July 6, 2014
Vocational Traditions and German Crafts-Based Education

I learned something about the US while reading an article about Jurgen Klinsmann:

"{He} lived with his parents in an apartment above the family bakery in Botnang, a suburban district in Stuttgart, Germany. In the early ’80s, just as his professional soccer career was getting underway, he worked as an apprentice, learning the family trade, weighing the flour, portioning the dough, kneading. By the time he made his Bundesliga debut for VfB Stuttgart, he was already a certified journeyman baker…

The German educational system isn’t designed to funnel as many people as possible into the universities, but rather to place the country’s youth into apprenticeships called Ausbuildungs (a system Obama has talked about replicating in the United States). As a result, the country is full of craftspeople: masons, electricians, cobblers, bakers. Craftsmanship and skill mastery are central to the German ideal. Klinsmann Bäckerei isn’t just about humble origins; it isn’t part of a cute narrative built around the seeming absurdity of baking as a backup plan. It’s about what Klinsmann has in common with regular Germans. The bakery is a symbol of Jürgen Klinsmann, craftsman.”

This is interesting - I had no idea this program existed.  It’s true, by the way, from what I’ve seen.  Germany takes its crafts tradition quite seriously, and you can see plenty of these journeymen carpenters, wearing traditional guild clothing, emigrating through the country in search of work.  From what I was told, it’s a sort of “walkabout” every guildsman must take for at least one year, traveling about and working small jobs.  

I’d love to see something that like in our own education system.  I felt we had the most buy-in from the kids when they were exposed to genuine workplaces, but we never took it to the level of having kids work genuine internships.  But the German system goes deeper.  Not every kid is tracked to a liberal arts or engineering college.  You learn a basic education suitable to being a self-aware, capable citizen, and then you go into your career (what we dismiss as “vocational ed.”)

Of course, like most educational reform in the US, this appears to be lip-service.  Here’s a critique

Obama also mentioned a previously announced plan to spur innovation among high schools. “We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career,” Obama said, according to prepared remarks. According to a fact sheet circulated by the White House, winners will be announced this year.

Obama first announced the competition in his 2013 State of the Union address.Early plans gave the competition $300 million to split between school districts that outlined visions to overhaul their high schools to make them more relevant to 21st century graduates. But the program ultimately launched in November, called “Youth CareerConnect,” was downgraded to $100 million, funded by Department of Labor discretionary funds.

In promoting the competition, the administration has highlighted nontraditional high schools that offer technical alternatives to standard academic fare. Obama highlighted career education most recently with a visit to New York’s Pathways in Early Technology Early College High School, a public school run in partnership with IBM that aims to let students graduate with an associate’s degree. Obama called the school outstanding, and advocated fully funding federal vocational education programs.

But many have criticized the administration for discovering vocational education too late. “It doesn’t really fit with their emphasis,” Anthony Carnevale, a Georgetown University professor whose research Duncan often cites, previously told HuffPost. “What we have so far is an endorsement of an idea and the best practices, but so far there’s no money behind it.”

June 11, 2014
blog post on entrepreneurship published!

Whoopee!  My rundown on the power of entrepreneurship to transform classrooms.  You can read my brilliance here on Edutopia.

June 5, 2014
A conversation with artists about education

Now that my time in Germany is winding down, I was asked to present my educational work to the Arts Fellows.  However, I wanted not to simply present my work, but to open up a dialogue to discuss what other approaches I could be using in the classroom. If you have been reading my blog, you will know that I have been concerned with ways to increase student creativity via artistic thinking.  I thought that this was a perfect opportunity to gain more insight (and especially to test whether I had any understanding of what an artist does.) 

I showed the example of our aqua-ponics project, as I thought it was perhaps the most effective thing we did.  I ended though by stressing how the engineering design process had more or less created a convergence among the students projects. That is, all of their designs more or less seemed the same due to the constraints and the criteria of the project itself. In other words, the end, which was the aqua-ponics tank, dictated all aspects of the process and even the nature of success.  I pointed out that we were able to teach the students how to collaborate effectively how to communicate confidently and how to be critically analytic about their work and the work of their peers. The challenge yet remaining was the final component that we were hoping for - creativity.

