Research Cycle

 Vol 7|No2|December|2010
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Once was lost . . .

By Jamie McKenzie

This is a preview chapter from Jamie's next book, due to be published and shipped in Fall of 2011

You can pre-purchase Lost and Found: A guide to discovery learning through purposeful wandering online at with a 25% discount.

By Jamie McKenzie
About Author © 2010, all rights reserved

© J.McKenzie 2010, all rights reserved

Chapter 1 - Once was lost

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

A central thesis of this book is the importance of shrugging off one’s preconceptions and certainties when hoping to discover or invent new possibilities. What we think we understand can actually impede learning, since we cannot define in advance what we do not know and therefore cannot skillfully plan how to address what is missing.

The lyrics to Amazing Grace, while intended originally in a religious sense (John Newton - 1725-1807), capture this notion that one must pass from blindness into sight. The song suggests a close relationship between sight, redemption and grace as well as a journey from blindness into understanding.

Many of the research tasks conducted by students and citizens can be conducted without the approach recommended in this book - especially those that involve little mystery or complexity. There are plenty of questions that can be answered simply and quickly.

“Where is the closest Metro station?”
“What are the names of Obama’s children?”
“What are the names of Sarah Palin’s children?”

But there are many questions of import that deserve more discerning and skillful attention. Answers to many of these may be readily available from so-called experts, but some of these answers may prove tainted or slanted. The more mysterious and complicated the issue or the decision, the more elusive the answers are likely to be.

Diagnosed with cancer, many folks would like to turn to a trusted doctor and rely upon her or his advice. There is something comforting about experts when facing such tough life decisions, but reliance upon experts may bring unfortunate consequences. Within the medical community, for example, there can be dramatic differences of opinion as to appropriate treatment for prostate cancer.

If the patient takes the time to check with doctors other than the urologist (surgeon) who usually delivers the diagnosis, what once seemed simple becomes far more complicated. While surgery is often urged (by surgeons) as the “gold standard” of treatment, it turns out that there are other treatments that may serve some patients better than surgery - may eliminate the cancer without causing serious side effects like incontinence and impotence. Sadly, the decision involves so many uncertainties that it is impossible to select a treatment that is a sure thing.

Many of the most important questions and decisions we will encounter are mysteries rather than puzzles. They elude simple analysis and refuse to surrender to our grasp. Wrestling with such questions is like navigating through fog - blindly - without a chart, GSP, radar or any instrumentation. We can end up like Amelia Earhart on the fatal leg of her round-the-world flight as she tried to locate the tiny island that was her only hope for survival — the Pacific atoll, Howland Island.

Over the decades, it has been a rare school that made mysteries the core of learning, but there have always been good teachers who understood the importance of mystery and have encouraged their students to wrestle with quandaries, dilemmas and enigmas whether it be through novels, history or scientific anomalies.

This kind of teacher and teaching should be the rule rather than the exception. Without such learning opportunities in school, students emerge thinking that nearly every question can be answered swiftly and easily thanks to new technologies and Google.

They often see research as a process of finding answers rather than building them. When confronted with conundrums, they are too readily susceptible to false prophets, flimflam artists and snake oil salesfolk. They are easily blinded by the light. Unfortunately, they will not realize that they are blind until the simple truths they seized upon lead them into difficulties.

Late in the game, the cancer patient may wake to a recurrence of their cancer along with severe side effects - the risks of which may have been minimized by the attending physician. Suffering the consequences of submission and mentalsoftness, they are likely to feel anger and betrayal.

“How could the cancer come back if you cut it out?”

Unlike school, these are often irreversible decisions. Once a treatment has been selected, we usually cannot ask to rewind the film or shake the dice again. We must live with the consequences.

There are dozens of life decisions that fall into this category of mystery. Financing the purchase of a house turned out to be such a defining challenge for the previous decade. Something so clear-cut as a mortgage turned out to be a mystery after all, especially for those who failed to read or understand the fine print in agreements they signed. Many of them woke to escalating interest rates, declining home values and an agreement that held them captive to damaging terms.

In all too many cases, consumers relied upon mortgage brokers (experts?) to guide them through the process without understanding the role of mortgage brokers and the conflict of interest many of them might indulge. The consequences? Many lost both homes and savings, ending up on the street.

