Friday, September 2, 2011

The Map and the Treasure

Sometimes I write a post and I get more of a reaction from an aside than I do from the main idea -- which is cool with me.

When I wrote Wednesday about the dying days of summer, I mentioned not having liked school. I referenced the idea that maybe this was because I liked learning so much. The discussion took on more of a life on Facebook than it did here, in that regard. One of my former students was pretty amused to have heard me say that I thought school was not the best place for learning.

But when I think about it more, I realize that maybe I never liked "learning" after all. What I always liked was discovering. I never liked accumulating knowledge based on fact and record. What I always liked was uncovering things myself, which might be why I was not the best student in grade school or in high school.

Oh, in English, I was "da man." A's across the board -- "Gifted and Talented," and all that. (It's not okay to call kids that anymore in American education, for fear of making the other kids feel that they may not be similarly blessed, so now these kids are "Advanced Placement," which sounds more to me like they were scheduled for class before everyone else.)

In everything outside of literature, history and the arts, I was mediocre. Math and I still hate each other. (That's right. I was so bad at math that the whole discipline now despises me back. I also believe that, to this day, there are math teachers who wished I had been on life-support just so they could have pulled the plug and made a case that is was all out of mercy. Some of them probably were convinced that I was incapable of opening a jar.)

I have always had a short temper when it comes to being told how things are or ought to be. It doesn't mean I hated subjects, wholesale, but that I liked parts of them and loathed other parts. I never liked learning dates, in history, but I loved to think about how the world would have been different had Hitler won or had Harold defeated William; I loved to consider the dynamics of the American Civil War -- of brothers killing brothers or of racists fighting for abolition. I hated learning about cell mitosis, but I loved physical science, especially when the idea of "chaos theory" was introduced into the mix.

When I read books, I could peel away the layers of the onion. I could do what a professor in grad school pointed out: I could make meaning. The study of literature wasn't about finding meaning, like the definitive nut in a shell. I could come up with my own reading and support what I thought with reason and close observation.

When I sit at the piano, I love coming up with new chord progressions (I never write chord-formulas: blues progressions; formulaic cadences, etc).

The best  teachers? They walked you to the mysterious door, prepared you for possible eventualities and then they sent you through. You had to kill  the dragon yourself and cut it open to see what made it so cranky.

I try to remember this with my students, especially in an age where information is available in a mouse-click.  The classroom, as my current principal has said, is not a one-room schoolhouse in which kids are going to be entranced by drawings of China that only the teacher, in his infinite teacherliness, has access to. Teaching is harder now. Kids need to be lead to their discoveries.

Given the choice -- though they might deny it -- most kids want to be given the map, not the treasure. Anyway, I will take the map every time, give the treasure to someone who needs, it and go off looking for another map.

I'll find my own concept of the truth, thank you very much.


  1. Two months ago, I made a treasure hunt for my nephew and niece. They followed clues from place to place and blew through the whole thing in fifteen minutes to get to the treasure bag at the end.

    Last month, at their insistence, I made a more complex treasure hunt: rhyming riddles that led them to puzzle pieces that formed a map that would lead them to the treasure. The journey took much longer--half an hour, I'd guess--and at the end, to my surprise, they both said they wished they could do it again. They liked the doodads in their treasure bag, sure, but they loved the thrill of unraveling a multi-layered mystery.

    Until then, I'd been pretty sure the appeal was the treasure, not the map. Now I'm more inclined to agree with you--provided the map leads someplace cool.

  2. Thanks, Papi.

    Jeff -- You and I are cut from the same cloth, my friend. I'm an expert map-drawer. My boys love the Quest. But, you're right: it needs to pay off.

  3. Excellent post, for I too have experienced something similar in my life. Discovery, as you mentioned, makes the quest for knowledge much more personal and allows you to connect with your newly found information. It's one thing to learn about the mundane biological processes in a cell; but, it's a completely different story to discover how these processes are constantly occurring in your body and how, for example, hiccups during the production of ATP by mitochondria contributes to the aging process that we are forever experiencing(however disheartening that information may be). In high school biology class, information about foodstuff and mitochondia would bore me; however, this is not the case due to the fact that I uncovered this information myself. It is such a gratifying affair to teach yourself a new topic. It is through this quest for discovery that I have been reading about biology, cosmology, psychology, etc., and discovering how the world around me works and functions...all while wearing my snuggie.

    -Chris McIlvaine

  4. Ah, the snuggie, Chris. What more does education require? Lord knows, you leanred well in my class in both snuggie and gas mask.