Author Betty Edwards introduced that quote with:
Not all creators find mental shifts from imagery back to language (for verification) an easy matter. The great nineteenth century geneticist Francis Galton wrote…
The verification Edwards mentions is the fifth of what she calls the five stages of the creative process. I crafted a condensed version in our original blog then refocused it after we made the move back to our root directory.
Quoted in JACQUES HADAMARD, The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field, 1945 [obviously without the hyperlinks]
The point of all this?
I share Galton’s small annoyance.
Man, the impact those words had on me. I can still remember reading them—and rereading them—in Drawing on the Artist Within while sitting at my drawing board in a downstairs bedroom of our rented house at 4681 Edison St. overlooking San Diego’s Mission Bay almost 30 years ago.
The book was filled with quotes, theories, and observations that spoke directly to me. I’d never read anything like it. Truth is, I’d never read much of anything besides comic books for the first 25 years of my life. Once I finally began reading, it was mostly the likes of Clarke, Asimov, and Herbert. This book, however, marked the real beginning of my formal education, self-directed though it was—and is.
Then as now—heck, as long as I can remember—my thoughts scatter, flow, leap, connect, and reconnect faster than I could ever capture in words. And finally, it was as if someone else understood. But explaining my own thoughts… Yeah, verbal maladroitness.
Perhaps in this instance linguistic maladroitness might be a more relevant term for my malady.
Regardless. Here we are. Again. Trying to explain.
Ah, if only it weren’t for that other pesky problem…
In 1979, PBS aired a special commemorating the one-hundredth anniversary of Albert Einstein’s birth. It described how Einstein’s exploration of relativity was fueled by a vision and a revelation. This led him to stipulate, if I may oversimplify, that no observation is relevant unless a point of reference and a frame of reference are established prior to making any observations.
Seems like an unlikely catalyst for a personal epiphany, but that marks the moment I began my own investigation. I planted my metaphorical feet and established my own point of view. I looked at the world through a custom frame of reference and asked my question of life.
Since then, I’ve spent a great deal of time trying to share my observations, almost always in vain. I understand the fundamental problem, I just haven’t figured out how to solve it yet.
Think of reality (or any portion thereof) as an irregularly-shaped, three-dimensional object. Each of us perceives this object from an ever-changing set of coordinates in the space surrounding it—our evolving personal perspective. When we discuss our perceptions without considering what Einstein said about the necessity of first establishing the parameters for our respective observations, we are virtually guaranteed to miscommunicate.
Because we didn’t first establish a common point of reference—the place from which we are making our observations—we are most likely perceiving different portions of the object. And because we didn’t establish a common frame of reference—the criteria we utilize when making our observations—we are most likely perceiving different qualities of the object. For instance, I may be predisposed to focus on texture while you might marvel at color.
In any case, the perceptual experience is so subjective, and our language is so contextual, it is virtually impossible to put our respective observations into words and have any assurance that we’ve successfully communicated even if we take Einstein’s advice and begin by establishing his fundamental parameters.
Don’t be discouraged, though. We can turn to another great thinker for our inspiration. Virgil said:
They can, because they think they can.
When I find my personal perspective out-of-whack, I try to take Einstein’s advice to heart and climb back onto my own point of reference.
Life had never made much sense to me. Back in ’79, when circumstances enabled me to break through my perceptual logjam, it suddenly began to.
From my own point of view, I looked at the world and asked, “What is real?” My frame of reference was: It’s real if it seems to be real.
It’s obvious in retrospect, but ignoring what everyone else had told me was so and looking for myself was stunning, revealing, breathtaking.
But most of all, isolating.
Since then, using only these childishly simple references, I’ve begun to understand. Of course, much of what I perceive is utter nonsense to others, so it takes considerable effort to maintain focus.
And that’s why Drawing on the Artist Within and all the books that followed are so important to me.
The rest will unfold in an atypical manner. Like the “many meanings” quote above and the ones that follow, there’s no direct path to a new paradigm. But with patient resolve, we’ll make it.
BTW, all of the rhythmic quotes come from this somewhat unusual attempt to tell the same ‘ol story in a different way.
Speaking of small annoyances, one of my current flatliners tried to hunt me yesterday for not maintaining a weekly blog of my own (even though I make a blog entry containing at least one video each and every school day).
But he and his friend were right to hunt me. I need to document my work more thoroughly. And, more importantly, I need to put it all on the line and ignore the inevitable consequences because out of the confusion and conflict a victory or two might emerge.
And finally, there actually are things I want to put into words—or at least make an honest attempt to. Things relating to recent rants on Twitter, the story unwinding here, and a few other things, some of which I’ve alluded to already.
For now, I believe it’s critically important we face the fact that our current education system is not adequately preparing kids for our rapidly changing world. And furthermore, I believe we are damaging—seriously damaging—young minds as they pass through our antiquated, yet well-intentioned edu-widget factories.
And that must stop!
So, in the spirit of Bach’s: You teach best what you most need to learn, let’s give it a go.
Do you remember kindergarten? Fifty-five years haven’t dimmed the memory of my first report card. I can’t recall any of the satisfactory marks but the three others? U. U. U!
The first had something to do with taking naps. I could ace that one today but back then? I had way too much energy to even think about naps. Even at five, I figured that one was stupid and didn’t matter.
