Challenging Assumptions

Recently, I had the chance to spend eight days living on a boat. I grew up in Idaho and saw Jaws way too young to be comfortable on the ocean, so when our captain, my father-in-law, told the crew, my family, to watch a series of safety and preparation videos, I did. Not being nautical, these videos were new to me, and they appeared to be fairly comprehensive. I was taught about everything from different styles of anchoring, to the importance of GPS in navigation and emergencies, to how and why to conserve water on the boat.

The lessons were both redundant and also repetitive- the teaching methodology that underscores the importance of the material. All of the material was also covered in person when we got on the boat, by multiple individuals. Four different people walked us through navigational regulations, all of the charts, weather conditions, and available options for anchoring in the islands we would visit, the mechanical systems, and an inventory of everything on the boat. This took all of one day and required returning the next.

Now, flash forward to the end of our trip. Here were three problems we encountered. First, our anchor winch consistently jammed, with the immediate challenge being an inability to bring up the anchor, and the ancillary and much worse problem being that if you did not catch the jammed winch in time, the anchor chain fell off the winch, at which point 180 meters of chain streamed out to the ocean floor in a terrifying half minute. Second, our primary freshwater tank ran to empty, causing the water pump to shut down, meaning we could not use our back up water supply. Third, the depth finder died and we lost the electronic ability to determine water depth.

Here is how we solved each of the above problems (and editorial information about each of them). The anchor. In the compartment next to the anchor was a “window”- an opening that allowed someone to push chain back as it came in, thereby alleviating any jamming. (We were never told this or shown it, but rather discovered this as we navigated our various anchor problems.) The water pump. We were able to fill up the empty tank with an onboard water maker, at which point my wife turned the water pump on and off multiple times until it started working. (No one told us we should not let the main tank run dry or that a possible solution was the on/off switch.) The depth finder. The depth finder was a blown fuse and mechanical issue that had to be repaired by a specialist with special parts in a harbor, which we were able to do. (No one ever suggested a possible solution to this problem was the huge roll of charts we got. Nautical charts meticulously detail islands and their surroundings and are specifically based on depth. These charts were first produced in the 1500s and have been increasingly improved and refined since then.)

This extended story is, of course, an analogy about education. We assume that what we know and get in education is valuable, that the topics, content, and methods are essential. The longer we do a certain thing, the more habit dictates that what we are doing is right. Our current education system is presented urgently, incessantly, and compulsorily. And then, it competes with our experience in the field, in life, which provides at least two invaluable perspectives: 1. Experience shows us what we actually need, and 2. Experience gives us knowledge and weds it to understanding; in short, we are not just taught something, we learn it.

My boating safety orientation highlighted that we are often taught what is considered essential, only to learn it is not what we need. The voyage demonstrated the power and immediacy of the right kind of experience, and showed how easily we overlook or disregard ancient knowledge in favor of the new. And one final example highlighted something else.

There is piece of equipment called a bridle that is attached to the anchor. It is attached by a cylindrical bolt-like screw with a broad, flat head. This head is perfect for a pair of flathead pliers, which are almost necessary as this screw is cranked down, invariably wet and slippery, and, because it is attached to the anchor of an undulating boat, it is always very tight. Originally, our toolbox had no flathead pliers, just two wire cutters.

Many types of education use the same language. Unfortunately, this sea of similarity masks critical and important differences. The Sage School is a school. It is education. But it is an education designed to challenge the assumptions of our current system. It is based on ancient truths, on the importance of the type and quality of experiences students have, and, ultimately, on giving students the right tools to navigate a complex and dynamic world with confidence.

-Harry Weekes