after a few weeks of watching the film version or reading all or parts of the book? Does it come after listening to some of the story’s most famous passages and songs? That is, does 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 are songs from some place else, handed out the week or so before the auditions. Students are told to practice the songs, do their best, and decisions will 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.

  1. The classical conception of the different ways the brain works are that it possesses primarily two modes of operating, linear and rich. The linear mode, popularly known as left brain, works well with language and other sequential kinds of processing. The rich mode, aka the right brain, processes information through patterns. We think of it as intuitive, that years upon years of experience and practice have so layered any sequence with so much richness that it feels somehow magical when we can discern dozens and hundreds of possible steps and can calculate what the best possible next step is based upon those layers. That is, intuition seems to be an example of the two modes operating really well together. 

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