I discussed a quote by Elliot Eisner as a way of summarizing a conversation about artistic thinking I had with an architect here at the program back in November:  

“In the arts, ends may follow means.  One may act in the act may itself suggest ends, ends that did not see the act, but follow. In this process ends shift; the work yields clues that one pursues. In a sense, one surrenders to what the working process suggests… Uncertainty needs to have its proper place in the kinds of schools we create.  How can the pursuit of surprised be promoted in a classroom?”

The architect had mentioned that while engineers often began with the end in mind and work towards that end as closely as they could - success being based on the degree to which the product fulfills the engineer’s goals - artists often spent the majority of their process just trying to understand the goal.  (How’s that for mind-roastingness?)  Any products arising from the exploration were merely stages along that process.  Someone’s art was not the final stage, but merely the means to continue that exploration.

I then asked the assembled artists to discuss three questions.  First, to think about what tools or abilities and artist needs to be created. Second, whether they learned those tools or abilities in high school. Third, how schools could be better organized or changed to facilitate the growth of those artistic skills and abilities.  I include their answers below.

What is thinking artistically

  • It isn’t necessarily logical - not jumping from one point to the next connected one.  connections can be discontinuous (ie - make a conversation between a person’s notebook and her glasses)
  • It’s having desires and fantasies
  • Your mental toolbox is whatever you are interested in.  You figure out your interests by making things
  • It’s being intuitive, risk-taking, questioning everything, thinking and reflecting
  • It’s being able to follow a tiny lead to something else
  • The idea of “discovery” is important
  • A lot of repetition
  • Deconstruction
  • To understand why one is choosing an object to work with.

Was there a moment when school taught you that?

  • Depends on who your art teacher was
  • I had a teacher who made you question things - no yes/no answers
  • Alternative methods of presentation, such as a video installation
  • A teacher once asked, “Please draw me a beautiful picture” without any other instructions
  • I was encouraged to become an artist - a lot of positive affirmation
  • For me, it was an experimental dance class
  • We had a self-organized group of students who met independently to create art
  • None - nothing project-based, nothing open-ended, nothing artistic
  • Getting direction because someone noticed what you did artistically

How to make school more likely to accomplish that?

  • Support students’ explorations of their own interests and fantasies.  Allow “non-scholarly” interests.  Have the class follow a student’s interest (not the teachers?)
  • A teacher who can give everyone attention, nurture them, encourage them
  • Have interdisciplinary conversations.  And within disciplines, question the form- ie, how history is taught, not just focusing on historical details
  • Understand that every question is valid
  • Telling stories, but especially about failure (and continuing on?)
  • Allowing non-linear paths to solutions.  There are no right or simple answers
  • Have more self-directed study and a looser curriculum
  • The teacher doesn’t have to know everything 
  • Create a safe environment.  Establish a room or space that functions differently from the rest of the school.  Develop respect within/among the students.
  • Break apart the traditional roles of students and teachers, have them work together or so non-scholarly activities together.  Get teachers to discuss their own interests and hopes.
  • Develop the curriculum together with the students
  • Don’t occupy every moment with activities — allow for “incidentality”
  • Teachers should be willing to learn from students

If there is any commonality in these responses it’s that thinking artistically is about following one’s own interests and desires, and being able to draw many different kinds of conclusions from the world around you. That may mean drawing connections between objects that are not normally connected in our minds, or otherwise reimagining the nature of relationships in the world. It’s heavily inquisitive of course, involving the asking of questions - but more importantly, questions that do not often have easy answers or even any answers.  So it seems to me, that the essential skill that students need to be successful in thinking creatively, is being comfortable existing “in the dark.”  It’s likely teenagers are already there, so imagine how comforting it might be if they knew we are all in that same space together, and it’s okay?

