“If you keep your mind open stuff will fall in” — that excellent adage is the invention of Tommy Hunkeler, a grade-six student at Elizabeth Ziegler Public School in Waterloo. Tommy, along with more than a hundred other people (ranging from elementary school students, to undergraduates, to university faculty members), participated in a contest that was part of the 2009 Loving to Learn Day. The contest challenged everyone to create an “education quotation,” that is, a statement of twenty-five words or less that captured their perspective on learning. What struck me, as the adjudicator of the contest submissions, was how so many of the best submissions came from young people. Tommy’s quotation, noted above, rivals the well-known bon mots of Oscar Wilde for its wit, brevity, and elegance. Another submission, that of Abigail Johnson, a grade-nine student at Rockway Mennonite Collegiate, reminds me of the poems of Emily Dickinson, with its evocative imagery: “Learning is like a house filled with open doors.” Dorothy Parker, the sharp-tongued contributor to The New Yorker, would have loved the epigram coined by Jeff Velkovic, another grade-nine student in Kitchener: “Learning is like living in a shoe — sometimes it stinks, sometimes it doesn’t.” How many of us, who work in higher education, could come up with a quotation as memorable and evocative (or provocative) as the ones devised by these youngsters? Well, maybe we all could, but I think it would take us a lot of effort to scrape away the barnacles that years of being submerged in academia have, ironically, encrusted over our naive (and therefore beautiful) understanding of what learning is. I wouldn’t go so far as Bertrand Russell, who said, “Men are born ignorant, not stupid; they are made stupid by education” — but I do fear that higher education can sometimes dull the sheen of wonder that mantles the world of children and adolescents. When he visited the University of Waterloo a couple years ago, Carl Wieman, the Nobel-prize winning physicist and Director of the Science Education Initiative at UBC, alluded to a study that compared the attitudes held by undergraduates before and after finishing a first-year course in biology. That study concluded that over the course of one term, “There is a decline in curiosity about biological issues, especially in the bottom and top groups.” Do students start to close their minds, and allow less “stuff” to fall in, as they seek to deal with the finite course material that they will be graded upon? Does the gradually increasing pressure of having a career outweigh the pleasure of having a mind filled with many open doors? Tell me what you think. I’m curious.
As Senior Instructional Developer, Mark Morton helps instructors implement new educational technologies such as clickers, wikis, concept mapping tools, question facilitation tools, screencasting, and more. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Mark taught for twelve years in the English Department at the University of Winnipeg. He received his PhD in 1992 from the University of Toronto, and is the author of four books: Cupboard Love; The End; The Lover's Tongue; and Cooking with Shakespeare. View all posts by Mark Morton