The Big Idea


Are you a teacher, a parent, or otherwise part of the public that’s concerned about the lamentable state of learning in America? Welcome to our community of like-minded folks! I invite you to consider a subject that I think should concern all of us: the death of creative and critical thinking among Gen-iPhone learners, the failure of institutional education to foster that thinking, and the hostility of Americans toward learning, teaching, and education.


I further invite you to consider an idea (a Big Idea) that can enable learners to find meaning and understanding in what they learn, instead of just more information… of which we already have more than we know what you do with. In fact, The Economist says that we’re now exposed to five times the amount of information that we were in 1983. And the onslaught of information that is largely bereft of meaning just continues to swell. Everywhere you look, people are stuck on their phones, fire-hosing themselves with multimedia whiz-bang, mindless amusements, and Info-Twinkies that require no thinking, no processing, no digestion, no questioning. The Phone has taken all the heavy lifting out of learning (or what passes for it), and the Divided States of America become ever more divided… between those who are in the habit of thinking creatively and critically and those who just do the job and don’t ask questions; between those who decide and those who do not; between those who lead and those who follow. The implications are huge (Facebook) and make Orwell seem like an optimist. “Keep ’em amused” seems to be the strategy here.


What is the Big Idea? Nothing could be simpler. Today’s learners are visual learners (we all are, actually). Think about it: is it possible to think of anything without a mental image popping up to associate it with? An image comes with associations: the color red is variously associated with debt, wine, anger, rage, and radical politics. It’s these associations that lend meaning to the object they’re associated with. When you relate information with other information, you create meaning. When you get people to think about things in terms of what they mean, everything lights up and the learner well and truly gets it.


I use WisdomMaps for lots of reasons, but for the purpose of this exercise, they’re a ready source of great images to tee up class discussion. Here’s how it might work. Ask a student to select an image, either from their perusal of the maps if WisdomMaps is what you’re using, or any other digital image related to the subject. If you’re studying the Aztec, maybe they’ll select an image of human sacrifice. From their perusal of the websites or the videos or the other multimedia they encountered in the maps, the student notes that the Aztec required a daily sacrifice atop their pyramids to appease the sun god… and ensure that the sun would rise the next day.


Ahah… your teaching moment is at hand. As mentor, you draw upon your wide-ranging knowledge of history and the human condition and volunteer the observation that many traditional societies, from Hawaiians to Hindus, used sacrifice to beseech the protection and favor of the gods so that their crops will be abundant and their enemies complaisant. In fact, their relationship to the gods (as Nature) is central to their way of thinking about lots of things. Nature (and its multiplicity of deities) sustains them, spiritually and in the flesh, and they reciprocate with rituals that thank the gods for their gifts and ensure their continuing supply.

This could then segue into consideration of what divides the group-oriented “sacred society” from the individualistic, Western-style “secular society”. Self-interest is anathema to the sacred: no private property, no profit motive, no individualism, no me, my, and mine: the well-being of the community is paramount. Yet, from the secular perspective, “I think, therefore I am”, and because I am a creature of reason and logic, the mind rules, and my mind is the master of my world. I get out of bed in the morning to move in straight-line progression from Point A to Point B, developing and improving both my bottom line and things in general as I go along. Self-interest drives my day, and when I win, everyone wins.


Is it any wonder that every time the West encountered the Rest of the World, so many things went so terribly wrong? The history of cross-cultural contact is an endless fount of lessons in What Not to Do, and the savings of blood and treasure that might have been had by simply not repeating the mistakes of the past gives some indication of the true value of wisdom. (Above rubies, indeed.) As teachers, we guide and mentor that process. That’s what we do that nobody else can do.


I’m always amazed at where these discussions go. Everyone’s got a different take, and each image begins a story that opens up more perspectives, and the learning grows organically as the teacher pulls things together into the Big Picture and the knowledge relationships come alive with meaning. This is how teachers help students teach each other, and as any teacher knows, the best way to learn something is to teach it (however badly at first). As Socrates said, “education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”


Aloha… Terrence Monroe