Lighting the Lamp, Not Filling the Vessel

You’ve probably come across the quote by the Greek essayist Plutarch (one that’s often misattributed to William Butler Yeats) that “the mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled”.

This quote always takes me back to a lecturer I had over 20 years ago, Vic Markham. Vic was one of the great minds of British marketing and advertising from the 1960s to 80s. Partially deaf from injuries he’d sustained at the Battle of Dunkirk in World War II, he was one of the best teachers I ever had.

Vic’s lectures were always filled with questions. I remember how he once asked who paid employees’ wages. At the time, I don’t think anyone in the class had had a proper job. “The managers”, said someone. “The owners,” said someone else. “The bank,” joked another. Something clicked in my head and I answered – at the same time as another – “the customers”.

“Yes!” roared Vic. “And don’t ever forget it!”

Coming to that realization was a Eureka moment for many of us. And one that I’d never forget.

This way of learning isn’t too different from Plutarch’s day. In the city states of Ancient Greece, the citizens used to meet in the agora. The agora was the central gathering place for all aspects of city life, from politics and religion through to the arts and athletics. It was a center for discussion and learning, where citizens would gather to discuss news and current affairs. Here the great minds of the day – thinkers such as Plutarch, Archimedes, Aristotle, Plato and Socrates – would debate theories and ideas, using this forum to teach their students. And not just in one city state, but across the Greek-speaking world: Athens, Corinth and even Alexandria, with its famous library and lighthouse.

For these thinkers, it was about lighting up minds rather than simply filling them up. As teachers, they asked their students questions not to test the recall of facts. Instead, it was to get them to think more deeply through reflection, analysis and synthesis, while opening them up to other points of view.

At Cognician, we believe this should be true for all learning, not just school and college education. Take organizational learning, for example. Managers aren’t just given training in change or performance management and then tested on their recall of it. They’re trained so they can use it to improve their performance and that of those around them.

We believe this should also be true of elearning.

Yet traditional elearning initiatives often fall short of this. They involve dumping content that’s followed by multiple choice questions centered on the recall of facts. From an instructional design perspective (or as we’d have it, learning experience design), this is at too low a level, situated at the knowledge and comprehension levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains.

While trying to fill the vessel, this rarely lights the lamp. Nor does it produce any desired change.

A key element of our approach is the Socratic method – an approach that, as the name suggests, harks back to the agora of Ancient Greece. Our chat-based platform uses open-ended questions that enable users to think deeply about a topic, apply it to the context they’re in and connect what they’ve learned elsewhere. By lighting the lamp and not just filling a vessel, this can result in some powerful Eureka moments.

We recently tested a new program for young people entering the job market in South Africa. Like many developing countries, South Africa has a high rate of unemployment and limited resources. Graduates and drop-outs – whether from school or college – are often poorly prepared to enter the job market. This digital coaching program is designed to help them do exactly that.

When we tested the project, we were delighted with the response. One of the learners commented on how he’d realized “how much he actually knew”. Another said that not only could she apply what she’d learned to starting a career, but that it was useful for her personal development in general. Each of them had their own Eureka moments, just as I’d had in Vic Markham’s class, and countless others had had in Ancient Greece.

Take a moment to reflect on some of the Eureka moments that have lit up your mind. My parting question to you is this: How is your organization creating these moments to inspire learning and growth?