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GAYS MILLS - Education is a perennial topic of conversation. It has been going on forever.

The Greek philosopher Plutarch, way back in the 1st Century famously said, “The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.” 

Today, everyone has opinions, usually strong ones, about how they were educated, how education should happen, how it has changed, what’s wrong with it, etc. 

Several years ago, I read a story in a book called ‘Sometimes a Shining Moment: The Foxfire Experience’ by Elliot Wigginton. It was a true story about a vessel and education, and it has stuck with me and haunted me a bit ever since.

A man was sitting on his front porch one day as two young boys walked home from school. One of the boys spotted something in a culvert pipe under the  driveway, something shiny. The boys tried to grab the object but couldn’t reach it.

The boys found a stick nearby, a fallen tree branch. They tried to push the object with the stick to one end of the culvert or the other so they could reach it.  No go, the stick wasn’t long enough. They talked at length about how they could get the object out. They got a longer stick, which could  touch the object, but they couldn’t move it. The stick broke off in the culvert. This went on for about 20 minutes, the boys talking all the while.  Then the boys left.

The man thought that was the end of it. He had thought of helping the boys but decided not to, he wanted to see what happened. He regretted not going out to help them before they left.

But soon, they were back. They had gone to the house of a neighbor they knew and borrowed a garden hoe and some twine. The hoe wasn’t long enough, so they tied it to a short section of a branch. They spent several minutes tying and re-tying the hoe and branch together so they were secure. One boy handled the tool they had made and the other gave directions from the other end of the pipe. They had some fun talking though the pipe to each other. They had to work hard to get the object out of its resting place and eventually, after several attempts, they were successful.

The treasure, the object of their curiosity and efforts and problem solving? It turned out to be an empty pop bottle. They looked at the bottle for a minute, handed it back and forth between them and laughed about their success in retrieving the ‘treasure.’  And then, they walked on home.

The man sitting on the porch, Wigginton, the witness and author of the story in his book, was an educator.  He saw the boys figuring out how to get their discovered treasure out of the pipe and was impressed with their persistence and ingenuity. He saw active learning take place. And he thought: in most schools, we hand the students the bottle and say, “This is a bottle.” Passive learning.  And, as is often the case, we add, “and it will be on the test.”

Teaching to the test, regurgitating presented facts, and measuring test results has become the way of education. Problem solving and learning by doing is not easy or possible in every subject area, but it is a valuable life skill and what education should be all about.