The Great Questions We Carry

A defective four leaf clover.

Each year at Christmas my grandfather gives everyone in the family a small hand held puzzle. Often these puzzles are clear cubes containing metal balls and rings that must be aligned to complete a design. Most of the time I can see what I think the outcome should be, yet the challenge is finding the solution before I lose interest.

The wisdom in these little puzzles is clear. They parallel the individual and collective questions we all carry. Some are trivial and amusing, easily put down and picked up again. Others are larger and require more time and effort to solve. After a little fiddling these larger puzzles are often shelved in hopes that “some day” we’ll have time to spread out all the pieces and restore order to the chaos.

We seem to reserve a special place for the truly great questions and we keep them within constant reach. These are the questions of life that won’t let go. They demand our attention.

At times I’ve attempted to force pieces together that don’t belong. Particularly the beautiful pieces that seem so good together. Fabricating solutions in ignorance or accepting answers that are comfortable, but not accurate.

While there are clearly right and wrong choices, there is a wide spectrum of individual solutions within those bounds. Yet the constants, the rules that apply across that spectrum, can be difficult to identify independently. Many of life’s variables are in constant flux. We rarely get a bird’s eye view of the labyrinth, and few of life’s puzzles are cut as evenly as factory made cardboard and plastic.

Fortunately, when we find solutions we share them. Small and simple things can be the greatest gifts. Answers to long sought questions can be the key to gaining mountain top perspective on the dark valley of our lives. Sometimes answers come like a flood and other times in painfully slow drips.

The key is having a desire to search for solutions. To believe the answer exists and to keep working to discover answers that are equal to the questions.

What does this have to do with education and training? Everything.

Physics and Matchbox Cars

In the late 1970’s my father taught physics at Emory University. Occasionally he would take me to work with him on Saturday mornings and while he worked in his office, I would play with the physics department’s matchbox cars and race tracks. As a kindergartener I was amazed that they used toys to teach to college students. I was thrilled the first time my Dad opened a closet in one of the class rooms and I saw more bendable track and connecter pieces than I could have imagined. How could this possibly be used to teach science I thought? Surely they must be used for recess or an ‘after school’ program. Then my Dad explained it to me.

The cars and tracks were used to demonstrate the effects of what he called “G force”. If a car moved fast enough it would stay on the upside down looping track. If not it would fall off. The G forces kept the car on the track. The department bought enough track so each student could participate in the experiments. It took almost as long for you to read the last three lines as it did for him to explain the whole thing, and I got it. The term G force was new to me but I knew exactly what he was talking about. G forces were what made the difference between a good track and a great track. Now that “greatness” had a name and I told all my friends about G forces and the unbelievable amount of track they had in a physics room closet at Emory.

That was my first lesson in the power of creative teaching. Making connections between objects that came from completely different worlds, so clearly, that they tell the story themselves and the learner truly gets it and retains it.

The LN2 tank in the basement was fun too but that’s another story.