A piece of “what:” map making, problem finding, messy searching

Rebecca Chapman, literary editor of a new online journal called The New Inquiry, was quoted in the New York Times. “My whole life, I had been doing everything everybody told me. I went to the right school. I got really good grades. I got all the internships. Then, I couldn’t do anything.”

The only surprising thing about this statement is that some consider it surprising.

Rebecca trained to be competent, excelling at completing the tasks set in front of her. She spent more than sixteen years at the top of the system, at the best schools, with the best resources, doing what she was told to do. [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, no one is willing to pay her to do tasks. Without a defined agenda, it’s difficult for her to find the gig she was trained for.

[Then, later…] Education isn’t a problem until it serves as a buffer from the world and a refuge from the risk of failure.

(from section 35, pages 53-54, of Seth Godin’s “Stop Stealing Dreams.” Read the entire section and manifesto here.)

In my jobs as teacher, school administrator, husband, father, educational innovator, etc., I am having to search and discover what needs to be addressed, celebrated, ceased and desisted, opened, studied, innovated, reiteratively prototyped, and enhanced. No one is digesting the messiness for me and handing me well-crafted assignments to complete. While I was in formal school, I think the tasks given to me and the work assigned to me taught me invaluable lessons that I would not trade for the world. I am eternally grateful to my school teachers. But my life has also been filled with the need to make maps, not just read them. I have found it essential that I find problems, not just solve the ones given me. I have needed to search through mess and muck to explore possibilities, connections, relationships, and opportunities. I don’t think I learned these things enough in my formal schooling. Why shouldn’t we incorporate more of this set of modalities into school? Why can’t we create and design more balance into the system of well-defined problems and ready-made assignments?

As the school year begins, are you…

  • Letting students wander in search of their own questions and curiosities, or just directing them to the ones you’ve already defined?
  • Designing space and time for map making, or just promoting and teaching map following?
  • Getting off to the side while students find problems that they think need solving, or just having them solve problems with answers that can be found in the back of a textbook?
  • Making room for students to explore what various real-life work feels like, smells like, tastes like, and sounds like…or just handing them the packages of industrial-age school?

[“A piece of ‘why,'” A piece of ‘what,'” and A piece of ‘how'” are strands of a series on why school needs to change, what about school needs to change, and how schools might navigate the change.]

3 thoughts on “A piece of “what:” map making, problem finding, messy searching

  1. In this morning’s meeting, someone’s comment made me realize I meant Keats’s negative capability. Heisenberg has the uncertainty principle. Speaking of his principle, if you have not seen or read Michael Frayn’s play, COPENHAGEN, I recommend it. Heisenberg’s principle undergirds the whole play, and Frayn began composing with an historical question about the content of Heisenberg’s private conversation with Neils Bohr. I read the play with high school seniors in my course called “The Drama of Math and Science.” All of our plays used math and science as their focus. You might have fun imagining what you would read in such a course.

  2. Bill,
    Thank you for reading, commenting, and recommending a read. Young humans ask GREAT questions of deep curiosity and inquiry. When they enter formal school, we just need to do a better job of nurturing that innate questioning…fanning those flames…building capacity. When we “fuss” at kids for asking too many questions – because we have so much to cover – we miss the entire foundation of learning, don’t we?!

    We do need to get into the exercises that it takes to develop comfort with time and space. We have to get more comfortable with quiet and apparent chaos as people muddle through real problem finding and problem solving.

    Great connection to Keats.

    Take care,


  3. Great pieces. Great questions. Thank you. They enrich my current reading of a book called MAKE JUST ONE CHANGE: TEACH STUDENTS TO ASK THEIR OWN QUESTIONS (Harvard Ed Press 2011), by Rothstein and Santana. Making room and making time for such discovering strike me as primary challenges. We ourselves need to understand the ideas of room and time, in order to guide students through those murky waters. Our current culture breeds impatience. I often consider Keats’s uncertainty principle in connection with these ideas.

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