When I was eight or nine, I worked out the principles of steam power and fabricated a miniature steamboat that chugged away at the local pond. When I was a teenager, I rented a mechanical typewriter and spent a few hundred hours in a closet-like room next to our washer, pecking away, writing a book. What is remarkable is that I did those and other things without any kind of support from adults. Was it in spite of that fact—or due to it?
I experienced an “Aha!” moment many years later when I read A Single Shard by Linda Park. The book recounts the story of an orphan boy in a small unassuming village of potters in 12th-century Korea. From a hidden spot, the boy spends many months observing the potter, Min, at his work. Min produces far fewer pieces than the other potters, demanding far more from each individual piece of work. The potter is willing to discard anything that fails in any way to satisfy him—irrespective of the amount of work he has put into it or the subsequent time delay.
As the story unfolds, the orphan and Min enter into an apprentice-master relationship. It is a story of a reluctant, reclusive master and a boy with a dream in which he invests all of himself. The old potter is gruff and often cross. He rarely addresses the boy and, when he does, it is mostly to bark terse directives. At the end of the book, there is little doubt in the reader’s mind that one day the orphan boy will become a potter of the highest order.
In effect, the older potter has provided the antithesis of a sound learning environment: no respect, no real attempt at instruction, no attempt to motivate. Was there something else at play, so compelling and powerful that it rendered these obstacles inconsequential?
I believe there was. The orphan boy experienced a sense of an immense, exciting possibility. And that made all the difference.
I have portrayed two extreme examples, two exceptional cases. All the same, there are points we can take away and apply to our learning institutions.
The children of today are managed to such an extent, and inundated with so much well-articulated content, that as a rule they have no empty space around them from which to originate, and no empty space above them to aspire to. Furthermore, in following tour guides (teachers) along well-lit, orderly lanes of knowledge, they have no sense of ownership and no awe of discovery.
In the context of reimagining our learning institutions, it is paramount that we strive for an environment that will empower and galvanize youth to imagine, aspire, and then go the distance. And that will make all the difference.