Each year when back-to-school bells ring, I recall some of the key lessons I learned there. Some of the best had little to do with course content—and a lot to do with the process of gaining knowledge. My first day of high school chemistry, for example, had little to do with chemistry — but provided a lesson I have used ever since.
One whacky task
Our teacher (Mr. Keath of Nether Providence High School in suburban Philadelphia) gave us a whacky homework assignment: light a household candle, then write down a list of observations about it. No right or wrong answers; no time limit; and no quota, either low or high, for the number of things observed.
Easy—borderline stupid. That evening I went into our kitchen, turned off the lights, lit a candle, sat there with a paper and pencil, and started my list. The flame is yellowish-white…and gets reddish as you go toward the top…but has a blue base…It gives off heat…The solid wax of the candle melts and pools around the base of the flame…The wick turns from white to black as it burns.
And so on, you get the idea. My observations started quickly, I could barely get them down fast enough. After a while they came more slowly, then finally gave out. I had a list of around 75 things about a candle.
I kind of got lost in the exercise, and don’t remember how much time had gone by. It might have been 45 minutes, even an hour.