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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How Do You KNOW? How DO You Know?

I learned an important lesson from my 10th grade English teacher. I find it useful to remember that lesson. For me, it entails the essential nature of education.

We all have different ways of learning. The developmental psychologist Howard Garner identified different intelligences (or inherent learning patters). Go here for more information on Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. Much of the education offered even now seems focused on a single, model intelligence, the perfect student. Education becomes an obstacle for anyone who does not fit the perfect student model.

Received wisdom confronts us every day, so we should learn to recognize it. My 10th grade teacher faced the curriculum necessity of teaching us Poetry. Gag! Hack! I think the class largely agreed that this was a waste of time.

I remember that teacher fondly. He not only got us through grammar in what seemed like record time, he also helped me, finally, to understand the subject. He was a good teacher.

Having to read poetry seemed about as dull as English class could get. The teacher set the class back on our collective heels, however, by beginning with a question: What is poetry?

Students offered their ideas, that poetry was writing that rhymed, that followed strict meter, that used words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. That sort of stuff. That was our experience, that was what we knew.

Our teacher did not refute us. He simply said, Who says? We had to consider.

He proceeded to show us work that did not conform to those rules. Not just modern stuff, John Milton 300 years ago got by occasionally without rhyme. Of course our teacher had us read e. e. cummings, who regularly and thoughtfully broke those assumed rules. Discussion in that class became eager and interested. And we were talking about poetry!

Understanding that I need not follow assumed rules opened me up to becoming a writer. I needn’t copy other people and how they proceeded, I could make my own way.

Here is the lesson for me. Most people would assume that a stream of brief, random observations from strangers would not interest them. Nor would a service that tracks their location and broadcasts it publicly. Twitter and Foursquare both enjoy strong and growing followings. I do not know the future of either but currently they both show life.

We can learn important lessons at those points of obstruction and assumed wisdom, or we can go along with the assumption. You can begin by believing that people don’t want X, and be done with it. If you begin with the assumption that people do want X, perhaps you can be working towards something useful, productive, and visionary.

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