What’s striking is how often many of these artists have a moment in their high school experience that opened up the doors to being an artist for them. I was actually imagining that they would have much more negative memories of their education. That said, most of those positive experiences happened either in art classes - or even despite the school, as they were able to build like-minded communities of students to support each other outside the classroom.

I was also gratified to hear their comments regarding what schools can do now to better support artistic thinking. Many of the methods that they suggested are apparently features of project-based or challenge-based education. The importance of asking questions, the importance of working with the students own interests and passions, and the importance of working with students individually yet also setting up a culture or environment of mutual learning.  I agree with the artists that even the essential nature of each discipline should be open to question; this is an approach I use with my history class, as we discuss the inherent fictiveness of historical narratives, and whether the past itself can ever be known. 

Finally, I take heart in their insistence that the traditional relationships between teachers and students have to be rethought. I have been made more aware than ever in the past few New Year’s that the best way to model learning is for the teacher her or himself to be a learner, and for the the students to become teachers. But more than that, they are suggesting that the teacher and the student must work together to develop not just relationships, but the curriculum and classroom themselves. There was also hint in their responses that the classroom itself must be reimagined as a different kind of space. Not the traditional place of organization and discipline and work in the older sense of learning, but a space in which imagination, creativity can be allowed full reign.

Ultimately, what I take away from this conversation, is that artistic thinking does not have to occur solely within our classes, but can be common instead to any subject within the traditional curriculum.  One should as easily become an artist from algebra class as from an arts class. It is as much a matter of approach as it is of skill. 

Much of the experimentation my partners and I did over the last two years in our project-based program where things that we did because they made sense at the time, because they accorded with what we knew of brain science and learning, and often emerge from discussions we had with the students about what our next steps should be.

Recall, I had no training in teaching prior to becoming a teacher and certainly very little professional development regarding new and innovative teaching methods.  Instead, I drew on my own desires that I had when I was young in terms of how I wanted to learn and what I wanted to learn to guide me in shaping our program. What I have learned is to place those instincts at the forefront of my classroom, and to ensure that any classroom I create begins and ends with methodologies.

April 27, 2014
The child knows, what the Teacher must recover

He oft reiterated his bold declaration, from Out of the Mouths of Babes, to the effect that, The child knows, what the Teacher must recover. For the old way of rote-teaching must be banish’d; and all old textbooks, crammed with dead, spiritless facts; and, as well, all teachers who clung to the old ways and did not truly love both their charges, and Wisdom itself. John Quincy Zinn’s experimental class at the Brownrrigg Academy did not sit inertly in their seats, but moved freely about, and were encouraged by their teacher to participate in divers conversations, and to ask a good deal of questions. They studied poesy not by committing verse to memory, but by writing it; they became disciplined in the exacting art of perception, by drawing (with many comical, but surely instructive, results); they were encouraged to invent new words, and new ways of spelling old words—for our great English tongue, as John Quincy taught, is itself a massive machine, an invention of sorts, in which all must participate. They learned geography by applying themselves to actual mapmaking, and anatomy, by studying the skeletons of real animals. Mr. Zinn being a firm believer in manual labor and dexterity, it was necessary that his young charges—girls no less than boys—acquire the use of hammers, saws, files, and planes, and other homely instruments, scorned by the genteel classes. Singly, or in small teams, these amazing children worked on their own machines, and experimented with weights and measurements, and pulleys, and wheels, and water, and fire, and rapid changes of temperature, and direct and indirect sunlight, and the relative buoyancy of feathers, pebbles, blocks of wood, grass, snow, and nails. They designed dirigibles, and submarines, and ideal dwelling places, and model cities. For Invention, Mr. Zinn taught, is at the very heart of the Universe, and the especial secret of our great Nation, yet but dimly understood by the rest of the world.”

