Cathedrals, Dr. Pajares, and Leonardo da Vinci

We who cut mere stone must always be envisioning cathedrals.

Dr. Frank Pajares, an educational psychologist and professor of education at Emory University, and my greatest adult mentor, used the quote above as one of his four foundations of teaching and learning. I wish he were still alive for many reasons. This week, I am re-reading Michael Michalko’s Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work, and I think Dr. P would have loved Michalko’s metaphor of the cathedral – I wish Dr. P and I could discuss it.

Before you go to school, your mind is like a cathedral with a long central hall where information enters and intermingles and combines with other information without distinction. Education changes that. Education changes the cathedral of your mind into a long hall with doors on the sides that lead to private rooms segregated from the main assembly.

When information enters the hall, it’s recognized, labeled, boxed, and then sent to one of the private rooms and trapped inside. One room is labeled “biology,” one room is labeled “electronics,” one room is labeled “business,” one room is for religion, one is for agriculture, one is for math, and so on. We’re taught that, when we need ideas or solutions, we should go to the appropriate room and find the appropriate box and search inside. (8-9)

We hear this segregated-room thinking when we hear someone ask, “What do you teach?” More often than not, people answer with a subject title, grade level, or discipline. What if we answered with a human-centered response? How would that eventually change how we see ourselves? It makes my hair on the back of my neck standup when I hear someone say, “Oh, I this is math class. We don’t write in here, and you’ll have to ask your English teacher that question.” And, I bristle even more at comments that dismiss we adults knowing something because of the subject on which we concentrate – “This next question is for all the history teachers…”

Michalko goes on later in the chapter to explain a piece of why Leonardo da Vinci is considered the greatest genius in all history. He did not overly segregate his thinking. Michalko’s attributes this partly to the fact that da Vinci was not allowed to attend university – his mind was allowed to remain in Cathedral state, rather than roomed and boxed. Children’s minds are often the same…until we school them into thinking, “Oh, that’s math… and that’s English… and that’s history.” Then, after formal schooling, we seem to begin the process of re-integrating our thinking – opening the doors of the roomed hallway to re-intermingle the ideas in a cathedral-like space (or coffeehouse-like space according to Steven Johnson).

Last week, Lovett’s American Studies Institute (#ASI2012) reminded us that “we who cut mere stone must always be envisioning cathedrals.” Dr. P would have loved the walk down that long, integrated, intermingling central hall. I think he would have loved considering that “the revolution” may return us to building cathedrals instead of apartment complexes…to thinking more like Leonardo.

Michalko, Michael. Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2011. Print.

A flashback to Dr. Pajares

While I have been blessed with a small hand full of mentors in my life – true, committed mentors…not the trite use of the word for occasional acts of mentorship – Dr. Frank Pajares stands out for me. Among countless reasons, Dr. P stands out because of a conversation that we had in his office one day. After two hours of conversing, I looked at my Timex Ironman watch, and I apologized for keeping him so long. He closed his book, which we were referencing, and he looked over the top edge of his glasses. Then, he said, “The greatest gift you can ever give me is to ignore your watch when we are working together. I am not thinking about the time; I would encourage you not to think about the time. Us working and learning together is what’s important.”

I tend to be a very task-oriented person. I care deeply for people, but I sometimes give off a different vibe because I do like to check things off a list. Dr. P further changed my paradigm about task completion that day, which was over ten years ago as I was completing graduate school. (I fall short of Dr. P’s ideal all the time, but I am working on it.)

Today, Dr. P flashed into my mind when I was talking to a colleague with whom I work at Westminster. We’ll call him B. At this time of year, I have a million things on the task list. To name just a few, I am working on new faculty orientation details, faculty recognition citations, Apple roll out issues, etc. Truly, though, I did not think about any of those things while I was meeting with B. He had some important things to discuss, and we sit down together about once every month or two months to discuss some questions we have about education, school structure, etc. After about 80 minutes of talking, he was getting up to go, and he apologized for taking so much time.

Dr. P flashed through my mind. Something he shared with me years ago has helped shape me a bit better, and now I could genuinely say that all those tasks were inconsequential to me compared to the conversation I was having with B. I was thinking, learning, questioning, considering. Who knows how that thinking might come back to benefit later when engaged with an issue or challenge. During the conversation with B, we talked through several scenarios; the time was infinitely worthwhile. I bet, in the long-run, the conversation proves to be a time saver, instead of a time waster – because I was able to rehearse some thinking with a great thinker before I needed the thinking “in battle.”

During the conversation, though, B made a remark that he is still having to justify to people that time on Twitter or blogging is not a time waster, but rather a time saver. The thought occurred to me that I bet those people would not claim that this face-to-face conversation was a time waster…in general, that time spent with another human in conversation is what we should be doing, for instance, instead of tweeting and blogging so much.

But, then, a George Couros adage came to mind – there are people at the other end of those screens and keyboards. We are connecting when we employ those tools. In fact, B and I were able to have the depth of conversation that we were having, at least in part, because we “talk” regularly by following each other’s tweets and blog posts. Moreover, We remarked that by tweeting and blogging, we are able to maintain many streams of conversation and learning that can keep us connected and thinking on a number of exciting and invigorating fronts in education and schooling.

I don’t regret any time I tweet, blog, or connect with my colleagues on social media tools. By doing so, we are thinking and learning and reflecting together. I also don’t regret any of that face to face time spent in personal dialogue. BOTH are important. BOTH are “time savers” in the long run. And, even if they aren’t, they are “life savers,” as they broaden and deepen my network of connected learners…my tribe.

Dr. P died a few years ago, but I like to think that this story would make him proud. I still learn from him everyday. He was THE master of contextual thought and deed, and I think the context in which we connect to think and learn together would excite him – as long as we valued the relationships built by those connections…and ignored our watches. Thanks, Dr. P. Love you.