Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
We’ve all heard that one before, but I have some questions: who is teaching the man? And how? (And, just to be clear, it’s not just men who need to eat and are capable of fishing, right?)
I spent the MLK Day of Service last weekend helping pack 500 bagged lunches for hungry people in Philadelphia. In the metaphor of the proverb, that was a whole lot of fish. (To give credit to the facilitators of the day’s activities, there was as much time spent building bridges between communities and examining privilege and difference as anything else. The sandwiches were a catalyst and a useful byproduct.) But as I thought ahead to the more worthwhile goal of teaching 500 people to fish, I saw that that too comes up short, even metaphorically:
- Is “learning to fish” really as clean-cut as that? Won’t people in some parts of the world fly fish while others drop crab traps and others still throw nets?
- Assuming you do catch a fish, what’s to say you know how to skin it, debone it, and cook it? Aren’t there lots of steps between fishing and being fed?
- What happens if you know how to fish but don’t have a fishing rod?
The problem with the proverb is that its pith reinforces the idea that teaching can be effective as a finite, singular event. That you ought to be able to teach someone and have them stay taught.
What the man in the proverb really needs is a network of mentors. Mentors who, over time, can help the man to learn to fish in all seasons in his particular part of the world; to learn to cook with the tools and ingredients that happen to be available; to borrow a fishing rod or to borrow some money to afford one. But that’s hard: it’s not as measurable or as quick or as concretely rewarding as seeing 500 bagged lunches by the door, ready to be distributed, before you head home.
I see this in education when administrators and policy-makers and ed-tech innovators talk about scalability. It’s an inevitable consideration: “So-and-so might be a great way for students to learn and grow — but can it feasibly scale to include all students?”
And while that question might come from a concern about equity, making it a prerequisite limits possibilities to half-measures. Any idea that immediately presents itself as a model that can feasibly scale can only incrementally change the landscape of education. What children, teachers, and society deserve is a paradigm shift. A different way that we, as a culture, define, value, and carry out how we educate young people. I don’t want just cheaper fishing rods or an app that can teach different fishing techniques for free; I want to provoke populations en masse to share their time with each other in honest, nurturing, mentoring relationships that make sure all people are fed.