—Joyce Carol Oates, A Bloodsmoor Romance

April 26, 2014
First step to my great media empire

November 18, 2013
Essential Questions, Design Theory, and a Project Idea

I’m coming closer to a sample project that will use artistic design as its organizing principle.  That is, I’m coming closer to an understanding of how the project I want to do has potential value as a teaching practice.  A couple of quick points:

the project should in some way require the kids to look more deeply at something they take for granted - something banal yet ubiquitous, and always overlooked

the project should in some way require kids to rethink what they think they know and reevaluate their stance towards that object and what it represents

the project should in some way lead to an exhibit that has the same function for the audience that they project did for them - it should be transformative

the project should also, educationally, tie in different disciplines and offer “real-world” applications for what they are learning

the project should provide the opportunity to practice good design

the project DOES NOT HAVE TO be the avenue to teach specific content according to standards - it can stand alone and be a tie-in, but does not have to direct all the learning

the project should not in fact be the real goal - the project is the means for the process.  The process shall in fact inform the goal of the project, if that makes sense.  The project should be flexible enough to change if need be, as the process is the place where enlightenment happens.

And now I think the project should also help the students develop essential questions that are more in line with their own interests.  I think of how hard we worked to develop our own essential questions that would inform the direction of the project, and how we then worked so hard to make the essential question relevant to the kids.  Perhaps we have it backwards - perhaps we lay out the challenge and the project itself is the means by which the essential question becomes clear to the students?  This may be a way to teach the kids how to develop their own questions and devise the means to investigate them - within the framework of the challenge.

What is the challenge?

to see if they can make this from scratch:


Can they make all the components of a Happy Meal in the same way Thomas Thwaites built his toaster?

Logistically, this would entail breaking down the Happy Meal to its constituent parts, and then figuring out how to assemble the ingredients.  At first I thought it would involve growing the veg, making the cheese and ice cream, and then perhaps just visiting a few cows and visiting the killing floor (rather than having to procure their own meat.)  But Thwaites suggested they even make the box/wrapping and the toy.  And the soda component raises questions as well.

But in terms of the larger goal of the project, the essential questions that would arise from that investigation are seemingly endless - whether questioning industrial versus small farming, our relationship to the animals we eat, international trade and economies of scale, working conditions in the fast food industry, questions about diet and health…  And one would think the exhibit would center on those essential questions (the burger bit is really about showmanship, isn’t it?) and requiring the audience to consider their own feelings about those questions.  Those questions would evolve from the project - from the process itself - which from what I’m learning is the basis of artistic inquiry.  

The point is, I not only have an idea for the project, but a rationale for it, and my goal for the next six months would be to explore a version of this for myself - to try it out before I ever assigned it.

November 4, 2013
Conversation with Thomas Thwaites

Thomas Thwaites (see below)…

was kind enough to talk with me today regarding “critical design.”

As I have mentioned before, I am looking to design educational projects that are built around artistic thinking - based on a suspicion I have that the arts can help me teach the academic core subjects more effectively (more as they epistemologically operate.)  The question I have is:  what is the critical analysis that artistic thinking provides, or which is best taught through an artistic approach.  And does using art as my structure provide my students maximum creativity while still ensuring a thematic connection for the work they produce, regardless of how radically different their interests diverge?

I did not record our conversation, but wanted to relate the highlights while they are still fresh:

He began by taking a toaster apart to see what he needed to make.  IN general, the deconstruction at the beginning of the project is meant to provoke questions down to the minutest detail.  The more closely you look at something, no matter how familiar, the stranger it gets.  Really taking things apart leads to unfamiliarity.  The standard toaster becomes a wonder of engineering and holds multitudes of parts that seem to not only defy explanation, but which are aesthetically beautiful.  

However, beyond the engineering side, which examines the components to understand how they function, the artistic deconstructive process leads to questions on the human side - how do I engage with this?  What is its story?  How does it make me feel?  In essence, art concerns the human relationship to an object, not just an object’s relationship to itself.

