Category Archives: Paradox

Questions and Answers: What you need you already have.

At minute 9:28 in the above TED talk, Charles Leadbeater, who is particularly interested in the innovation that comes of meeting great needs in under-resourced school environments, talks about one school program in one of the poorer communities in Brazil and their habit of beginning each day with a question.  Leadbeater asks us to, “Imagine an educational system that started from questions, not from knowledge to be imparted.  Or started from a game, not from a lesson.  Or started from the premise that you have to engage people first before you can possibly teach them.”  I have and I do, and I believe Leadbeater is exactly right in what he is suggesting.

Something pernicious happens right about the time students graduate from school.  It comes of a constellation of forces and societal expectations, not one of which is wholly responsible but each of which contributes to coerce a transformation in students, a turning away.  NB: by students I mean learners and by school I mean a learning environment. It comes about as a “natural” and expected step forward, an advancement in the development of the self, sometime between high school and graduate school, adolescence and adulthood.  At some point, as the result of our educational system learners are expected to become knowers.

Sir Ken Robinson, the noted creativity thinker and eminently convincing proponent of sea-change in education, points out that if you didn’t know any better, upon looking at the American educational system in 2010 and asking yourself, “What is it designed to do?” you would have to conclude that it is primarily designed to produce university professors – that is, to reproduce itself.  Our educational system produces knowers, not learner.

In fact, there is a significant societal stigma that attends the notion of a learner.  It connotes beginner, amateur, inexperience, even naivete and ignorance, as in language learner as opposed to language expert.  At a meeting I attended recently of the local beekeeping community I heard one new member use the phrase “still just learning” to mean that she lacked the answers she needed.  She said, to the best of my recollection and not exactly quoted, “I am still just learning about beekeeping, so I want to ask the experts in the club…”.  It was a beautiful moment of communication between club members, because one of the more knowledgeable members addressed her, saying, “I have been doing this a long time, but I am no expert.  I am still just learning, too,” to which we all laughed.   Of course we all understood both perspectives.  “I am just beginning, so how would I know?” and “I have been doing this long enough to know what I don’t know.”  Whatever your perspective, it is clear that most true experts know that the salient experience in becoming an expert is becoming acquainted with more and more challenging questions, not answers.

As much as I value questions and as much as I think about and try to understand that a teacher should strive to become a master learner, not a master knower, I too have felt the uncomfortable compulsion to give an infirm answer to a student’s question before admitting I didn’t know. Most of the time I can control myself and I am proud of my courageous, unknowledgeable response.  “I don’t know the answer to that,” I proclaim, when I am feeling strong enough.  But it is there, the insecurity, the remnant of the societal norm that I resist.  “I am the teacher,” I think to myself when I am feeling weak.  “I should know.”  So, what is it about mainstream education in this country today that so requires teachers to be knowers and students to be the only learners?  I believe the answer lies in our conception of knowledge.

If we understand knowledge to be an external thing, a thing acquired and kept, as a material object, then it follows that there are those with more and those with less.  It is a materialistic model that regards knowledge as a commodity to be bought or bartered, as in, “I have it, and I will give it to you for a price.  I will sell it to you.”  In this model, knowledge flows from teacher to student, like the filing of Yeats’s famous pail.  Students are customers and teachers are venders.  The relationship is clearly defined and learning is the agreed upon result of the commercial arrangement.  There are all kinds of problems that flow from this model – and they all have to do with the common marketplace promise of “satisfaction guaranteed.”

If, alternatively, we understand knowledge to be inherent in the learner – something a student already has, latent within him, then what some people have more of and some less is access to self-knowledge, and the teacher’s challenge becomes, not increasing the flow of knowledge through the conduit, like a hose, but evoking insight.  In this model of education, there is no transaction of material and no commercial arrangement.  Students are questers, seekers, capable of effecting their own transformation of learning and of answering their own questions.  The teacher becomes a guide, and a facilitator – asking questions to shepherd student to their own answers.

