The Duck Conversation

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I have a soft spot for ducks, a poet’s weakness for metaphor and love a good provocation, so this was all bound to collide as a teaching point eventually. ‘The Duck Conversation’ started a couple of years ago after meeting Glen Crowther-Wilkinson at Innovation Centre PolyU. He is one of the co-founders of ‘Brains on the Beach‘, a fantastic, co-creative community of practice that I feel very fortunate to belong to.

I was telling Glen about my research into the problems of creativity in the Asian context, and recommending Yong Zhao’s excellent book ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China has the best (and worst) education system in the world.’ Glen, who is an ‘Old China hand’, said “Chinese Education…you mean the duck-feeder?”

I loved the expression and stole it immediately.

“The duck-feeder” is an apposite metaphor for a system that clings to the transmission model of education, values rote learning (Duh – we have Google now) and tests competitively. It is a system with a four thousand year history of institutionalised risk-aversion, wherein, mistakes are not permitted, especially in public, where the loss of ‘face’ can be excruciatingly painful. I believe that the capacity to take an intelligent risk underpins creative thinking. Can Chinese students do this? Of course they can…but most often do when the conditions are conducive. (See Niu & Sternberg 2003)

(Zhao, “Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World”, 2014)

The vestiges of the meritocratic Keju Examination system and the later Gaokao College Admission exam, are sewn deeply into the educational landscape in this part of the world and I have spent years wondering if it is possible to overcome the well-installed fears of my passive, compliant, Hong Kong classes. Four thousand years ago, the system made perfect sense. It was a great invention for the time. It was egalitarian, rewarded talent and industry, prevented nepotism and guaranteed security; an unbreakable ‘Iron rice bowl’ for the brightest and the best. Times have changed and the system now supreses the creativity that our challenged world needs so desperately. There are moves toward change in Hong Kong and China, but it will be a slow process. The Singaporean Ministry of Education announced recently that it intends to reform the practice of competitive testing, which is a bold step in the right direction.

Back to ducks…

I think we need to have deep and open conversations with our students about their approach to their learning. To that end, I put up a classic park sign in my classroom; “Don’t feed the Ducks,” offered no explanation, and waited for curiosity to get the better of my students.

I’ve had variations of ‘The Duck Conversation’ with many classes now. It usually goes something like this:

“Mr. Morgan…why have you got a sign that says ‘Don’t feed the Ducks”?

“Aha! Why do you think”?

“You don’t like ducks very much”?

“Nope…I’m a big fan of ducks. The Indian running duck in particular. Imagine you’re a duck, just go with it…what are some of the problems with being fed”?

“You don’t get to choose the food”.

“Right…so let’s say, for the sake of argument, you get given a handful of corn..breakfast, lunch and dinner everyday for the rest of your life – What’s going to happen”?

“You’d get pretty bored of it”

“Right! Now what if you were a duck that had never experienced the sublime delights of a thick-crust Hawaiian pizza? What if that was the most delicious thing you could ever hope to experience, but you’ve never been given the option to try it”?

“That doesn’t seem very fair on the duck”.

“It isn’t, but it would take a particularly brave and radical duck to say…”To hell with the corn, yes it fills me up reliably, and all I have to do is show up at the right time, but you know what, I’m going to look for something more interesting. I want some variety dammit! I want to figure out what works best for me, maybe I’ll take a cookery class..I’m going to Heston Blumenthal’s restaurant!” Most ducks don’t do that. They show up and wait for the corn”.

“Mr. Morgan…this isn’t about ducks is it”

“Nope”.

“We’re the ducks aren’t we”?

“Yep, and my job is to teach you to feed yourselves”

“That’s way harder than just being fed”!

“Yes it is.”

(FOXADHD, “baby duck eating pizza”, 2014)

With older classes we sometimes get into the intentions of the farmer and whether the choices made for the duck are actually in its best interests? Is the duck little more than a cynically manufactured product which is only supposed to be a particular size and shape? How unfortunate is a duck that doesn’t even know that there is a world of food out there?

If you like ‘The Duck Feeder” as an expression, please feel free to steal it immediately. I find it helps my students feel a little bit braver and more questioning.

The only risk in having ‘The Duck Conversation” is accidentally re-opening the age-old debate about whether or not pineapple belongs on a pizza.

It does.

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