The documentation along the way is the art - the story is the project.  The process is the goal.  It’s not about actually making the toaster, it’s following where the process of making the toaster takes you, and talking to people as you go.  Very enlightened!

The beauty of the conversations you have is that you sort of make the experts think more fundamentally about what they know.  By being an artist, you are talking to people from a different perspective - an outsider - which not only gives you access, but which can even make the experts reevaluate how they think.  Reading the book he published, you can hear the surprise in the experts’ voices when he asks them if he can borrow a pail of crude oil…  Again - good deconstruction leads to unfamiliarity, even for experts, who never have to question their basic assumptions.

We talked about the ways various disciplines entered into the project, making him think about things he hadn’t planned on ever having to think about…learning about metallurgy, for one, or considering the global economy.  A good project for the students would allow so many opportunities for a good derive, and would allow me to bridge the various disciplines in a practical way.

Finally, the exhibit is not just proudly showing your work - it is actually where the real conversation begins.  It gives people the space to think about things for themselves and leads to new actions and explorations.  The danger is in bludgeoning people over the head about how horrible is and how we all just need to change.  People will not change, not all at once and not in the way you want.  Work with people.  This is the beauty of critical design - it forces everyone to see things as suddenly unfamiliar, which is perhaps the purpose of art - to see things in new ways and rethink your relationship to them.  

My goal is to begin a deconstructive project to see what is involved, and then to bring that idea to the classroom next year.  I will use this or another blog to record that process.

October 31, 2013
on the value of making air jellyfish

Question:  What would a scaffolded, project-based curriculum look like that:

taught students how to engineer artifacts and exhibit them

and completely freed student imagination from teacher-direction

and which provoked an audience to see new complexity to the mundane?

GIven my leave of absence from the classroom, what I’m trying to do on this blog is clarify my thoughts about the role of the arts in curriculum design (rather than reflect on my work as a teacher.)

This new direction is a function of my being at an arts residency, and being surrounded by people who like having discussions about design and creativity.

I do feel there is an enormous value in having the artistic design process function as the basis for modern education, but I struggle in putting my primal feelings into an explanation as to why it should be so.  

I jotted down what I have come to learn are the foundational components of both the engineering and artistic design processes (the former from experience, and the latter from my conversations here) and then thought about the relationship between the two:


As it suggests, to me there are a number of fundamental similarities (the arrows,) but the differences lie in what is supposed to be accomplished, and its effect on an audience.

A lunchtime conversation with an architect/sculptor is helping my think more deeply about those differences.  We were discussing the image of the heroic inventor and the nature of craft as compared to what it means in Germany.  Among other things, craft and invention in America seem to be way less to show technical prowess so much as to show a different way to accomplish a construction, but in an eminently practical way, whereas German craft tradition is to show mastery over technique, but also to think about the role of culture w/r/t to the product you are creating. If that sounds vague, just think of the German beer regulations (the Reinheitsgebot, and the importance of these regulations for providing a sense of connection to German history for brewers and drinkers.)

What does this have to do with education?  The question really is, does having a predicated purpose for the projects we had the students construct take away from the other goal of project-based learning - the discovery of passion and the ability to express oneself?  Does requiring a project to have a practical end - the recognition that some need in the community exists and that the project can fill it - make what we do too prescriptive?  That was the basis of the engineering process we used:  sustainability is an issue in Hawai’i, so what can we make that would fill that need?  How do we square having such a teacher-directed approach with the belief that PBL maximizes student creativity and self-direction?

One argument in favor of that approach is that it grounds students in something real, something authentic, and then provides a structure for the creation of a physical product, which is the vehicle for so much of the reflective and analytical thought (the real purpose of PBL, to my mind.)  It also helps me, as the teacher, organize the kids’ thoughts and actions to the stated purpose.