The second: I bring worthwhile things to class. Ha! I remember my mom calling the teacher to explain that she didn’t understand I was actually expected to bring toys and stuff from home (as I’d told her). Not my fault so no big deal.
But the third U crushed my soul.
I sing songs in tune.
Yes, it actually said that on the report card. From that point forward I only pretended to sing, moving my mouth but not uttering a sound—not in school, not in church, not even at birthday parties.
I’m sure that seems like an indefensible overreaction to some of you. Even more outrageous, it spilled over to dancing and/or playing music. I knew I wasn’t good at those either because early attempts at both confirmed the fact.
I’ve always loved music. But for the following 18 years, music was a passive experience—something to listen to and nothing more.
Today I recognize that my overreaction to a silly mark on a meaningless piece of paper resulted in this fixed mindset. Is there anything more toxic to personal growth?
How many others might have been similarly scarred by our assessments?
And please tell me how we can assess and address the actual damage we may have inadvertently inflicted?
I firmly believe that grades are a pernicious tradition and they absolutely, positively poison the learning environment. If you prefer a more scholarly perspective, see this article.
Until we can eliminate grades entirely, we must make every effort to mitigate their damage.
Anything short of that would be… unsatisfactory.
The Shifting Horizon
Outside of a few other key moments, my K-12 experience was uninspiring. I graduated from high school with a 2.46 GPA and went to Cal Poly to study architecture that fall.
How, you might wonder, did I qualify for admittance with such a poor academic record?
I aced the entrance exam, of course.
Oh, I could pass tests, but as the years rolled on I began to ignore the homework and many of the pointless assignments. School—with a few significant exceptions—was an empty experience more akin to a daily internment camp than anything else.
The Teacher Effect
6th Grade: School was too easy for a few of us and Mr. Thom recognized the fact. He moved four of us to a table in the back of the room and told us to design our own curriculum. It was a mind-opening experience that I initially attacked with a will. We were given virtually complete freedom but with insufficient motivation I eventually ran out of steam and squandered the opportunity. Along the way, however, I worked more diligently than ever before on storytelling and art. I read a hundreds of comic books, expanded my vocabulary, and experienced my first claim to fame. Here’s a close up of my pitiful attempt to avoid work. Oh, I also filled out my own report card.
7th Grade: I was good at math and actually enjoyed the subject. Numbers felt right. I remember playing with them one night and inadvertently discovering some sort of mathematical proof. It was beautiful and worked for any number except zero. I hurried to math class the next day to show the teacher. Maybe he was having a bad day or maybe he was trying to get something else done when I burst in and excitedly shared the discovery. With hardly a glance he said something like, “If it doesn’t work for every number it’s invalid.” I crumpled the paper, threw it in the trash, and sat at my desk devoid of the joy I’d felt for the subject only a moment before. Perhaps a more resilient individual would have used the failure as a call to redouble his efforts. But I reacted poorly. For me, it was a door closing and math became a chore. I don’t remember the teacher’s name.
— Cautionary tale.
8th Grade: Embolden by my experience with Mr. Thom and my abject loathing of writing book reports about books I’d scan but wouldn’t ever read, I asked the English teacher—I’m ashamed that I no longer remember her name—if I might write and perform plays instead. I spent far more time writing and revising and rehearsing and performing multiple plays (even at lunch for other students) than any other project in K-12. The introvert who stammered when forced to speak in class had no qualms about performing.
11th Grade: Art and design came naturally to me, so naturally I was the best in our mechanical drawing class. When we compared report cards, I was shocked to discover all the students around me received A’s. After class, I approached Mr. Guy—who was also the school’s grizzled wrestling coach—and asked how I could have gotten a B when the others received A’s. He slammed his pen on the desk, looked me in the eye, and said, “Them guys ain’t thinkin’ about drawin’ pictures for a living!” What was left unsaid was evident to both of us. The class was a breeze for me and I was only going through the motions.
— The cornerstone of WSR. (The World’s Simplest Rubric)
Your Horizon of Expectation
Search and you’ll find business leaders complaining that most college grads don’t possess the critical skills today’s world requires while universities bemoan the growing number of incoming freshmen they claim aren’t prepared for the rigors of college.
And high schools? Think about it. We’re supposed to prepare students for career and college—for careers that may or may not exist when our students enter the working world and for colleges that don’t seem to be preparing students for the rigors of the real world.
What’s a teacher to do? Or perhaps more importantly, what can a teacher do to make a difference in students’ lives—right here and right now?
It turns out there’s quite a lot we can do. But almost all of it conflicts with common sense.
And this is the point at which I typically lose whatever tenuous connection we might have begun to establish.
But history isn’t repeating itself this time, is it?
As a final favor, may I ask that you consider a hundred words or so before we say adieu?
And most of them aren’t even mine.
Additional posts and anything meaningful I’ll try to say won’t really matter unless you consider something most people are completely unwilling to face.
They’re just words. Just ideas. And mostly from folks you already think are pretty darn smart.
Just read a little way down this page. You’ll know when to stop.
That was fun. And hard.
As is my ill-advised practice, I publish and update as I write and revise. The 94th revision (WordPress keeps a tally) will occur when I add this afterword.
Just want to make it clear that I’ll continue to revise because as we say in The Mac Lab, “You’re never finished.”
Iteration is in our DNA.
Besides, I know there are probably dozens of grammatical errors, confusing verbiage, and other bonehead mistakes present.
Happens every time.