Monday, December 26, 2011

Casual Discoveries and Real Learning

To break the monotony, I pull completed fuel managers from the seam setter and put them in various locations on the conveyor belt. Previously, I’ve placed largely at random—now I set them in specific locations. All along the far edge of the conveyor, for instance. Along the near edge. Along the middle. And wherever I place them, when they reach the overflow guard at the end, they cluster in the same pattern.

As the conveyor tries to push the cylindrical fuel managers off the end, and the overflow guard prevents that, the units form six-point radial symmetry. Kids who have arranged pennies on a flat tabletop will recognize this pattern: six circles completely surround a seventh of equal size. The central circle has six radial contact points in a symmetrical array. This pattern can expand forever without interruption, as long as the circles remain equal.

The fuel managers assume this pattern, no matter where I set them on the conveyor. Once they leave my hands, they face three basic forces: the horizontal impetus that wants to push them off the far end, the overflow guard that will not permit that, and gravity, which ensures they don’t just fly off willy-nilly. These three forces always produce the same results. My attempts to manipulate conditions don’t matter.

I feel the swelling potential of insight challenging factory work’s tedium. If they always assume the same pattern, that must mean something. The laws of thermodynamics say that, in a closed system, components form an entropic jumble. These units would not form such orderly patterns if I dumped them on the floor. But, because the conveyor provides constant inputs, this is not a closed system. Therefore it strives for geometric order.

The fuel managers don’t just sit there, absorbing their three inputs, however. They are tall and cylindrical, with smooth metal shells. As the conveyor’s momentum builds tension with the unmoving guard arm, the fuel managers rotate, accumulating friction that turns into surface heat. Good thing another worker will soon remove these fuel managers from the line, or they might overheat, become warped, then... what?

What would happen if the thin metal cylinders became distorted? Would they warp equally, or would random chance disturb the orderly system? Perhaps entropy would halt my orderly experiment. Like the ocean, a system which seems orderly on a granular level could prove chaotic on a large scale. Is a system truly open if all forces exist equally and behave in unvarying ways? Oh, the questions!

The history of science abounds with stories of profound discoveries arising from mundane events. Consider Newton’s apple tree, or Archimedes and his bath. The myths surrounding Pythagoras describe him making several discoveries while sitting, watching wind tousle the long grass. The intricate patterns produced, which appear random, actually reflect the interaction of simple forces in predictable, but not controllable, ways.

Sort of like my fuel managers on the line.

But modern schoolhouses, like factories and discount stores, tend to be boxy, windowless cells. This reinforces the notion that our discontents can be settled only by passively receiving what this facility peddles, whether a job, a consumer good, or a diploma. Students who engage in open-ended rumination outside the book are dismissed as daydreamers, and some who balk most demonstratively at the structure are medicated until they comply.

The very process that has produced our most profound discoveries could be easily replicated in the school environment. Youth care little for Avogadro’s constant or Planck mass if they read about them in books. Even laboratory experiments seem distant from real life. But if students see these concepts in play, as I saw thermodynamics in my fuel managers, we can kindle real curiosity that they can only sate through deep learning.

Therefore I propose that, if we really want students to learn, we need to get them out of school. Not that we should abolish institutions of learning, but that we should take them outside the inflexible, controlled classroom, and let them see the world around them. Guided opportunities to make discoveries like the one I made on the factory line would inspire growing curiosity and a love of learning.

Our students are not educated because they memorize facts in tables, or perform experiments with known outcomes. They are educated when they have the wherewithal to face unknown, unpredictable situations without fear, and pursue productive goals. We teachers can provide that. We just need to step outside our classrooms and encourage their natural desire to discover.

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