In all things human

What coffee has to do with constructivism

“Why don’t you make it the way I do?” he asks, as I pour the coffee grounds into the Bialetti coffee maker. I look at the coffee maker in consternation. I pour the grounds directly into the filter in the machine. He does it separately and then puts everything together.

“Because this is the way I do it,” I say.

“But then the grounds get all over the counter, and…” he stops himself.

“…Do you want to make the coffee?” I prompt.

He shakes his head and backs off, “Um, no. No, definitely not. Do it your way. We’ll just…clean the counter after.”

I throw a handy tee-towel at him.

Oh, how we want to believe the world is Newtonian! Push it and it moves, pull it and it comes. Gravity is fixed, mass is fixed. An object put into motion stays in motion. Reality is Absolute. Truth exists.

This comforting set of assumptions makes it easy for our anxious little mind to find solid ground. If I know what’s “right,” then I can play by the rules. If there is an absolute Truth, then I can be right and you can be wrong. Blame can be assigned. We rest easy in the rigid arms of justice.

Yet as humanity probes with relentless curiosity into the mysteries of the world, our desire to fix the world into yes/no is thwarted by the mysterious complexity and subjectivity of the Universe. Our poor little brains are on fire with the revelation that time, space, and mass aren’t fixed. Truth depends on perspective. There is no absolute Reality. Rather, Reality is a compendium of the stupendous array of subjective experiences that exist relative to any one point of space/time.

In other words, friends, sh*t gets complicated.

Not only do we see this evolution of thought playing out in physics, naturally the reverberations have cropped up in education and psychology.  For example, in my field of study, no longer are teachers fixated on a “one size fits all” version of teaching (this is the right way to learn them!), but there is an increasing passion for constructivism as a learning psychology, where learning is “constructed” individually by the learner. In other words, each learner is different and assimilates information based on their unique history, interest, and emotions.

Consider this riddle.

What is a hat?

There is no one absolute hat. We have a general idea of hat, with different qualities that we may identify based on our experience (it’s on my head, primarily). The hat that popped into my head is different than the hat the just popped into your head, determined by each of our experiences of “hat-ness” in the world. Think of this: tophat, tukes, riding hat, bowler, Stetson, cap, turban, Ascot, beret, pillbox. Each one of these “hat styles” is also a generalized idea. You could have a million kinds of tukes. Yet our mind puts together all these hat-like qualities and defines and labels the world according to the pattern. When is a hat not a hat? When it’s a balaclava? When it’s a headband? What about a really big headband? Labels are convenient, but they are relative, malleable, and subjective.

And if we have this much trouble with hats, just consider this one: what is love?

Our perception of the world is constructed based on all of our previous experiences, leaving each one of us with a remarkable and unique view of the world and its objects. Like a snowflake, no point of subjectivity is the same.

Growing up  – for humanity as well as for us as individuals – is accepting that the rules, protocols, and labels we so desperately wish to impose upon the world are limited in scope. They may be very useful, but we mustn’t mistake them for the Real Deal.

We are on the edge of revelation. We have been living in a world of right/wrong, yes/no, “hat/ not a hat” since the dawn of consciousness.  In our individual lives, it’s where we spend our toddlerhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. But growing up means expanding our view and recognizing the multiplicity of experience.

To move the collective experience of humanity forward, we must each do our intrinsic part to don our big girl and boy pants, take a breath, and embrace a wider version of Truth.

We begin with small, daily recognitions. Like coffee. So when I am in the kitchen making the morning coffee, and my beloved looks at me in confusion and says, “But why don’t you do it the way I do it?” we can pause. Reflect. And – without blame, defence, or righteousness – simply appreciate the difference. His way of making coffee is the perfect way for him. And my way is the perfect way for me. How lovely, how subjective, how revelatory!

And in fact, there are an infinite number of ways to brew that one extraordinary cup.



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