26 March 2012

Question Everything

It has been tough to write the past few weeks. Too many medications. So I have 13, yes 13, blog posts started but unfinished. Thus, I needed a simple question - a small idea - to get myself over the hump of my current cognitive fog. It came last evening, somewhere between basketball and the Mad Men season premier...

"Questioning everything is idiotic and a waste of time. Teach them to question wisely." appeared in my Twitter stream. It was a response to my statement, "The future comes from questioning everything."

I'm not backing down from my assertion, the context of which is the argument that, as educators, our job is to help students learn to "question everything." And that exists in the bigger context of the weekend's arguments - that we must develop administrators and teacher preparation faculty who help teachers to be rebellious, so that we have teachers who can help students be rebellious, so that we create a future which begins to solve the intractable problems of the present.

The classic American Classroom Map of the World
Begin with me here. Often, when I talk with educators about Toolbelt Theory, I show them a few different maps of the world. One is the classic Mercator Projection shown above, "presented by the Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator, in 1569," and centered on the United States in millions of classroom versions from the 1870s to the 1990s.

The teachers can almost always rattle off what is wrong with this projection, including the innate cultural bias attached - the diminuation of the southern hemisphere (Greenland, 1/14th the size of Africa, appears larger than that continent), the Americentric splitting of Asia, et al - but if I ask why this map is important, where it would be valuable, those same educators often freeze.

but will this map help you get home?
They know what they've "learned" (memorized) about the Mercator Projection, but as generations of U.S. educators never questioned the map which unrolled over the chalkboard, our educators today fail to question the shortcomings of the new maps. "All lines of constant bearing (rhumb lines or loxodromes — those making constant angles with the meridians), are represented by straight segments on a Mercator map. This is precisely the type of route usually employed by ships at sea, where compasses are used to indicate geographical directions and to steer the ships. The two properties, conformality and straight rhumb lines, make this projection uniquely suited to marine navigation: courses and bearings are measured using wind roses or protractors, and the corresponding directions are easily transferred from point to point, on the map, with the help of a parallel ruler or a pair of navigational protractor triangles." (Wikipedia) Add to this nautical navigation issue the concept that this version of the map was created for American sailors, who needed to sail to both Europe and Japan, but did not need to walk from Moscow to Vladivostok, and the purpose, the value, of that old classroom map comes into focus.
What gets onto Yelp? Why? How?

Why did gasoline stations give
away maps
? What might have
been on them? not on them?

So, when someone presents a map to a student, they need to, on some level, doubt it, question it. Who made the map? Why?  What are they supposed to do with the map? What information is left off? Why? This is true in the classroom, and it is true when they look at a Yelp map on their phone.

I knew an executive at SPX Corporation back in the last century who created a very odd map from the airport in Muskegon, Michigan to the corporate headquarters. He sent it to all visitors flying in. The map was designed to show off some of the best parts of the community while dodging most signs of the incredibly persistent poverty which enveloped the area. I can also recall drawing directions to my home in Brooklyn, for non-Brooklonians, which were designed to showcase Brooklyn as a place "way cooler" than Manhattan (or "New York" as we called that part of New York City). So, avoid the BQE, take people down Flatbush, past Juniors, through Grand Army Plaza, alongside the park, down Ocean Parkway.

Anyway, if we have to doubt maps, and we do, we probably need to doubt everything.

We doubt everything, we question everything, because this is the way we create a future unlike the past. This is true in the "big" - Einstein doubting Newton, Darwin doubting Bishop Usher, the guys at Xerox PARC doubting the keyboard interface, Tesla doubting Edison, a couple of 20-somethings in Cairo doubting the Egyptian government, and it is true in the "small" - Ray Kroc taking car hops, cigarette machines, and pay phones out of the Southern California hamburger drive-in, a couple of guys at a tech start up opening up their internal 140-character messaging system to the world, or just the billions of times every day that someone figures out a better way to do "that."

One of my personal examples is myself. Faced with an 80-student course to teach in a huge lecture hall, doubting all the traditional ways to both create and observe engagement. That doubt led me to ask my son to create something for me which turned into TodaysMeet. That's tiny - very tiny - of course, but it is what it is. Invention, creation, progress - all begin with doubt, all begin with questions.

