The Test of Learning
The test of learning is the ability to improvise useful solutions in unpredictable environments.
The new future comes with new challenges. Our skills need upgrading, our processes want refining and our goals scream for revision. Add to these the complex discussions that threaten social structure and cohesion; navigating our place in the world feels impossible.
Wading through this morass can be painful but it doesn’t have to be disabling.
We can learn to be confident. And we can prepare to adapt to the worst. By being deliberate with our attention and intentioned in our actions, the surprises that cripple the unprepared can be a source of flight for the forewarned.
Modern minds face an inundation of information at a scale and tempo that’s unequaled in history.
News and social feeds have become winds. Winds shift our focus. Straining to catch the winds, we risk missing the currents that drive trends and shape history.
For educators, it means focusing on the tried and true over the trite and trivial.
For students, grasping the foundations and questioning assumptions become reliable indicators of future achievement.
Improvising Like a Pro
Gandalf Greyhame is the tutor and mentor of the Fellowship of The Ring: the organization of nine companions on a quest to destroy the One Ring of power forged by the Dark Lord Sauron.
Sauron made the One Ring to rule, using mind-control, over the free peoples and races of Middle Earth: Elves, Men, Dwarves, Orcs, Ents, Trolls, and Hobbits. But the One Ring was cut off from his hand in war and taken by the King of Gondor — Isildur.
After his defeat, Sauron bides time. A full age passes before he resumes his campaign of terror.
Gandalf appears right about when Sauron begins his offensive. He begins by rallying the different races to prevent Sauron from reacquiring the One Ring.
But for Gandalf to lead the representatives of the different races, he has a lot to catch up on; fast.
Learning in Uncertainty
In uncertainty, problem solving becomes a valuable skill.
But to solve problems one needs to connect unrelated facts in new ways. Learning needs to happen.It must fill every nook of our lives.
Education that is only limited to the classroom is unethical. Our education should be served at the dinner table, charged in the buses, taught in temples, continued in nature, observed in the streets and earned in the hallways of lived experience.
When we engage in learning as a communal and continuous activity, we create ideal environments for great ideas to sprout. Crazy ideas, boring ideas, out-of-this-world ideas, tiny ideas, big ideas. All ideas matter.
This way, ideas become both the raw material and end-products of great learning.
The End of Studying
Gandalf is a master of mind and character.
He relies on these skills to inspire, coach and spur the representatives of the races of Middle Earth towards good.
When he first appears on the scene he spends a ton of time travelling, studying and researching the history of Middle Earth, and making friends with the different races.
To him is assigned the task of helping the free races defeat the evil plans of Sauron. Like any Educator, in the beginning of his career, he feels nervous and unprepared for the task: he is afraid of Sauron’s power. But this insecurity is the main reason he should go— to overcome it.
Nothing prepares a teacher for the inevitable challenges that present themselves in the classroom. On my first teaching assignment, I was afraid: worried about saying something wrong, mixing up the lesson and forgetting the topic of the day. Mostly, I was concerned that the student wouldn’t like me or that I would be boring. And a bored student isn’t good business…or so I thought.
But the bind of teaching is being able to influence without imposing.
The classroom became the end of my studies and the beginning of my learning.
The chaos of classroom management can be better handled by engaging curiosity outside the class setup.
Developing a Relationship with the Hobbits:
In Tolkien’s books the other races seem aloof. Concerned only with wars and conquests. Serious matters.
The Wizard develops a liking for Hobbits: variants of humanity who are tucked away in a hilly rural region. These creatures are short.They walk bare-footed. But in them, he discovers and develops a “faith in their goodness and competence and hidden abilities—even when the powerful and mighty doubt their worth.”1
An Educator’s role is much like that of Gandalf. It takes faith to trust that the lessons dispensed to growing minds will translate to a force for good in the future. The expression of this faith lies in fostering personal connections with learners.
Gandalf is Quick to Note Bilbo’s Daring:
From this liking of the Hobbits, he gets to know Bilbo Baggins.
A recluse, Bilbo loves adventure. But he won’t go beyond the confines of his village to seek it.
Bilbo who is the hero of Tolkien’s narrative has nothing of a hero in him: he is gentle, simple, humble, but he can’t fight. He is as ordinary as they come. The Wizard pushes him to find further growth in the real adventure of the world beyond his village.
He rejects the task but he finally agrees to take part in the quest that defeats the dragon Smaug: setting off a chain of events that would end in freedom from Sauron’s grasp.
When we demonstrate to students that they can be entrusted with responsibility, the ensuing results may surprise us and them.
Identifying the One Ring:
When Bilbo emerges from the Goblin tunnels undisturbed, Gandalf correctly judges that Bilbo has found a Magic Ring.
Bilbo gives a misleading account of how he made his way out of the cave.But Gandalf gives him a knowing look leaving the matter to rest: picking up the discussion with Bilbo at the end of their quest. Gandalf later forced the real story of how Bilbo got the ring.
Confirming The Identity of the One Ring:
Gandalf picks up enough phrases of the Black Speech which come in handy when he needs to confirm if the ring Bilbo had was the One Ring.
After reading Isildur’s account of the war. He correctly identifies the inscription on the Ring of Power as the same one contained in the journal of the long slain king:
“When Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron's hand, it was burning hot, its inscription legible; he transcribed it before it faded. Gandalf learned of the Ring's inscription from Isildur's account, and heated Frodo's ring to display the inscription, proving that this was the One Ring.”2
In these and numerous instances, the character of Gandalf Greyhame, personalizes the Expert Generalist role that I wrote about last week.
The skill to draw on a diversity of experiences to solve today's issues is invaluable to everyone.
But even the best learning strategies can never fully prepare us for uncertainty. Beyond “connecting the dots,” part of the test of learning is failure. Learning in uncertainty carries with it great risk. There’s no guarantee about the result. Student’s can fail and educators can get discouraged.
Even in failure there’s hope. Depressing classroom flops can lead to the most profound insight.