The Pirate and the Pile Cast

There used to be an outfit out of Minneapolis that ran ads looking for aspiring artists.  You would often see them in magazines like TV Guide, The Saturday Evening Post or sometimes on matchbook covers.  The ad copy asked if you liked to draw or doodle and if you wanted a high paying career in graphic design or fashion illustration.  All you had to do was redraw a sketch of a pirate (handily provided and easy to trace).  Then you mailed it in and awaited the art school's verdict on your talent.

Sometimes, too, the ads even provided step-by-step instructions on how to get started: make an oval, draw a cross to capture the eye-line and ridge of the nose and then...   Yes, and then step three.  There was always a big jump from step two to step three.  I could handle the oval and the cross, but the crisp, confident line quality (not to mention the deft shading and attention to detail) was beyond my 12-year old stick figure drawing ability.

I was thinking about the yawning gap between steps two and three this past summer.  After 10 years of fly fishing, I decided to hire a professional guide for a day while I was out West.  It was expensive, but I figured I should give it a try once in my life.  I modestly told the guide beforehand that I wasn't a novice, but I was by no means an expert.  My casting was adequate but not great.  My guide was helpful, knowledgeable and patient, but I came away from the experience a bit deflated.  I had to admit to myself that I'm still at step two when it comes to fly fishing.

I can't draw the pirate.

This experience was also a humbling reminder of something my students go through all the time.  I am forever trying to get them to employ higher-order thinking skills by being as concrete and clear as I can in my expectations.  But no matter how concrete I make my expectations (think freakin' Portland cement here), there yet remains an ineradicable abyss between steps two and three.  Believe me, they want the rote, mechanical step-by-step approach that allows them to sail effortlessly through an exam, an assignment or a degree program: "Just show me what you want and I'll do it just that way." 

This approach, however, only creates "routine experts," people who can plug in known solutions to already known problems.  It doesn't create "adaptive experts," people who can synthesize solutions from existing knowledge to open-ended problems that people have never before encountered. Routine expertise only takes you so far (about to step two if you don't trace the damned pirate and mail him in).  Alas, that's not what the world needs these days.

In the end there just are no shortcuts to learning do anything, a truth that's seldom stressed in ad copy or admissions brochures. 


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