Being a Mindful Fisherman Takes Creativity and Curiosity

In this week’s readings, Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in A New Culture of Learning (2011) mentioned that the old saying, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime” doesn’t capture the rapidly changing dynamics in almost all aspects of today’s world. What if there’s something else that should be fished instead? Or, even worse, what if there aren’t any fish left? All the resources this week cited a need to teach, on some level, curiosity and a willingness to be creative as a solution to dynamic problems.

I agree with this, to an extent. Certainly, being a creative fisherman– one who thinks critically about how to make and cast fishing nets and how these skills might be used to get other types of food– is much better than being an uncreative one. After all, it is this creativity that leaves you open to change. And, of course, curiosity naturally leads to creativity, so that should be fostered as well.

But these readings seem to completely dismiss the usefulness of just learning how to fish. Ultimately, if you want to learn how to be creative with your fishing skills, don’t you have to learn how to be uncreative first? To just know how to do it outright? That is, there seems to be no credit attributed to just knowing something, even if the thing that is known is subject to change over time.

Taking this a step further, I would even push back a little on the memorization and types of reflexes that Ellen Langer writes against. When a student is panicking on an exam, having that reflex and knowing what they should be doing– never mind the why– might actually save them on a particular question, allowing them to answer it an move on. (Of course, Ellen Langer would probably then start arguing about right vs wrong answers and such, but let’s face it– that is the nature of exams and most forms of assignments in classes. That’s the foundation for how we know how well students are doing. If we throw out right vs wrong answers completely, how do we measure progress or give students valuable feedback?)

What I think I would propose instead is altering the original saying to something like, “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and probably feed him for a long time, teach a man to think critically about his fishing skills and definitely feed him for a lifetime.” (But maybe that’s a mouthful.) Yes, things change, but I don’t think they’re changing so fast that old knowledge is becoming obsolete at a rate that would make skills– at least the basic ones– completely unusable to the point of not even being worth teaching people how to just do them (making them think critically about it after they have a foundation for which to base such thinking on, and encouraging critical thinking all the while). People have been fishing for thousands of years, after all. How much has fishing really changed in the last 5,000 years? 1,000? years? 100 years? 30 years? 5 years?



  1. Bravo! I think you’ve touched on a facet of teaching today that *is* often lost in conversations about teaching [creativity and critical thinking] generally. And it is most definitely an issue in K-12 teaching. Which, in turn, makes it a bigger issue for higher ed. to address. If students are coming to college or university without a basic paradigm of *how* to learn, what do they derive from teaching focused on higher-order thinking and abstraction?


    1. I agree… Too often, I’ve seen students who are too focused on getting the right answer– never mind the why. So, I completely understand the criticism that right vs wrong should be de-emphasized in favor of teaching how to think critically and creatively about the material. I think math classes are an excellent example of this difference… I can’t begin to tell you how many students I tutored for math classes where they really didn’t care to understand the process they were supposed to take to get to the right answer; they just wanted the right answer. And then they wondered why they did so terribly on their exams…


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