Friday, October 7, 2011

I Take the Challenge

                About two weeks ago, I posted a challenge.  I asked readers to complete the phrase “School as a ___.” I would then have the challenge of completing a “meditation” explaining the completed phrase.
                There were several strong suggestions, and I would have found any of them fertile ground. But “crucible” both struck me as most interesting and received two votes…so “School as a Crucible” it is.
                Before I launch into this, I need to make a disclaimer. As this is a “meditation,” I’m really figuring this out as I write after having done just a bit of poking around the Internet and thinking. It isn’t thoroughly edited and polished. Apologies for that!

School as a Crucible
School as a crucible: a sturdy container in which the contents are challenged, altered, and fused to create beauty, strength, and resilience. (Kara Name’s comment on the post posing the challenge)
The crucible has always been a melting pot for valuable materials, the origin of new alloys, materials of innovation. How should the post-industrial Crucible melt and blend ideas? (from the website of Crucible: Research in Interdisciplinary Design)

Kara’s quotation defines a crucible. While the basic purpose of a crucible has remained the same, they actually have a rich history. The first ones date from the sixth/fifth millennium in Eastern Europe and Iran. You can follow their development in terms of composition and specific purpose through the Iron Age and Roman Era and Medieval Period right into current days. (If you’re really interested, click here.) Of course, the advances have appeared more rapidly as science and technologies have improved. In a way, the history of the crucible could become metaphorical for the history of modern human development in some ways. Certainly you could draw enough lines to branch into multiple areas.
So here I will draw my first one to school—the really big one. How we educate our children—the whole system of education—really follows this same pattern. Particularly now, science and technology have started having an enormous impact on the possibilities within education. We know more and more about the human brain, which promotes a new form of cognitive science far removed from simple behaviorism and rote learning. Technology has shifted humans from pure consumers of information to creators and collaborators, and great schools are preparing them for that role. In less grandiose terms, think about the time-honored research paper. The process and preparation of the final product will never again rely on index cards. We may even have to scrap using the word paper. Research project, perhaps? Why not a multimedia presentation on…?
But that doesn’t really capture school as a crucible. Consider it context, and it becomes relevant.
 Just as the basic purpose of a crucible has not changed, the basic purposes of education have not really changed even if curricula, settings, approaches, et cetera have. A crucible takes materials and breaks them down. They are then often recombined to form something new and better. Education is not just about giving students knowledge and equipping them with skills. Often it involves breaking down their assumptions and misunderstandings; then the effective teacher helps a student reconstruct the new points into greater understanding. That’s the Socratic method in a nutshell.
                The process, of course, involves both science and art. There are objectives and measurements and certain set processes. Formulae must be followed along the path to higher levels, i.e. drill your math facts so you can do algebra without having to think about basic computation. That’s all scientific to a degree. The art comes in when the teacher heats the crucible. Keep the flame too low and the right challenge isn’t there. Overheat things and the stress impedes the desired learning.  One has to add just the right elements to the mix. That becomes more like my grandmother making chicken soup than any recipe.
Interestingly, I see some of the other ways in which the word crucible has been used fitting in with the metaphor. Crucible: Research in Interdisciplinary Design ( the Cambridge, England-based group cited in the second quotation at the start) focuses on interdisciplinary education. This approach breaks down the traditional academic disciplines in the hopes of forging new understandings. We hope that students do this, but I suspect it occurs mainly when we rearrange programs for this express purpose. Crucible is the name of software used for the peer review of computer code. This approach harnesses the power of collaboration, a method that draws on each person’s respective strengths and allows him or her to learn through the process. Arthur Miller wrote The Crucible as a commentary on McCarthyism, but one could also see it as a story of adolescent rebellion against adult repression.
Finally, the crucible is the last stage of recruit training for the U.S. Marines—when a Marine has to draw on all the knowledge and skills gained during boot camp. Some of you may recall this commercial for the Marines that highlights a glimmering sword being forged.

In the really big picture, that best captures school as a crucible. Early on, a student enters the crucible. For the next number of years, myriad experiences are added to the combustion. When all the factors combine correctly, the student emerges not as something new, but as an improved version of him- or herself.

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