Who knows how to make a pencil, anyway?

I am a lead pencil… Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me. This sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? Especially when it is realized that there are about one and one-half billion of my kind produced in the U.S.A. each year. Pick me up and look me over. What do you see? Not much meets the eye—there’s some wood, lacquer, the printed labeling, graphite lead, a bit of metal, and an eraser.

-From “I, Pencil” by Leonard Read

Make your ideas and your thinking visible. We say that all the time at Mount Vernon. But sometimes we forget to explain why it’s so important to make thinking and learning so visible. It’s not just because it looks good, that we love post-it notes or that we want to check for understanding. Making your thinking visible is important because it helps us refine ideas and collaborate with others in a much richer way to allow an entire group or team to reach a shared understanding. Tom Wujec does a wonderful job with his “Make Toast” TED talk showcasing some of the research he’s explored around this idea. He asked people to draw the process of making toast and then did some research on what happens when people use cards or post-it notes for the same exercise or when teams of people collaborate on this task. Some key takeaways he discovers are that:

  • Drawing helps us understand the situation as systems
  • Cards or post-it notes help us iterate more quickly/move steps or ideas around/flare ideas
  • Creating group notes in a visual way allows for a much more comprehensive understanding of a problem or process because it allows for more points of view

Whether it’s drawing, writing, acting, podcasting, dancing, singing, or videoing your thoughts and ideas, it’s so critical to enter into the conversation with others. No good (or mediocre) ideas take-off unless you get them out of your head and share them with the world. Not one of us has all the answers. Not one of us knows all the intricacies to make the metaphorical “pencil” we hope to create. It takes a team of people, ideas and conversations. What if in our meetings and in our classes we approached rich questions as collaborative conversations to explore and figure out together in a visible way? What if we covered the walls, windows and doors with our thinking and collectively came up with solutions and next steps for the wicked problems that keep us up at night? What if we held ourselves and each other accountable for sharing at least one idea, thought, or reflection each day with our team? Imagine the tapestry we could collectively weave?



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