Learning Obliquely

Last week Kate Haney turned me onto a really interesting article on the web site for Intelligent Life (a quarterly journal published by the Economist) about professionalism that I’ve been pondering ever since (thanks, Kate!).  The article starts out talking about professionalism in sports (cricket, specifically) and the way that our understanding of the terms “amateur” and “professional” has shifted with time.  While “amateur” might have been used at one time to describe someone who embarks on something (a hobby, sport) for the love of it – not to be paid or to be perfect – but because they’re having fun with it.  But these days, when we use the term “amateur”, it is usually in a pejorative sense.  As in sloppy, slap-dash, and without care.  Professionalism, the author suggests, is in ascendancy.  We are all encouraged to be professional.  To have professional wins.  To take a professional attitude.  To rise above – and act professionally.  But what does that get us, really?

The author goes on to talk about professionalism in education and how it can have the unfortunate consequence of hemming teachers in, limiting spontaneity, and short-changing students… Teachers being asked to prepare detailed lesson plans for every minute of their day, curriculum guidelines, mission statements, covenants, and – of course, the hand maiden of professionalism — Assessment.

But it’s when he connects these thoughts to a forthcoming book by the economist John Kay, entitled Obliquity, that my mind really started to race.  In his book, apparently, Kay puts forth the notion that complex goals (like investment banking, and, say, teaching young minds) are best gone at obliquely. That is, as a by-product of something else, rather than an end in and of itself.  What an interesting notion to consider.

And consider it I did, at the grocery store, that same week. I was going about my business when I spotted a young woman with a toddler who was clearly putting his first language connections together.  The boy had a bag of M&M candies clutched in his hand.  As they approached the cashier, the boy stopped suddenly in his tracks, visibly gob-smacked. He stood there; staring at the cashier who, as it turned out, was wearing a smock decorated with the M&M cartoon characters.  The boy’s mother was oblivious to the amazing moment this boy was undergoing, since she was busy putting her groceries on the conveyer belt..  I watched carefully as he stepped a little closer to check his data. Nodding his head, he said in a clear, loud voice, “SAME!”

A little oblique learning going on there.



Filed under Reflections on Teaching

2 responses to “Learning Obliquely

  1. Kate

    Kids are great that way, aren’t they?

    We recently discovered that Teddy knows our phone number. We’ve never taught him our phone number, but he rattled it off to the librarian when asked (she needed it to register him for a Lego class — clearly very important!).

    Now I’m wondering if I should quit worrying about teaching him other things he “should” know and just let him discover on his own.

  2. Love it, Kate. That’s just it – they’re sponges! And, as you point out, when it’s important (and what, I ask you, is more important than registering for a lego class?!), just try to stop them.

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