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A Fire to Be Lit/Kindled

I gave a keynote over the weekend for the Golden Key International Honour Society here at UBC. Given the Society’s emphasis on Academics, Service, and Leadership, I talked about how education can serve to transform students and light a passion for life and learning.

The title of my talk, “A Fire to Be Lit”, comes from a saying attributed to the Greek-born philosopher of the 1st century CE, Plutarch, a passage often pithily paraphrased as: “The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lit/kindled.”

The actual quote is a little less of a zinger, and it comes in Plutarch’s essay called “On Listening”: “For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth.” (1927 Loeb Classical Library Edition).

Plutarch’s dichotomy, the “vessel to be filled” and the “fire to be lit” captures a millenia-old battle over the meaning of education that still roils the waters until today.
Just yesterday, The Globe and Mail featured an op-ed column by Gary Mason that derided the new British Columbia K-12 curriculum, a curriculum that allows students of different ages to study and learn together; it allows for different paces as well as different styles of learning; and it brings students together to learn in groups focused around big issues and problems. BC’s goal is to stimulate curiosity and passion for learning. Mason dismissed this approach as “laissez-faire”, disparaged what he termed the “edubabble” that constituted the theory behind the proposal, and he weighed in squarely in favor of “rote memorization” and frequent and stringent testing as the core of primary and secondary education. In other words, he revealed himself to be a devoted partisan of the “vessel to be filled” approach.

Classroom problem-based learning

Is there any evidence that the rote-memorization-and-testing approach generates among students a passion for learning, moreover for lifelong learning? In my experience, it often produces the opposite—a lifelong aversion to learning, an “ardent desire” perhaps only to be entertained. I see it from where I sit: students who come to university having mastered the arts of short-term memorization and test-taking too often fixate only on getting the best grades possible in order to position themselves for the highest-paying jobs possible, and they emerge from the university experience unsure of their interests, shallow, unformed, unprepared to live rich and meaningful lives or to follow their hearts into a career that mirrors their passions.

Mason complained that the new curriculum will not allow students to get into university, but he is seemingly unaware of the move towards broad-based admissions at many universities, UBC included. Such processes take into account the whole student, his/her motivations, interests, readiness, and love of learning.

Mason also criticizes the new BC curriculum for failing to prepare students for the “world that awaits them”? Where in the world are those jobs requiring workers to memorize facts and to do well on tests? The employers of which I’m aware more often ask that their employees work together to solve problems, and that they know how to research, to come up with creative solutions, and to communicate those solutions and their findings. So which approach: the “fire to be lit” or the “vessel to be filled” truly prepares students for the world that awaits?

As Leonardo da Vinci, one of the most creative individuals in recorded Western history, said: “Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” Again, like Plutarch, da Vinci focuses on desire, or “passion”, as the essential requirement for true learning, the precondition for lighting that fire.

I will argue, based on a long experience as a learner and as an observer of learners, that learning is deeper and more profound when students are active, not passive; when they are able to frame and ask questions rather than hearing answers; when they can speak as well as listen; and when they engage their curiosity and partake in a discovery process that, at least to me, appears closely akin to play. And study after study backs up my experience and observation, showing that university students learn better with these forms of pedagogy than they do from the lecture, long the staple of university education.

So why do some university professors still depend so thoroughly on lectures? Perhaps because their own professors lectured and they have remained with the model that some call “chalk talk” or “sage on a stage” out of inertia or simply comfort. It was never a great way to teach, but knowing what we know of the data from the last 20 years, it is increasingly difficult to justify it as a pedagogy. From lectures, students typically recall less than 30% in short-term memory, and much less is processed into long-term memory. I’ve recalled in materials before the comedian who went by the name Father Guido Sarducci who used to present a stand-up routine that he called the 15-minute university. His point? Students only remember about 15 minutes out of all of their university lectures, so in his university, they would just teach those 15 minutes – then they’d give you a cap and gown, a piece of paper, and a glass of champagne and out the door!

And this is an important point. If one’s goal is to fill the vessels, the goal will be constantly undermined by how leaky those vessels are.

I mentioned play earlier in relation to learning. We’re born with an aptitude for play and in our youngest years—and this is true of most mammals—we take joy in exploring the world, testing our limits, engaging in light roughhousing with others, learning to feel and sense our place in the world, and all the while exercising not only our bodies but our curiosity. Our learning in those years is yoked to the proclivity for play. And play helps to form that truly human capacity to see what is not in front of our eyes, but what is metaphorically called “the mind’s eye”: I’m speaking of the imagination. As children grow up and go to school, we subjugate learning to sitting in seats, listening to someone in the front of class, and taking notes, and we run roughshod over that playful impulse and its relationship to the formation of our mind and to imagination, losing the opportunity to light a fire.

A leading critic of contemporary education, Sir Ken Robinson, views our current forms of K-12 education as counterproductive of creativity, imagination and intellectual growth. He has argued that, “Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves.”

As a species, we humans face a troubling set of challenges, so many of which are global in scale. We are eradicating species on a daily basis; hurtling towards a climate catastrophe in the span of decades; deepening the divide between haves and have-nots; facing virulent pandemics as well as poverty, famine, and tyranny … everywhere we look we encounter crises of our own making. Governments across North America, whether Federal, State or Provincial, or Municipal, proclaim the need for innovation in the face of these challenges. And yet we continue to teach in a fashion that bears little relationship with the stimulation of innovation through the cultivation of the imagination and the desire to learn. We have created a fundamental disjuncture between our needs as a society and as a species and our system of education. This is as true of university education as the K-12 level.

