A roomful of candles

When it comes to knowledge, we are not serving children well if we create the illusion that they are learning everything they need to know in school.

The body of collective human knowledge is impossibly vast and ultimately unknowable.

Does that mean we don’t even bother? Of course not. But we have to have some perspective.

We have to understand (and share with students) that there is no possible way to know everything.

Instead, what we’re trying to do in school is two things:

  1. Create a framework for additional knowledge;

  2. Inspire curiosity about the world.

Imagine that you are in a pitch-black room. You light a candle, and suddenly you can see that there are several other candles around you. You use the first candle to light another candle, and with each one you light, you are able to see still more. In fact, the more candles you light, the more you can see, stretching infinitely in all directions. And as you light more candles, you are creating more light, so you can see farther without having to even venture from your spot.

This is a helpful metaphor for the acquisition of knowledge. The more you learn, the more you see that it is possible to learn.

If I am unaware that architecture even exists, I will have zero curiosity about the structures around me. But if I learn a little bit about architecture, I will start to notice a lot more. I will become curious about what various parts of buildings are called. As I learn more, I will have more questions, not fewer. I will become more curious, not less. And any additional information I gain will have a place to go — there will be a candle that I can see in order to light it, where when I had less knowledge I was unable to even see that the candle existed.

In a sense, the traditional history and science curricula represent the best efforts of teachers and administrators to identify the most useful candles and light them. But a student walking into a room with a hundred candles ablaze is going to be overwhelmed.

Ultimately, the greatest benefit to the child is going to be for them to light their own candles -- to have their own curious itch that they want to scratch. They are much more likely to be successful and remember what they've learned -- and be inspired to learn more. 

Casey von Neumann