It is a radical shift in our conception of education, but it is not new.  The Quaker wisdom tradition allows for the presence of an Inner Teacher, an inherent source of knowledge and guidance that requires evocation, not augmentation.  Quaker community members strive, not to supply answers, but to ask questions that help a friend or colleague hear and understand what their inner teacher is saying.  The notion is clear: knowledge resides in all of us, latent perhaps but there.  Guides, mentors, and teachers ask questions to evoke the answers that are already there.

I confess merely a passing familiarity with the tenets of Quaker spirituality, but so be it – in that, as in so many other things, I am “still just a learner.”

This is Wendell Berry on the same topic.  Imagine what education – indeed this country – would be if we could embrace the radical notion that what you need you already have.

The Wild Geese – by Wendell Berry

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer’s end.  In time’s maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves.  We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed’s marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes.  Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here.  And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear.  What we need is here.

Hack Canyon, Ch. 3: To Hell With Your Witches and Giants

Ranger Todd was all smiles.  He was bright.  In this case, I don’t mean smart, although that he was, too.  In mean, he was bright, like he emanated his own light or maybe, like the moon, he just had a high albedo.  In any case, he was a welcomed sight.  It was a time of uncertainty for us.  Our time of need, to be sure, and out of the darkness some 20 miles down the road appears a legit Park Service Ranger?  I told myself that the desert has a way of taking care of people, answering prayers, giving you what you need when you need it.

Todd was young, wide-eyed, cheery, both talkative and articulate.  Good teeth.  His jeep was well splattered with recent mud.  Not just a little and not accidental.  This was a tell-tale sign of confident and adventurous off-road driving.  He had a large hand-held radio on the passenger seat and other communications electronics mounted and wired to the dash.  It looked official, and yet not overly orderly like a cop or a serial killer.  There was credible outdoor gear in the back, some layers and a big first aid kit.  It all looked right to me.

I liked Ranger Todd.  We had an immediate affinity, he and I, born, no doubt, of difficult ambient conditions and my need for this trip to work.  I was certainly predisposed to believe in him, like the feeling you get when the ambulance shows up, but I liked him nonetheless.

I also kept my eye on him.  I told him our story, school trip, been here before, scouting the road because we had heard it was in doubtful condition, etc.  He said he was down doing more or less the same thing, scouting the road.  He affirmed that it had indeed been closed due to a rock slide most of the winter and that only recently had he heard that it was open again, in fact just yesterday he had gotten the news.  He had wanted to see for himself.

“I’m going all the way to the trailhead.  Hop in if you like.  We won’t be gone long.”  And so, leaving my two co-leaders in charge, Todd and I galloped on down the road over patches of crusty snow, through mud, and over softball-sized rocks.

Todd liked to drive fast.  Part of me was grateful.  In his jeep with the lightbar lighting up the canyon and the knobby tires humming over the gravel, we were fleet, invulnerable.  This could work.  He chatted easily about the canyon, uranium mining, education, the weather.

“We have a sat phone,” I volunteered.  “Just so you know.”

“Is it Iriduim?”


“So, at least it will work,” Todd said.  He had a likable skepticism of backcountry technology.  I sensed a value on self-reliance and a faith in the resources available to one’s ingenuity.

At one point we skidded to a stop not  a jeep-length from an 8 foot drop.  The road had been washed out by winter runoff that had cut the gravel bank back and left a sheer face.  Todd engaged the four-wheel drive and we backed slowly off of our perch.  No problem.

“That wouldn’t have been good,” he said, with an innocent awe.  “I think they cut a new road back there.  I bet I missed it.”

“You think?” I quipped.

The road to the trailhead was indeed greatly rerouted since last year.  The slide that had closed the road must have been prodigious.  But we found our way on mostly very passable, very friendly road bed.  There were two washes with newly cut berms where the runoff had again cut the bank and washed the soil down canyon in its long journey to the Colorado and out into Gulf of California.

