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Fragments II: micro stories about the learning business

Learning: Time to Dream a New Reality

Alan Lightman’s novel Einstein's Dreams, takes us to Berne, Switzerland. The year is 1905 and a young patent clerk, named Albert Einstein, has been experiencing a series of remarkable dreams about the nature of time. Each dream takes him to a different kind of world, where time defines reality in a different way.

In one of these worlds, Lightman explains, "it is instantly obvious that something is odd. No houses can be seen in the valleys or plains. Everyone lives in the mountains."

Photograph of a wooden cabin on stilts next to a lake
Alan Lightman's novel is a parable of modern society.

The reason for this, it transpires, is because someone once worked out that time travels more slowly the farther we are from the centre of the earth. Despite the fact that the effect is miniscule, once this phenomenon was known, people moved to the mountains in an effort to stay young.

"To get the maximum effect, they have constructed their houses on stilts. The mountaintops all over the world are nested with such houses, which from a distance look like a flock of fat birds squatting on long skinny legs. People most eager to live longest have built their houses on the highest stilts. Indeed, some houses rise half a mile high on their spindly wooden legs. Height has become status."

Despite the extraordinary lengths to which these people were prepared to go, however, their refusal to descend into the lowlands to farm and produce fresh food eventually sealed their fate. At length, Lightman explains, these people became "thin like the air, bony, old before their time."

Fast forward to 2018 and to a school somewhere near all of us. In our world, it is similarly obvious that something is odd. Everyone lives with a grade, a number or a percentage.

The reason for this is that we once worked out that time can be optimized by reducing the teaching and learning experience to its lowest common denominator.

To get maximum effect, we have constructed an entire generation of education upon the fragile stilts of continuous testing. Students most eager to live a long and happy life have become obsessed with the number or grade that will mark them just before their eighteenth birthday. Examinations, awards and a good GPA have become the currency of education.

Despite the extraordinary lengths to which we have been prepared to go, however, our refusal to descend into the lowlands - where students have time, choice, and the possibility to engage in life-worthy content - has sealed our fate. Like the habitants of Lightman's imagination, our students have become "thin like the air, bony, old before their time."


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