Let me try to elucidate that metaphor.
The 12/21-12/28 New Yorker has a fascinating story on stoves. Stoves, it turns out, are of the utmost importance for reasons of public health and climate change. The stoves in question are chiefly the wood-burning kind used in the Third World, that is, when stoves are used there at all. You’ll have to read the article to get the rest of the story. For now, I want to do three things: 1) register my amazement at this crucial piece of civilization infrastructure whose complexity and importance were entirely beyond me before I started the story, 2) register my wonder at the talents and commitment of the people involved in research, engineering, design, and organizational activity related to stoves for the Third World (many of those talented people are from the Island of Misfit Toys–even better), and c) quote a very striking moment early on in which the connections to education were too urgent to overlook:
Fire is a fickle, nonlinear thing, and seems to be affected by every millimetre of a stove’s design–the size of the opening, the shape and material of the chamber, the thickness of the grate–each variable amplifying the next and being amplified in turn, in a complex series of feedback loops. “You’ve heard of the butterfly effect?” one engineer told me. “Well, these stoves are full of butterflies.”
Substitute “learning” for “fire,” and substitute “learning environment” for “stove,” and you can take it from there. Sadly, most of the time our schools and their learning environments (read: classrooms) seem more like feedlots (or holding pens) than stoves.
Small wonder the sparks don’t fly and the fires go out.