Todd was optimistic.  “I don’t see you’ll have any trouble,” he said.  “You can even take the edge off that lip and if you get a running start with your van, I bet you can get over that berm.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” I said.  And I was feeling good.  The road looked promising.  We could certainly get down to the trailhead and spend the night.  I had other questions about getting back out in a week’s time, but I am accustomed to the adventurous spirit, that to-hell-with-your-witches-and-giants attitude that Shel Silverstein wrote about in his poem, The Perfect High.

I have never been a risk-taker, and I have never been cavalier with the risks I encourage others to take.  I had with me other people’s children.  I have been leading outings for a long time, and I have contemplated all the maxims of outdoor leadership.  Examined them, mined them for truth, made them my own.  Chief among the kernels of truth in the annals of outdoor wisdom is the dictum against small missteps that can arrest a lifetime’s wanderings : There are old mountaineers and bold mountaineers, but there are no old, bold mountaineers. And it is all true, every word, and yet there is more to it than that.   There is this:

You can only answer a certain set of questions with the information you have.  Running an outing is a little like weather prediction.  You can be certain about present conditions, and based on what you know now, you can make some reasonable guesses about 24 hours from now, but the farther out you look the less you can see.  Much beyond 24 hours in the weather and you just don’t have enough information on which to base reasonable decisions.  But tomorrow you will have more information, if you are observant and you are willing to continuously reevaluate your plan.  Like driving at night: a constant stream of little decisions based on what you can see by the shine of your headlights can get you the whole way home.

So, I didn’t know what the week would bring or what the way out would look like, but I felt we were okay to keep taking steps forward.

“You know, there are two things we are lacking,” I began with Todd as we bounced back up the road to the where my group waited.  “A map is one of them.  You don’t happen to have a map of this area we could borrow – or purchase?”

Todd had a map.  “Just let me check it first,” he said.  “Sometimes I write stuff that I don’t really want others to see.”  I tried to imagine what Todd might write on a map that could serve to incriminate.  I came up empty.  Todd checked the map, found it acceptable, and scribbled a P.O.Box in the margin.  “Send it back here when you are done, okay?”

“The other thing is that we haven’t logged our plan with anyone,” I said.  “Can I leave you with our plan, so someone will know that we are here and what we are doing?”

Todd wrote a couple of phone numbers in the margins next to the P.O.Box.

“You guys will be out next Friday, right?  So, when you get out to the road, call this number and leave me a message.  If I don’t get your message on Friday, I will know you are still here.  But be sure to call because if you don’t call, it will mean something.  The other number I gave you is our dispatcher.  If you get in trouble, call this number.  They will get help rolling.”

With that, I deemed we were set to go.  Todd disappeared back up the road and into the night, and my co-leaders and I briefed the students on the newly revised plan, during which one of the students asked with no discernible agenda, “Isn’t there still a storm coming in?”

Of rock climbing, paradox, and the live encounter

As part of my job directing a high school outings program, I coordinate a rock climbing club.  There is a core of about six committed kids who show up every day we meet – three times a week after school – and then there is a loose affiliation of 10 or 12 others who come when they can, when they are not rehearsing for the play, practicing with their team, getting an early start on too much homework, or otherwise meeting the obligations of an over-scheduled adolescence.  As a club, we divide our time each week between training on campus, climbing indoors at the local rock gym, and climbing outdoors at one of several nearby crags.

Perhaps not surprisingly, our club meetings are most well attended on gym days.  There is a lot that’s fun about showing up at the gym, paying for our hour or two on the walls, hearing the music, stepping onto the padded floor, and looking around at a lot of other people struggling up routes, pulling hard moves, and falling off, and all of them in their struggles against gravity and themselves issue us a kind of kindred nod.  It is a tacit affirmation that we are all here together, of common intent, and that we are doing the right thing.  It is an easy family, membership bought.  Come on in.  You are one of us.

