De-inventing the Wheel

Wheels wouldn't really work here. Well, maybe a unicycle.
Wheels wouldn't really work here. Well, maybe a unicycle. source: frontiere_des_provinces_hida_et_etchu.jpg

So far I’ve been quite impressed by the results of the un-essay project brilliantly devised by my colleague Rebekah. We’re still in the middle of the project in my classes, but giving the students the task of successfully defending an essay-like thesis statement without imposing the structure of an essay seems like it will produce a lot of interesting, persuasive multimedia projects.

As someone with a lot of respect for the traditional forms of rhetoric and academic writing I felt a bit of anxiety at the abandonment of the essay part of the project, but I think it was a good move.

Upon reflection, I actually hope to feel that kind of anxiety on a regular basis.

To use some ideas from my Humanities class: 1) I don’t want me or my students to grow boisei molars, and 2) I want us to de-invent the wheel when we need to. What do I mean? Read on! Or don’t. I’m going to keep typing either way.

The Inexpert Ape

Nice molars dude. Shame about the extinction.
Nice molars dude. Shame about the extinction. source:

We’re learning about early humans in Grade 6. We watched some of an action-packed BBC documentary called Walking with Cavemen. In the second episode, the placid, herbivorous Paranthropus boisei are contrasted with the struggling, scavenging Homo habilis. One of the most intriguing ideas of the show to me – and one that the students seem to get quickly, albeit after a bit of discussion – is the reason the show presents for the extinction of the doomed P. boisei.

Long story short: the boisei were experts at something. They were specialized.

It killed them.

They had, we learn, evolved huge jaws and teeth to grind tough vegetable matter. As the documentary imagines it they spent their days lounging and munching in canebrakes like gorillas or pandas, without a care in the world.

The show’s Homo habilis, however, are not specialized. They’re shown clumsily trying to raid bees’ nests and snatch bits of carrion before the lions show up. They aren’t really experts in anything.

But by the end of the episode, the world undergoes a climate change due to an ice age, and the boisei can’t survive the loss of their particular cozy environment. The struggling Homo habilis, however, are forced by their ineptitude to be inquisitive, inventive and endlessly adaptable. They can barely scrape together enough to eat. So they make tools, they crack open bones, and they survive.

Jack of all trades, master of none, really smelly.
Jack of all trades, master of none, really smelly.

As I discussed with the 6th graders after watching this tale, the IB Learner Profile has several words for the qualities students should have. One of them is “Inquirers”. “Specialized Experts in One Thing” is not on that list.

Whatever academic task or area is being investigated, I want me (and my students) to have the flexibility to adapt to changing situations, and not to evolve boisei molars – those comfortable crutches that allowed the ill-fated apes to munch away at vegetation that they were incapable of realizing wouldn’t always be around. I feel like this comparison has a lot of resonance with approaches to technology in the classroom and more generally to teachers, learners, sages, stages, or fossilized ways of doing things.

De-inventing the Wheel

Try driving a cart through that.
Try driving a cart through that. source: travellers-crossing-the-oi-river-by-katsushika-hokusai.jpg

This one will hopefully take less explanation. In medieval Japan, educated folks who’d been to China or other countries had definitely seen wheeled vehicles. But, aside from certain very heavy ox-carts, Japan before the arrival of the Americans was essentially a wheel-less society. People carried things on their backs. People carried other people on their backs.

Does this mean the Japanese were backward or primitive? Of course not – it just means that the wheel wasn’t the best tool for the job, given their environment and situation at the time. Japan back then was full of raging rivers, steep hills, and cheap labor. The wheel made no sense in that environment. I’ll let this guy explain it:

As a 20th-century American I was educated to believe that the wheel was the bee’s knees in terms of human cleverness. It was essentially the first thing cavemen came up with after fire and the arrowhead.

Before the axle rose. Slash.
source: bF5-2V5iFRE/s400/FarSide.jpg

The idea that people might TURN DOWN the use of the wheel, might say “eh, no thanks”, that it might not be the right “fit” for an entire civilization for centuries would seem preposterous. But it’s true, it happened, and I want me and my students to be flexible enough to see those times when the wheel is, well, stupid.

The other side of this analogy is, of course, to note how fast Japan adapted to the wheel once there was a paradigm shift. They ignored the wheel when it wouldn’t have worked for them, but the instant they saw how it could, they changed their way of doing things.

Imagine how refusal to give up certain “fundamentals” in terms of educational content or teaching style could parallel this example. I’m sure you get the idea. Sure, there might be certain important background skills or concepts everyone should be exposed to, but in some ways there are no absolute fundamentals. There is no rigid hierarchy of inventions or tools or skills that everyone absolutely must know. There are only appropriate responses to the environment one finds oneself in, and the skills that best lead one to make those appropriate responses. That’s how I want to face new situations, and that’s the attitude I want to inspire in my students. And I think being anxious about trying new things in the classroom is a sign that I’m moving in the right direction.

2 thoughts on “De-inventing the Wheel

  1. Brilliant post, Alex. I loved all the visuals and your choice of the YouTube video was perfect. They added new dimensions and a different voice to this piece. If I had to pick a word the post as a response I would say multifaceted. If I could pick a second word I would say interconnected. I felt like I was watching a juggler keeping in the air a number of different balls but obviously aware of how each one fits into the pattern. This was entertaining an enjoyable on so many levels. Thank you!

  2. Sweet post, Alex. As in s-w-e-e-t! I completely agree that we grow enormously when we intentionally place ourselves in a new learning situation, adapt to the new environment and figure out how to be okay (maybe not Zen… but still breathing) with the anxiety that comes with that uncertainty. An example… tonight I went to hear a jazz band – indigo jam unit – play at the Red Brick Warehouse… on my own. I had no idea about the rules (and there were many as you can imagine) and no safety net. The band was brilliant and I felt the happiest I have since coming to Yokohama. As Alex Thomas says to our PSHE9 students, “Come on! Take the risk!” P.S. I am not giving back that wheel! Thanks for checking.

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