Navigating Education While Blindfolded

Key Points

  • How often are students asked what they really care about? 

  • How often are they provided time to observe their environment and determine problems? 

  • What happens if we begin to ask these questions?

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Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Do you remember the popular birthday game Pin the Tail on the Donkey? A brief explanation is in order.  First, you blindfold the participant. Then you put a paper tail in their hand, give a few spins to disorient them, and finally point them in the direction of a paper tailless donkey taped to the wall. This may sound more cruel than fun yet the game is a perfect parallel to my recent observations in the world of education.

Education is a Donkey Party

Though the origins of the children’s game are not definitive, it predates compulsory elementary education in the United States by about 30 years. On December 27, 1886, The Sun, a New York newspaper, reported on the game and its rules. These parties were considered the latest thing in the way of social gatherings. The article reports how “the movements of the blindfolded are apt to be ludicrous.” Further, the person who puts the tail closest to where it belongs, “receives a present of some kind, while the guest who makes the most unsuccessful effort gets the prize.”

The course I facilitate need not necessarily be the brunt of responsibility, nor the students. Rather, what bears close scrutiny is to beg the question, “How did we get here?” More importantly, “How do we get where we want to go?”

To begin with, I suggest we stop attempting to pin the tail on the donkey!

How Did We Get Here?

This year, I began my senior-level capstone course by taking time to develop trust and a sense of community. This naturally transitioned into an ideation phase and conversations of head, heart, and purpose. Guest speakers shared strategies such as Ikigai, a Japanese concept referring to a reason for living. It allowed for students to reflect on what they loved to do, what they are good at, and how they might be able to share this to bring value to other people’s lives. It is a bit like going inside oneself while at the same time, launching out into infinite space where the ceiling of possibility is beyond even the 30,000-foot level. The intent was to launch into a brainstorm of possible areas of focus for the year-long experience representing the pinnacle of their learning. From the overlapping Venn diagrams and lists students created, the next logical step was to identify problems related to their passions.

How often are students asked what they really care about?

Matt Piercy

This however proved a bit trite. Moreover, inverted. Feeling blindfolded and spun around a few times, I attempted to pin the tail on this donkey. I couldn’t quite figure out why the problems were actually veiled in solutions.

And then I realized.

How often are students asked what they really care about? How often are they provided time to observe their environment and determine problems? Further, how often do they truly make choices? And see them through! It is this transference where learning is most optimal. Many students surely had done projects in their previous 12+ years of school, but even these likely were contained within very specific parameters. Often the same stifling parameters disempower. Indicative in such environments is the likely imbalance of teacher talk time compared with student “do” time. Then, there is the most glaring or shackled past when a seventeen-year-old asks for permission to go to the bathroom!  

The end line of such a trajectory can be disheartening. Yet I tell myself, “There is still time!”  There is always time to engender optimism while being strategic in how we might once again tap into the wellspring and joy of learning.

Instead of being like cogs in the wheel, the call is to throw ourselves like wrenches into the system. A system bent on limiting possibility. “Better safe than sorry.” And so, it should come as no surprise that when we ask a student to focus on a problem, they jump right to a not-so-creative solution. A seemingly disorienting game of sorts, Pin the Donkey on the Tail.

And so the preliminary step is to determine a problem.  Something students truly care about. Then, to dream big. With no consideration for “when” or “how.”  

Not Just a Hammer

Looking at the psychology that might lurk behind things is often a helpful starting point. That which we tell ourselves to be true. In this case, regardless of the classroom, location in the world, or the age of learners, the truth is that there is an abundance of genius. Students know so much but also possess a variety of skill sets. Some just await the conditions for them to be realized. Keeping curiosity alit is integral. To return to asking questions and being comfortable when there may be no answer…YET. A myriad of pathways. Each is exciting.

However, so often is the case that this is in perfect opposition to a status quo bent on the pretense of answers, dead ends, and uncertainty.

It was Abraham Maslow who shared with us the concept he called the “law of instrument.” How, “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.” And so was the case with my students. Thinking they all had but a hammer, they looked for where they might find a nail. An over-reliance on the familiar.  Or, maybe a more fair approach is a realization on my part that maybe students simply were doing what they have been conditioned to do.

How We Get to Where We Want to Go

Chief amongst our attempts to rewrite the current narrative of education must be a willingness to be bold.  To look inside and outside ourselves, at yesterday, today and most importantly at what is before us tomorrow. Possibly in repose, but surely with wisdom.  To reflect but then apply because we simply know enough to be doing something(s) differently. Thinking and pretending that we can continue to organize learning by age groups, subjects, time blocks, grades, and desks is more dizzying than Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Instead, it may behoove us, to begin with these three fundamentals:

1. Engage students in ways that provide far more opportunities for them to take charge of their learning. Central in this is personalization and constructivism.

2. Streamline core competencies and as a team decide upon not only milestones but how excellence looks, sounds, and possibly even feels.

3. Design learning to be collaborative, authentic, and purposeful.

It seems the buzz of “21st Century” this, that, and the other is over. Rightfully so, as we near the close of the 22nd year of this 2nd millennium. Now is the time to dedicate ourselves to the design of learning for the 22nd Century. One which is sure to provide far more flexibility in time and space, problem-solving, and connection. One hopefully where the donkey’s tail will no longer need to be pinned.

Matt Piercy

Matt Piercy works at the International School Bangkok.

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