I don’t mind going to the gym with the Climbing Club – at least I tell myself that.  I tell myself that it serves our purposes, keeps membership up, and it is a good way to get kids, many of whom would be more hesitant about climbing outdoors, into the basics of rock climbing, especially in the winter months when it rains a lot here.  But going to the gym isn’t rock climbing.  At best, it is good practice.  At worst, its a kind of circus, a spectacle, a scene.  And the problem is for young climbers just getting their feet wet in climbing and without the ability yet to distinguish between pulling plastic and rock climbing, it warps both sports –aggrandizing the one and trivializing the other.

And I have this conversation – or one like it – seemingly weekly with my students.  I try to, anyway.  They get it, but the tawdry pull of the rock gymnast is strong.   It is a cheap thrill easily attained and anyone can do it.  Most of the people at the gym – not all by any means – but most are there not to deepen a connection or to experience themselves in a new way.  Most are there for the relief that escape brings.

And climbing at the gym is fun, no doubt.  It’s like eating a pint of ice cream in one sitting or reading Harry Potter – rock candy – but it constitutes rock climbing only to the extent that soccer practice constitutes soccer.  Or rehearsing a play constitutes acting.  It is true that in practice or rehearsal you find yourself doing similar things and making similar decisions, and practice can be enormously satisfying, but it isn’t live, not in the sense we mean it when we say, “this one’s live.”  And it is not what we live to do.  But the comforts of a controllable environment  make us forget that.

The difference between performance and practice, experience and non-experience is the live encounter.  A live encounter brings one into immediate proximity with the thing itself, not its likeness, not its representation.  It is spontaneous, intuitive, and raw, and the outcome of the live encounter always has an element of unpredictability.  And the live encounter almost never takes place in a context of full control, a fully contrived environment.

Yes, I know.  I hedged my bet.  I wrote “almost never.”  Is it possible for a live encounter to happen in a rock gym?  It is possible.  Does it happen?  Almost never.

Why is the live encounter important to pursue and cultivate?  Because of the relationship it creates in one to the infinite.  Success and failure in a live encounter are never solely the product of one’s wits or strength, the determinable factors.  In fact, success in the live encounter always brings with it a sense of good fortune, that one was, in part, fortunate to find oneself at the epicenter of success, that it didn’t have to happen that way, that the outcome was only affected by a confluence of forces, resultant of some unlikely combination of indeterminate factors.  And in that is the sense of the infinite and one’s relatively small place in a system of limitless variation.

The live encounter leads to a sense of wonder and hope and belief that there is more to it than one can know.  Any particular outcome  becomes a slim chance that tries credibility.  A miracle.  And in the presence of a miracle, one has the sensation of participating in a system of limitless variation, of infinite possibility, like a stone face, the face of rock.

On rock – actual and real outdoor rock – the variations are infinite.  The possibilities for holds and opposition and the forces one can exert to propel oneself upward are endless.  A challenging route presents a dauntingly complex mental puzzle, which in the midst of the physical challenge of actually pulling the moves can be debilitatingly frustrating.  There is topography of irreproducible minuteness that enables individual expression of unique and infinite variation.

And therein lies the paradox of the live encounter with rock – for there is paradox at the center of every live encounter.  Rock climbing at once affirms both the individual’s uniqueness and his insignificance, two awarenesses, which, in more or less equal measure, combine to create humble confidence, tempered power, and a sense of one’s unique place in an infinite universe.

Not so on manufactured holds – though I have no investment in that idea.  I have faith that it is possible to have a live encounter on simulacra.  After all, the live encounter only requires spontaneity, intuition, proximity to the thing itself, and unpredictability of outcome, but for all of the times I have seen a student exalt in triumph at the top of a climb, coming down in awe of rock, I have never seen anyone in awe of plywood and plastic.