The 1884 novella Flatland explores the perspective, movements, and relationships of human-like creatures who might inhabit worlds with different numbers of dimensions. It is the stuff of social satire and science fiction, what often provoke us to radical or disruptive thinking. What if the universe in which we live is actually very different from the one we perceive around us? Are we missing entire dimensions of opportunity, degrees of freedom, because we have been brought up thinking that our world is less “dimensioned” than it really is?
I lay awake the other night thinking: What if a fish did not know it lived in a pond? Would it still swim?
We think that the nature of a fish is to move through its fluid environment, but if that fluid is as unknown to the fish as is the third dimension to a Flatlander, then it seems the fish could not move thusly. Maybe the fish is frozen in space; maybe it moves in some other way; maybe there is no such thing as “fish” if there is no such thing as “pond”. I posed this koan on Twitter yesterday. Evellyn Elizondo, PhD, suggested, “In any new or unfamiliar situation our natural tendency is to regress to what is comfortable or known”. Dr. Eric Chagala quoted Albert Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
Why did this question jump into my mind and keep me up much of the night? I question why some educators and school communities are stuck in an outdated model of learning, why others move forward, and the social dangers of a widening gap between those groups. I look for points of leverage around which we can radically scale meaningful change. The world has become a much more fluid place with vastly greater opportunity for movement and connection amongst people, places, organizations, and knowledge. As most recently and fully articulated by Robert Putnam in Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, many of these opportunities are already unequally distributed based on social, economic, and geographic conditions. It is a primary role of education to mitigate this inequality to the greatest extent possible.
Might it be that some educators recognize that they are deeply part of this rapidly connecting world, while others do not? We would not think negatively of those who have yet to make this connection, any more than creatures in a four-dimensional universe should think less of those in a three-dimensional world. But it would explain why some educators and schools are rapidly transforming from a static place of desks in straight rows and PowerPoint lectures to roiling stews of creative thinking, innovation, makerspaces and trans-disciplinary studies, while others are not.
I fear that many schools are like those fish that do not know they are in a pond, as absurd as that seems. If I have always lived in one system, and I suddenly find myself in a system with more dimensions or degrees of freedom, my sense is that most of us would freeze. Failing to recognize that we now lived in a pond, we would fail to swim, even though we have the fins and tail that make swimming perfectly natural.
The “pond”, the world around and outside of school, is a radically more connected, interwoven, constantly-changing world in which ideas and knowledge are created and flow in ways that are utterly new and different than throughout human history. Using the Flatland analogy, we have leapt from a universe of two dimensions to a universe of three or four dimensions. Those who recognize this will act (“swim”) in very different ways than those who do not. The gap between students, teachers and entire school communities that swim and those that do not will grow. We just can’t let that happen. The American Dream, what was until just recently the beacon of social evolution for the entire world, is already fragile enough.
Looking for a question to stir up a class of inquisitive, creative students? Give them mine and share their findings with us!
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