Yet during the “google time” I offered the kids, so many of them turned naturally to the arts and creative design, whether it was learning coding, or designing the perfect soccer shoe - not necessarily the “find-a-practical-need-and-fill-it” purpose.  Whatever “purpose” they managed to come up with to justify their project was only a cover for what they really wanted to do, which was play with design and self-expression in a field they had a passion for.  This process is obviously harder to quantify or evaluate as it progressed, apart from - “have you met your goals for the day?”  Or to justify, apart from - “they are following their passions and developing them…”

This is sort of different from practicality or mastery - it is pure exploration for its own sake.  And this is interesting to me because my conversation partner suggested that so much of innovation has been accidental or secondary to the stated goal of the activity (an extreme example would be the discovery of the corn flake or vulcanized rubber.)  His concern was - does having a practical purpose for the project eliminate these happy accidents or detours?  Is this not the opposite of the artistic process, in which the detour may be all? 

And this is where I find something compelling in “critical design” - that the product at the end of the process of artistic creation is a chance for the creator to provoke the audience to a recognize an issue that most may not even realize exists (or which may in fact only exist within the artist) but which is fundamentally designed to alter one’s perception of the world.  This is one purpose of art, no - to make the viewer see things in a new way?  

Again, I think of the purpose of the exhibit in schools - to show student work, yes, but what can turn the exhibit from the thought “My, what nice work the students have made,” to “My, I never thought of that before, at least in that way, and I would like to know more?”  What work can students do - which still has deadlines, and peer critique, and multiple iterations, and exhibits - that promotes creativity and self-expression AND critical reflection and thought.  And which is just as deeply analytical and rigorous and imaginative as this stuff:

The notion that education serves an economic or social purpose irritates me - smacks of technocracy and civic engineering - so the claim that PBL is the best representation of what companies need is not the strongest draw for me.  I still like to think that education is meant to turn kids into happy adults, and if that also parlays itself into successful entrepreneurship, all the better.  I like the idea that critical design - making projects that both speak deeply to the student’s passions AND to a social issue that has meaning for the student, and which can provoke an audience in both the best and worst ways during the exhibit - captures what we all want to see in our students:

a lifelong commitment to learning

an engagement with the world

an aesthetic appreciation for beauty

the capacity for reflection, self-expression, and critical thought

Ultimately, what would a scaffolded curriculum look like that encouraged both practical project development and untethered imagination - and which provoked an audience to see new complexity to the mundane?

The Wife suggested democratic schools might give students the skills from an early age to see complexity in the mundane - which is its own form of rigor - and help them understand the gaps in our social behaviors, while teacher-directed community-based projects would give students the ability, in the younger grades, of having practical experience in designing and completing projects…

I am in the middle of designing a project for myself to carry out while I’m here that might provide an example of such work, and I hope to use this space to catalog my process… 

October 29, 2013
On education as a means for questioning assumptions…

I was just philosophizing with The Wife (an artist) and the conversation veered to the question of why we need plaques and guided audio tours in art museums.  And indeed, whether art needs to be experienced in context or purely by one’s senses.  I suggested that that may be a function of education - in which we rely on expertise and authority and measure our understanding by the degree to which what we experiences conforms with authority.  Is that genuine insight on my part?  Do I really understand what authority is telling me even if I can successfully use the terminology in conversation with another?

I’m reading David Graeber’s Debt, which is something I’d always meant to do but now find time for (since I’m living in a forest.)


I’ve only made it to page 40 at this point, but I’m deeply appreciative of the way he has managed to destroy one of the fundamental assumptions of economics - that capitalism and our attendant financial system were inevitable, and the practical result of no other past system working terribly well.

I’ve always had suspicions of economics as a field of study, no more so than when I was required to teach it.  It felt like a con, one in which I was complicit for teaching it.  This was especially true of the AP curriculum, which never allowed for a different theory apart from what might have been termed “neoliberal economics” to be explored, or for fundamental questions to be asked.  I was once accused by a parent of being a communist just because I had a copy of the Communist Manifesto in my room (I was teaching four sections of history along with my 2 econ classes.)

