The other day at my coffee house, I happened to glance out the window and saw that a crowd of people in an upper room over the local printery were writing on big sheets of paper. It was a warm night, so I wandered outside to have a look. Lo and behold! They were building mind maps.
I took a deliberately fuzzy photo. I wanted to record the shapes of the people, and the act of writing on the windows; not the identity of the people in the room, which I think I could have done. No sense in spoiling these folks’ business plans, after all.
Mind mapping has been around since I was a kid. What thoughts join to each other? How is the network between one idea and another formed? What’s the set of links between them? My internet colleague in magical stuff, Deb, recommends building “serial killer” style mind maps with actual maps under photographs, joined by pushpins and white tape, as a way of seeing how the world works.
These people in the upper room are trying to understand how their world works. In the same way, the disciples of another teacher gathered in an upper room a long time ago to get access to hidden teachings of how the world works. These folks believe that the answer to their question is actually lurking in their own minds, and they’re trying to summon it forth onto paper… They’re trying to evoke it into being.
I’ve asked kids to do mind maps before, and I’m always surprised at the paucity of their mind maps. It wasn’t until I read about Deb’s “serial killer” boards that I actually saw the problem. It’s the same problem that Gordon over at Rune Soup has been articulating in his “whiskey rant” series… which is that at some point, you know nothing about the world except what you’ve seen. Kids haven’t always collected and collated enough data about the world to make relevant associations. They can’t build a “serial killer” mind map of the world because they don’t know what it is that they’re looking for. They don’t know how ideas connect because they haven’t connected them.
Since the late 1600s, everyone’s been trying to pull another Principa Mathematica out of physics — another Isaac Newton bombshell of a book that sums up everything about how the cosmos works. But we forget about the three centuries of data that Newton was working with — data that increasingly contradicted the official theories of how the universe worked. We got the theory of gravity because genuine observation didn’t line up with the theories.
We feed our kids a lot of data these days, but a lot of that data is tied to narratives, the equivalent of Rudyard Kipling “Just So” stories. Even the experiments that many kids perform in science classes are so tried-and-true, you couldn’t get unlikely results except by the kids screwing up — and then w downgrade their lab reports because they didn’t follow procedure.
Here in a conference room overlooking a side street in a not very important town, ordinary folks are using the methods of design strategy to try to find an answer to a very important problem. I don’t know what it is: How do we keep our business going in this new world? How do we keep our jobs? How do I pay the mortgage? How do we keep this city going? Why is this company still barely breaking even? Those are all critical questions… and no one in this office would be using this methodology if things were OK. This is the methodology of the hungry ones looking for a way up the food chain.
I see here a new kind of imperative that we have as teachers. Our profession hasn’t been in this much turmoil in our lifetimes — we’re badmouthed in the popular press and the halls of government, we’re being raked economically, and distrusted by the parents of our students, and lots of people think we’ve failed our students.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s because we’ve been providing narratives when what’s really needed is observational techniques, and we’ve been handing on “just so” stories instead of critical analysis training.
What are we doing to teach our students to be highly-aware predators in a very competitive world? How are we teaching them to cooperate, so they can go after the big fish?