Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Data, Boxes, Curricula, Fork in the Road

"If you don't know where you're going, any road'll take you there." –paraphrase of an exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland
"If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else." and "When you come to the fork in the road, take it!" --Yogi Berra
            At the recent gathering of school heads from Independent Schools Association of the Southwest members, we heard a presentation which was about the relationship between big data and fundraising. More specifically, some of what big data has revealed about fundraising and some common practices we need to reconsider. I picked up some good tips and some pointed questions to ask. More than thought, I found myself thinking about some of the more general implications of big data.
            The speaker used the analogy of a reservoir that keeps filling up more and more. No surprise there, as we all know how much is out there…and how much more keeps appearing. He also compared it to advertising at Times Square; in the past, I’ve used the analogy of advertising at a hockey game. It’s really quite overwhelming, and it creates a certain pressure/guilt: I know all this information is out there, and I’m not really using it, but I sure should be, and I better spend all of this time mining through it, and I’ve got to see what patterns emerge, and what about what I’m not finding, and then there is that data that tells me how much better I could be using data, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. We’re lured by the siren song of data at the same time we’re told we have to think outside the box.
            Now, I like to think that I’m a reasonably intelligent person. But sometimes it’s all enough to make me—and, perhaps to make myself feel better, just about anyone—feel like a doddering simpleton.
            Some of that is because we’re human and how we learn. We develop conceptual schema. As we encounter anything new, we figure out how we can latch it onto some hook within those schema. Eventually we form a rather tightly woven intellectual framework. Our box.
            So when faced with torrents of data, most of us have the natural instinct to figure out how it fits into those boxes. Because of that tendency, telling someone to think outside the box can almost become not just a cliché but a platitude. Besides, it implies that in some ways the box is okay and we should leave it alone. We can venture outside it for a while, pretend to be all revolutionary in our thinking, but know the whole time we can return to the safety of those tried-and-true packing crates.
            As humans, we need boxes. They help us make sense of things. So I’m not saying we need to destroy the boxes. I’m arguing that we need to re-design them. How does great design begin? By asking much better, more beautiful questions.
            The larger point, of course, is about more than dealing with a deluge of data. It’s about new ways of thinking. This is hard to do with adults. But we can help young people become adults educated in ways that make this easier. In doing so, we need to take what I just said about boxes and consider the notion of curricula.
            As many of you surely know, the word curriculum has its roots in Latin and refers to a race or a course of action, a path. It implies a clear destination that one can reach by retracing proven steps. People often derive comfort from knowing that a school has a well-articulated, tightly-sequential curriculum. They may scoff or sneer at any deviations; at the least, they raise an eyebrow, maybe both. Enough people trod a path, and the ruts deepen. The ground hardens, inhibiting any chance of new growth. Those traveling the path, like the students in a classic scene from Dead Poets’ Society, fall into lockstep. They can end up marching right into boxes. Those boxes which perhaps used to work.
            Just as that presentation prompted me to think about re-designing boxes for development purposes (and for all other purposes), we need to be reconsidering every aspect of curriculum, explicit and implicit. After all, we’re living in a time when we don’t know exactly where we are going. Myriad possible paths will lead us there. None of us can know what they all are. But I’m positive that taking the same old path won’t have kids ready for what they encounter once they go get there. We reached that fork in the road a while ago.

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