Graeber is mostly interested in why modern folks have an obsession with the paying of debts (as a way of exploring why the cancellation of private or 3rd World debts is a political non-starter.)  He treats us with the standard economic story that money systems emerged from the failures of the barter economy to successfully and/or efficiently meet people’s needs (you know - Bobby makes swords and Jane makes clothes, and they each require a mutual need for each other’s products …  imagine doing this at a supermarket today!)  The economists who write the textbooks however fail to note that barter systems never actually existed prior to the creation of money economies, and in fact only come into existence when money economies collapse.  Rather, older societies ran collective stockpiles of goods and accorded them out as necessities arose among the inhabitants.  Moreover, credit and debt preceded coins, which I knew from studying ancient history but had forgotten (the first cuneiform writing was invented just to keep track of who was giving what to the temple or palace.)

Ergo, modern economists imagine a society that was debilitated by the lack of economic theories in order to prove the value of economic theories.  A tautology, in other words.  A convenient fiction.  A false a priori assumption that may not invalidate modern economics as a field but definitely allows for more fundamental questions to be raised, and many more possibilities than heretofore allowed.

Which is what I have been arguing about here in this blog - that modern education closes off many avenues of potential inquiry in the name of streamlining what is allowed.  It is a topic I explored with my students when I taught Theory of Knowledge.  Clearly, one has to be begin with some valid assumptions, but what is allowed to be questionable and what is assumable is not really explored in any but a desultory fashion in schools.  And clearly, you cannot afford to constantly reinvent the wheel or you’d never have time to build on knowledge.

However, errors are also constantly reinforced and it takes a supreme moment of enlightenment to correct them, and another fifty years until new truths are established.  Kuhn wrote that it took a crisis in existing knowledge systems to allow new paradigms to arise.  That is held as a value added in science, in that no wacky ideas can be immediately embraced, but it might be destructive of innovation, as well.  Moreover, I have seen evidence that college graduates are no more educated as to why basic phenomena exists than second graders - their vocabulary is just more multi-syllabic.  Knowledge as religious dogma…

Perhaps the benefit of the artistic process of creation is that it requires students to look more closely at what they think they know and to come to new forms of knowledge than might be encouraged by the standard model.  Even more student-centered forms of education we see still only allow for results within a narrow range for acceptance:  

"In the Civil War, who was right - the North or the South?"  

This is even true in history, which is an almost entirely fictive enterprise given the impossibility of ever knowing the past.  And which makes the current vogue for predicting future success even more absurd and dangerous…


I am reminded also of The Chaneysville Incident, one of the more powerful novels I’ve read recently, in which an historian copes with the impossibility of ever really knowing his father’s past, and in which whites cope with the impossibility of ever really understanding Black society given its history in the US.  The narrator muses that while physicists threw out their old models in favor of a new theory that suggests that not only does the universe run on principles that confound our ability to understand it, just the act of looking at the universe changes it, historians still labor under the belief that the past is knowable from our basic methods.  Oh, the evidence we look at changes, but not the fundamental method of extracting knowledge from the evidence.

I am now musing on what an educational environment looks like that actively requires kids to investigate the veracity of what they receive as wisdom, and derive new truths as a matter of their own investigations.  I do not know what this might look like on a practical level, but it’s worth thinking about.  But I imagine the artistic process, which stresses clarity as the end result of practice, not the beginning, and which requires constant debate and peer/audience engagement along the way, as a means to that end…

Perhaps in the form of questions that don’t necessarily require you to reinvent all knowledge but to explore how you know what you know more exhaustively…

"Is the past knowable?  

Can you communicate successfully with another, or truly understand what someone else is trying telling you?” 

We have now a system in which the first stage of every new period of learning is completely controlled and mediated by authority, and in which the end stage is almost completely closed off to any debate - which is why large numbers of Americans freely disseminate and reify false understandings about the Constitution because they are NOT challenged.

