Columbus didn’t close his learning loop, did you?


Maybe it’s time to rename Columbus day in America Discovery day.  I’m suggestng both for the sake of school children as well as to renew the american explorer spirit.  Why?

Becasuse unlike the time of Columbus, the opportunities for learning and connections are limitless while we continue to shrink rather than  address larger problems that I beleive learning differently would overcome.  I’m not merely suggesting more discovery learning, but a more nimble interactively supported blend of formal and informal, social and personal, guided and spontaneous,

In school I learned that Columbus had a distinct point of view. It’s true he did. But it wasn’t his belief in a round earth that made his views different, it was his calculations. Sure, in school I was taught that in Columbus time, many people believed the world was flat, a story Washington Irving’s embellished history put forward and that later writers supported.

Columbus believed that the globe was smaller and that the distance at the equator was smaller. Traveling by ship across the Atlantic was not a foolhardy proposition, but a short cut to Asia.

It’s harder to teach how a bad calculation could turn out so well.  The atmosphere of entrepreneurship today often extolls the virtues of failure.  Columbus could be taught this way but I would encourage a broader objective—a celebration in the process of discovery.

Process challenges

Texas Tech depicts their discovery process for students encircled by phases of exploration, research , investigation and confirmation.

Columbus took a slightly different path to discovery. He was self-taught and lacked the advantage of formal education which makes his calculation errors easier to imagine.  In spite of the generally held wisdom of the time, Columbus persuaded Spain to finally sponsor his voyage.  How? Perhaps he appealed to King and Queen’s natural curiosity about the world, expressed empathy for their desire for Asian pepper.  Somehow he managed to get them take his bet that the Court’s trusted advisors were the ones who had miscalculated.

Columbus didn’t doubt his convictions, and it’s unlikely that he presented his argument  as a formal hypothesis test. Let’s suppose it was.

Proof of the earth’s size had been known to respected astronomers of the time for centuries. Additional evidence of the folly included documented disaster that had befallen those who attempted to go west, including Columbus whose first boats were destroyed.  The available information made the voyage too daunting. No recorded knowledge of  anything other than the open western sea  separating Asia and Europe and the distance calculations suggested a crossing would take three years at current ship speeds.

I imagine Irving’s historical embellishment originated with evidence of the closed mindedness of  the inner circle around King Ferdinand and Isabella. Few at court were interested in taking seriously the ideas of a self-educated, foreigner.  This circle of knowledge didn’t appreciate the notions of discovery with our 21st century sensibilities.

God, King and country motivated many and the formally trained astronomers’ calculations eliminated any remaining doubt. Faith in the unknown was expressed as faith in higher powers of authority. This was true for Columbus too. Columbus stood by his calculations even if he didn’t frame them as a hypothesis.  Perhaps what persuaded the court to finance another voyage were the size of the opportunities, which were to large to miss were Columbus to be proved right.  A faster route to the riches that lay in Asia proved irresistable, especially if Columbus was daring enough to assume the risks of what many believed certain death. 

Circluar learning

Its not clear that 21st century thinking has any greater tolerance for the unknown,  Faith in God, King and country for many has been unquestioningly placed on technology.   

The sun, the moon both observable circles whose motion throughout history proved inspiring. Euclid took advantage of his observations in relation to his staionery  to establish geometry and the means to calculate distances. Today, GPS signal sensors do it automatically. These logical systems offer one avenue of discovery, and a path to see our way though in situations where solutions are not obvious or remain unknown to us.

Learning and problem solving activities both rely on relative understandings and may be synonomous. Both seek additional information,then  try to use that information and pause to see what happens.

  • Learning includes a reflection step which processes the experience in order to understand and file it for future use.
  • Problem Solving, often keeps going through the cycle of acquiring information, trying to use/apply information only to observe what happens.

The beauty of a formal hypothesis test appears in its record. Tested information also gets documented and proves out the hypothesis not merely giving results.  In reviewing the record we learn what works and can then formulate further questions to test.

The Columbus story could be taught as context to learning about the formation of hypotheses.  The Learning experience could include math and astronomy as a means to translate observable information into testing ideas and math skills. Columbus offers a story of continuing to question accepted views of the world within a framework. The challenges he faced along the journey and its success bears little if any relationship to the thinking and the knowledge circulating among the court advisors. Columbus leaned on what he knew, which he acquired almost exclusively through direct experience.  It’s why he died believing he had reached Asia.

It’s his grit, persistence and process of assimilating knowledge certainly bear celebrating.

Validated Learning

Eric Ries 2011 publication of the Lean Startup celebrates practical discovery.  He describes and outlines how a sure thought, an idea isn’t enough and why knowing doesn’t always give way to sure things.

The court advisors knew the distances better, their calculations were true and yet there was no way to discover the mass of continents that lay between Europe and Asia.  This falls into that category of unknown unknowns and if you are looking to grow, looking for answers sometimes you have to do something a little crazy.

Think about what you know, can you differentiate let alone defend it?  Does your knowledge come from believing, or from  trying and testing experiences that allowed you to discover what works, where and when?

Ries asks an appropriate question.   “How can we learn more quickly what works, and discard what doesn’t?”

The circular process he depicts summs up what so many people believe matters and will produces success.  The circle suggests an inevitability to learning that is synonomous to the inner advisory circle in the Spanish Court.  At the core, there’s an attraction that I’m not sure will keep the learning in motion or provide the feedback naturally that generates new ideas.

Among Columbus lesser known discoveries were the trade winds in the Atlantic. The multiple voyages allowed him to learn some things new but it never helped him to recognize what the advisors in the court learned from his voyage, the existence of additional lands on the globe.

Does the picture above match your own learning or problem solving experience? Formal learning tries to do this and marks its consistency and accountability.  What’s  measured specifies whether you learned the established outcomes.  In other words,beware of circular reasoning at work, another possible lesson to be gained studying the Columbus story as discovery.

Everyday experiences, or self-structured learning turn out to be messier and less consistent. Today information surrounds us. New technologies make it easier than ever to unlock and discover meaning and learn about our environment, interactions and sources of value.

The challenge is to keep the learning loop open revise the the image of learning circle  to inspire more continuos, dynamic possibilities.  Columbus should still be celebrated but let’s be clear its for the sake of further discovery.

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