Monday, May 18, 2020

"The Having of Wonderful Ideas"

A group of boys had organized themselves into a game of superheroes, including Batman, Ironman, the Hulk, Captain America, and Spiderman. A girl wanted to join them. They told her she could be Wonder Woman, but she didn't want to be Wonder Woman. "I don't like her. I want to be a different superhero."

"You have to be Wonder Woman. You're a girl."

"I know I'm a girl, but I don't want to be Wonder Woman."

"There aren't any other girl superheroes."

The boys seemed sympathetic. They seemed willing to include her in their game, but she wasn't accepting their superhero orthodoxy, so they stood around shrugging. The girl sat on the ground, head in hands, in a pose reminiscent of Rodin's statue The Thinker.

Learning is indistinguishable from thinking. I suppose that sounds trite, but it seems that many adults involved in education don't know this. In fact, much of what passes for curriculum in our schools seems designed to discourage thinking, focusing instead on prayer at the alter of "right answers." Coming up with right answers is not the product of thinking, but rather one of remembering, which isn't in itself a bad thing, but how can anyone ever remember anything new into the world? If right answers are the goal, then thinking just gets in the way. Or rather, it tends to lead one astray, toward answers that by definition are "wrong answers."

Many, if not most, of today's right answers were once wrong answers, discovered by poor students who chose thinking over passing the test.

I've been reflecting lately on educator Eleanor Duckworth's definition of learning as "the having of wonderful ideas." And one of the key characteristics of wonderful ideas is that they are neither right nor wrong, but rather simply wonderful in the mind's eye of the one doing the thinking. Wonderful ideas may turn out, in the end, to be poppycock, but that's beside the point. It's the wonderfulness that matters. It's the wonderfulness that spurs inquiry and experimentation. It's the wonderfulness that excites the imagination. And it's having the time, space, and encouragement to pursue that wonderfulness, wherever it takes us, that forms the crux of what learning is really all about. It's the thinking that matters.

Indeed, the onus to simply remember and recite right answers has more in common with the skills of a trained animal. "Good doggie!" we enthuse in much the same way we respond to a child's right answers with "Well done!" A thinking person requires no extrinsic reward, be it a pat on the back or a passing grade. A thinking person is too immersed in their wonderful ideas for such manipulative nonsense.

The cult of right answers leads to classrooms in which authority figures guide their students through material toward a predetermined destination. Some teachers rely upon a light and clever hand while others turn to the cudgel, but they are all, from classroom to classroom, from school to school, moving the children from right answer to right answer, thinking and curiosity be damned. Children who have wonderful ideas along the way may be indulged for a time, but the goal is always to guide them back onto the only pathway that leads to right answers.

The having of wonderful ideas doesn't lead to right or wrong answers, but rather toward new ideas. They aren't necessarily ideas that have never before been had by other thinkers, but they are new to this thinker and more importantly, they are motivating. When one has a wonderful idea, it compels pursuit, which leads to more new ideas, and more. The most wonderful ideas are those that in turn inspire wonderful ideas in others.

The girl thought for a time before the lightbulb went on. "I know," she announced, "I'll be Cat Girl because I love cats."

"There's no Cat Girl," objected one of the boys, pointing out her wrong answer.

"Well, there is now!" she declared bravely, which is another hallmark of the having of wonderful ideas: their very wonderfulness can give us courage we don't always have when the only options are right or wrong.

Her idea to be Cat Girl was such a wonderful idea that she was soon joined by Falcon, Crabby, T-Rex Man, and even the entry of more girls into the game under monikers like Dog Girl and Baby Snow Leopard. It was such a wonderful idea that it changed the world.


My new book, Teacher Tom's Second Bookis at the printers! We're offering a pre-publication discount through today, May 18. I'm incredibly proud of it. And while you're on the site, you can also find my first book, Teacher Tom's First Book, at a discount as well.

And finally, this is uncomfortable for me, but I earn most of my income by speaking at education conferences and running in-person workshops. I've had 95 percent of my income wiped out for the next 9 months due to everything being cancelled. I'm hustling to become a new and improved Teacher Tom. I know I'm not the only one living with economic insecurity, but if you like what you read here, please consider hitting the yellow donate button below.

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