Allow me to take a short excursion: I’ve long been fascinated by the career of the late Walt Disney, and I’d like to relate a little-known part of his life and career.

The train station at Disney World

In the 1930s, having had great initial successes with his black-and-white cartoon shorts featuring, among others, the character who became Mickey Mouse, Disney was experiencing setbacks in his business during the Depression, and he faced competition from others, including his former partner. Experiencing creative malaise, he retreated to his property in California that he shared with his wife. To combat depression, and to indulge a childhood fantasy, he built a 2/3rds sized railroad steam engine and track on his property, and much to his wife’s concern and dismay, he spent a lot of his time riding around their property in that steam engine wearing a conductor’s hat. This is where most partners would call in the therapists to prescribe the antidepressants. Riding around this way one day, though, Disney began to wonder how many other people might want to escape in the way he was, to explore themes right out of their fantasies? Was there a business in providing this escape? And in his imagination a new form of form of entertainment, a theme park, was born: Disneyland in Anaheim California. The world’s most successful entertainment franchise born out of the childlike imagination of a grown man playing with trains.

Parenthetically, Disney later named his team of engineers, designers, and innovators the Imagineers. In that team, Disney for a time created the kind of atmosphere that fosters the kinds of creativity that can shape an era, and atmosphere that encourages absurd ideas to be given daylight, one that doesn’t bureaucratically strangle the future by quashing innovation. The Bell Labs of the 1950s and ‘60s was another such place; so were Apple and Google for periods of their history.

University faculty and students can and should be the ultimate “Imagineers” and a university education should be able to nurture creativity, imagination, inspiration and innovation in this way. We have all of the right people and resources to do it.

Disney’s genius was to use his own passion and to generalize it to incorporate others into his world. He took a problem, his own escapism, and reframed it in a new context. This is equivalent to the well-worn phrase “thinking outside the box”. In the country of Haiti, where I do my research, it is common to talk about this process as “gade yon bagay an kan” (looking at something “on edge”). Back in the 1960s a young teacher, Sunny Decker, wrote about her experiences teaching in a poverty-stricken community in a book called An Empty Spoon, and she wrote, “part of the art of teaching is the ability to rearrange the world for students…to see things in a new way.” It’s when that new way of looking at something takes hold that the spark is lit.

Inspiration can emerge from this novel way of thinking about a problem—you can overcome intractable problems if you approach a problem with a fresh perspective. There is no menu for how to do this, although it may help to have people with different backgrounds, disciplines, and perspectives in contact with each other to enrich the dialogue and the resources that are brought to bear;

In the term that I prefer, active, interactional, and experiential learning can be submerged within the rubric of “transformative learning”, where the learner by having various switches turned on, becomes someone new over time. You’ve experienced this, haven’t you? It’s a form of learning that is deeper, and that sticks with the learning longer than the material crammed for a test ever could. In talking with students who have done service learning and research course around the world, almost all of them talk about how putting their learning to use transformed them and their ideas and even their worldviews.

How do we make these forms of learning available to all students? You may have noticed more courses at UBC using real-world problem solving exercises at the heart of the syllabus; you may have found your instructor encouraging the use of iClickers, or more sophisticated devices, to register student attention, opinions, or suggestions in the classroom. You may have found the more rote aspects of a course – its basic lecture content – delivered through video while classroom time is devoted to interaction, role-play, question-and-answer or other types of learning that require face-to-face contact with an instructor. Screens, projectors, and real-time-videoconferencing can bring the world into the classroom while forms of lecture capture can broadcast or podcast the classroom activities to the world.

At the same time, more classes are using the community as their laboratory, engaging in service learning or in community based experiential learning; others may travel the globe to combine international learning and research. And why shouldn’t undergraduate students be doing research – this is essentially the process asking and finding ways to answer new questions. Research is curiosity-in-motion and it should occupy a prominent role in postsecondary education. Cumulatively this points to an emerging style of education that is more problem-based and more active and interactive and that integrates learning in the community and around the globe. I believe this is transformational learning.

If done right, this is a form of education better calibrated to lighting a fire. In his magical book, Le Petit Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry has the Prince say, “The only things you learn are the things you tame”: the active, experiential, and problem-based learning, facilitated with technology, is the kind that allows the learner to tame and to incorporate knowledge, and it is the kind of learning kindles the fire.

Of course it takes lots of discipline, persistence, and practice to master a subject well enough so that inspiration and imagination can be useful in problem solving. The Russian composer Tchaikovsky reminded us that, “Inspiration is a guest that does not willingly visit the lazy.” So I want to stress that transformational styles of learning don’t reduce the work you have to put in – if anything, the hope is that they inspire you to hard work and that they reward you more for it.

2 Responses to A Fire to Be Lit/Kindled

  1. Paul Belserene

    Thank you for an impassioned defense of learning as an activity rather than a process.

    I don’t have a cite for this, but it’s likely that the form of the lecture had its origin in the early days of the first universities, when books were rare and precious. The professor would have the only copy and the class would consist of him (overwhelmingly him) reading to his students from the book. Today we have the Library of Alexandria in our pockets, along with the cute cats.

  2. Ruby

    I’m one of the student directors at the UBC GK and I still remember your talk — made me rethink what creativity really means.
    In fact I recently came across an article that I think you’ll enjoy: “Playful Learning”(I put it in the website spot cause I can’t hyperlink).
    I remember how you stress the important role “play” has in self-motivated learning.
    Hope you like it! 🙂

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