The New York Times ran several articles exposing the damage done by brokers who served the banks rather than their clients, and one commentator, Tare Siegel Bernard, suggests in her blog, Making the Most of Your Money, that everyone carry a Fiduciary Pledge with them at all times so “stock and insurance brokers would put their clients’ interests ahead of their own.” February 16, 2010

Picking a job or a spouse is another time when simple thinking can prove painful. The magic of the infatuation stage works powerfully to influence such choices. A year after commitment, the haze of mutual deception may lift to reveal a different boss or a different partner than the one originally chosen.

Where did the encouraging, understanding boss disappear? How did the husband turn into such a demanding, lazy, critical abuser? These are cases of self deception and wishful thinking - blindness, again - that play havoc with lives. As with the medical decisions mentioned earlier, one cannot easily erase the tape or undo the decision. You can change a job or divorce a spouse, but the consequences of simple-minded decisions are enormous.

There is no guarantee that exposure to mystery in schools will protect students from making unwise decisions as adults, but it should help them avoid simple-minded and wishful thinking.

Stumbling is basic to the human condition and unavoidable.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

This book suggests that we can equip the young with a way of thinking and struggling with mysteries that will prepare them to look carefully at their choices. Rather than being blindsided by the avaricious con artist, the quack or the charlatan posing as expert, they will be discerning — shrewd and astute. They will not fall for the snares mentioned in the song. They will not be blind -— mindless of or oblivious to the complexity. They will be sighted.

I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Sight requires skill, strategy and awareness. Schools and good teachers can lead students through challenging, even baffling research experiences that might equip them with such skills while awakening their sense of risk. The danger is that failing such an awakening, young people will blithely proceed into adult years entirely unprepared for perplexing and bewildering tests and trials, even though all humans can be sure to face them. “Blithely” is a chilling term — “showing a casual and cheerful indifference considered to be callous or improper” according to the New Oxford American Dictionary.

The cultural drift of this decade runs counter to the themes of this book as technology companies whisper like sirens the (false) promises of artificial intelligence. “Leave the thinking (driving) to us!”

More than a decade prior to writing this book, I warned of an “Age of Glib” as surface understanding and cut-and-paste thinking will suffice in many situations. Even though the new information technologies might have empowered this generation of young people to deepen their understanding of difficult themes and issues, skating along the surface and gaming the system have emerged instead as predominant themes.

Rather than deepening and strengthening student writing and thinking skills, technology enthusiasts have climbed aboard a Web 2.0 bandwagon that has little to do with rigor or careful thought but much to do with fashion, crowds and trends.

In succeeding chapters, this book will build a case for purposeful wandering - an approach to learning and discovery that has at its base the recognition that what the learner knows at the outset is not sufficient to the task at hand. Whatever certainty is felt early in the questioning process should be mistrusted and challenged. Certainty at the outset is usually illusory - the sooner set aside the better.

Paramount in this approach is the sense that we cannot recognize early in the process what we do not know. It is only by accepting that we are lost at this early stage that we might ultimately be found - reach a state of grace in the sense of the song.

Being lost in this mode is not failure. It fuels the search for deeper understanding. It protects the learner from blindness and ignorance. Clinging to misconceptions and untested verities is no way to find the truth.

Herman Melville touched upon these themes in Moby Dick — contrasting landlessness with staying ashore:

Know ye, now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore? But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God --so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!

While it is tempting to cling to certainties (the land), the search for truth requires courage - the capacity to set sail, leave the harbor behind and wrestle with storms, uncertainty and confusion.

The original religious meaning of grace in the song Amazing Grace as written by John Newton is quite different from the way the term will be used in this book. The kind of thinking and exploration advocated here does require faith - persistence in the face of frustration, darkness and difficulty - but it is not a faith rooted in any one religious tradition. Each individual must seek that faith in a manner that meets their personal needs. Where does such courage and spirit come from? How can we know that the struggle will be worth the sacrifice and trouble it often entails?

We cannot be sure that our search will bring us home. We cannot be confident that our inquiry will lead us into a state of grace. There are no such guarantees. On the other hand, clinging to untested certainties is a form of blindness that is likely to expose us to misfortune and heartache.


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