The conversation at the top of this post began when I asked if we might eliminate due dates from our schools. I often doubt the idea behind the academic due date, seeing those dates as both arbitrary and usually counter-productive. In my Changing Gears series I wrote, "I, myself, am rather glad that Boeing was quite late with their 787 Dreamliner. Had they been on-time, well, from what I hear, the wings would've fallen off. Which is a classic "school 70%." The 787 is unlike any other plane ever built, imaginative, and quite remarkable. We don't get that with fixed deadlines. Something the "real world" already knows."It is not that I think that there are no actual deadlines in the world, but when I describe myself as a "provocateur," I mean to say that I will question everything, so that I will push "you" to doubt everything, and thus to find out what is truly important in the work we do. 

The difference between "hanging on" in the future, and creating the future lies in this questioning. The New York Times still believes it publishes a newspaper. Everything they do, from their "paywall" to their pre-moderation of blog comments, indicates the shallowness of their doubting. The "paper" which has become their chief competition as the English Language information source, The Guardian, is asking much deeper questions about news and information delivery, as they suggest in the video below...

So whether it is homework or due dates, school bells or school desks, or any of the "facts" we tend to put before students. You, them, we all, should be doubting everything, questioning everything.

That process not only builds a real kind of learning unavailable through memorization, it will create a next generation unwilling to accept the mistakes of the past and present.

And to me, that's what education is about.

- Ira Socol


Bill Genereux said...

Welcome back Ira!

I think you are both right. If you literally question everything, including things you have previously questioned, then you will waste an enormous amount of cognitive energy. We learn from our past experiences. These experiences can save us time.

But this is the problem I think you are identifying. Our past experiences can't tell us everything. To judge persons based on past experiences with others who may have appeared to be similar, particularly when those experiences aren't even your own, but those of your teachers, parents, their teachers & parents etc; well this is where we get so many of the problems of humanity.

There is a reason we have stereotypes. So many times, they are useful. They can save time and can tell us something true, or at least true in general. But I think we all know that the utility of stereotypes easily breaks down and fails again and again.

I love the upside down map of the world. I saw one of these in Australia and regret not buying one. The core idea in this post of questioning everything fits nicely with what I've been reading on media literacy. What are the hidden messages behind the media I'm experiencing? Everyone should learn to do this. Hardly anyone does. Even I, who should know better, catch myself failing to question. Thanks for the reminder.

Susanelle Salter said...

Hello again,
My name is Susie Salter, and I commented on another post of yours. I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I totally agree with what you are saying about questioning everything. If we don't question things, we will never learn and grow. If no one had ever questioned anything, we would have still been sitting in a cave grunting. :-D
Susie Salter

Anonymous said...

Great though provoking blog!

I believe it was either the stoics or cynics who "questioned everything" which lead to them living a life of silence and, largely, solitude. If you question everything then you also have to question why you are questioning, etc, etc.

When I lead philosophic dialogs in my classes we establish our "first things". Those things that have to be assumed to be true before our conversations can begin. Otherwise we would spend the entire class on minutia. Nietzche is famous for declaring that man doesn't have to live according to horizons anymore (God is dead and all that stuff), however, horizons (or parenthetical limitations on a topic) help to organize our focus. Socrates/Plato purported to claim that he only knew that he did not know. Ignorance, then, is a type of knowledge and that can also be questioned. "How do you know that you do not know?" for example. If both known and unknown factors are subject to questioning, then we have a very formidable task at hand to "question everything."

My point is this... Questioning everything is fine for a "hook" in a paper, but language itself limits our ability to focus on a number of things at a time. Language itself doesn't allow us to question everything all at once which then implies that we must pick and choose which things to question and which unquestioned things we choose to use as our ground floor of questioning.

Questioning everything is a lifelong artistic endevour that must start with only questioning some very specific things.

Finally, if we DO question everything what happens when we destroy something the students had in mind as True? Questioning, like acid, consumes and destroys...it does not build. What do you suggest as a counterbalance in the classroom to your questioning of everything? How do you build?

I'd love to hear feedback. I'm starting to question whether I should post this or not... :)

@thrasymachus on twitter