Imagine an educational process that begins with almost no mediation but in which every stage after that is completely lived in the public sphere, open to contention and reformulation?

Or as I asked, “How often in life are you thrown into a room and told to make do with what you find and at the end of the day asked to account for what you think?”

Said The Wife:  ”Only in the artistic process.”

What might this look like in practice?  Three years ago I recounted what happened in a history class in which the students had to explain the meaning of a document without any interference from me, and in which consensus would decide that meaning.  I just didn’t push it far enough…

October 18, 2013
Quantum mechanics and childhood

One of my favorite things to do is to develop a half-baked understanding of a difficult problem in quantum physics and then misapply it to explain everyday things in my life.

I watched these two videos while eating an egg on toast this morning and strained the analogies presented to match my developing theory on arts and education.  Watch them if you dare:


The second video suggests that time is both a way to ensure free will (and explain - or cause? - entropy) and to create a way to measure experience.  Time increases disorder in the universe and ensures stability in the past.

Video one, in explaining the many worlds theory, suggests that infinite possibilities exist because of experience - in which quantum units come into contact with each other in the Environment/universe.  But what struck me is that subjectively, we as quantum mechanics experiences fewer options as time progresses because we are fixing systems by our experiences.  There may be infinite versions of ourselves experiencing the effects of all choices, but there is only the subjective me experiencing this one causal chain because of the series of choices I make.  It’s as though we narrow our world of possibilities rather than expanding them, in terms of our perception.

So, what can my misunderstanding of quantum physics possibly have to do with education?  As an exercise, consider the possibility that everything in the environment is mysterious to a child because a child knows nothing about it in order to understand it.  Empiricists suggest the purpose of play is to discover the rules by which the environment operates.  But what if the opposite is true - the child conforms to the environment because it encounters existing conceptions about it, not necessarily because of the nature of the environment as the child experiences it without foreknowledge.  

It’s almost like saying - gravity exists because kids are told it does, not necessarily because it makes sense given the way we interact with the world.  On an educational level, the child learns by accepting a version of reality that immediately precludes all other options.  In fact, knowledge is the willful surrender of all possible choices save one or two that are deemed correct.  yes, new discoveries are made all the time that change what is taught in school, but for the most part, those discoveries either confirm our existing world view or merely slightly change it so that it functions better.  Disbelieving that is termed “ignorance.”

Here’s a stupid analogy:  Children believe in monsters until such time they are told and then can confirm that they do not exist.  But what if monsters existed because children believed in them… until they didn’t any more, and then the monsters went away?  Does the act of accepting a version of reality harden that reality into being?

Educationally, does our empirical system of education preclude marvelous things from being discovered, or interpreted, because of its epistemology?  I do not mean to suggest that any interpretation of anything should be acceptable, but is there a way to question the systematic pursuit of knowledge in order to leave open multiple possibilities that we can’t predict, but which may be perfectly naturally for an un-indoctrinated mind to conceive or accept?

One aspect of the arts seems to be its ability to make us perceive the commonplace in new ways that shake our belief in what we know.  In other words, arts opens up the myriad possibilities that get closed by our epistemology.  Without running the risk that children may go through their lives believing that fire can’t hurt them because they haven’t been taught that will (damaging false knowledge,) could an arts-based curriculum actually change an Newtonian, content-based education in which the answers are predictable, into a more quantum-based and theoretical education in which play is more important, and uncertainty is the reward?

We call that “lateral,” or outside-the-box thinking.  The most creative and unexpected solution is not always the best, but if the goal is to expand the range of possibilities - and we call that “innovation” - it’s another argument in favor of building an educational curriculum around the arts, not the other way around.

I kind of like a world in which monsters may be hiding in the woods, myself…

5:20am  |   URL: http://tmblr.co/ZDDu9yxz4bAD
Filed under: arts education quantum 
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