The Blind Aquarist

When an established teacher consciously moves themselves outside their comfort zone and into the seat of a student, valuable insights often occur which, with reflection, can improve the effectiveness of that teacher’s personal style and delivery.

My experience with this phenomenon has taken place in the last two years. For over 10 years now, I’ve been in the field of education. From managing a federally funded after school program, to long-term substitute teaching, to teaching, to staying home to raise my own children; my primary focus has been helping young people make good choices to set themselves up for success. The common denominator with these occupations is that I am in the seat of the expert. Two years ago, a friend of mine who owns and operates an aquatics business asked if I would be interested in taking over maintenance of a large aquarium in town. Up to this point in my life, taking care of fish entailed the processes necessary to get them from native habitat to delicious table fare. This type of “care” was an entirely new proposition. He said he would help me learn what I needed to know because, as he said, “it’s not brain surgery.” It is, however, a system containing nearly 100 fish, worth roughly $750,000, and something I had no prior knowledge operating. The ensuing year was full of frustration, trepidation, and isolation. During this time, I witnessed many differences between the way I, as a novice, thought about and approached challenges versus the way my boss, as an expert, thought about and approached challenges.

One of the biggest differences that has resurfaced throughout this period is my bosses willingness to try new things to solve a problem. When a few of our fish developed a fungal infection, my boss advised that I add salt to increase the salinity from 0 to 4 parts per thousand. “These are freshwater fish that rarely, if ever, encounter brackish water.” I asked, “can they survive that?” His response was “I think they’ll be fine.” When increased salinity didn’t remedy the problem, he told me to start adding an antibacterial called Melafix, then an antifungal called Pimafix, then baking soda to buffer fluctuations in the pH, then Stress Guard to protect the slime layer of the fish that was being infected, then increased feedings to reduce stress, then decreased feedings to reduce organic matter on the tank floor. The point is that my boss was willing to try anything reasonable because he understood the implications of each medication within the context of the disease as well as the impact on our overall system. As the novice, I was very reluctant to tamper with the water chemistry because of the potential for the entire tank inhabitants to go belly up. In addition, the cost and complexity of the system ingrained a fear of making a costly or job-ending mistake. Upon reflection, I can see much of the problem is that I didn’t have a “big picture” of fish care or specific background knowledge about the impact of various medication.

I remember a fear of asking questions because I didn’t want to appear dumb in the eyes of my friend or incompetent in the eyes of my boss. Without the direct experience that guide an expert to time-tested resources, a novice bumbles through a problem, trying the same things that have not worked in the past. Being new to the industry, I had no network with which to collaborate, so I swallowed my pride and asked questions or, more often, forged my way forward without a clear roadmap of where I was headed. In contrast, my boss has an extensive network to sound ideas and solve problems that goes back 15 years to his University days. He is much more willing to ask questions because, I perceive, he has the vocabulary, experience, and schema to interpret answers within the context of what he already knows. This historical perspective gives him confidence to “wing-it” because he already has a framework for similar issues. I’ve had to ask for explicit and repeated instructions on seemingly simple tasks because the prior knowledge just didn’t exist.

When we both read the same article on the relative toxicity of ammonia on freshwater salmonids, I was amazed at the way he was able to interpret the information. Without the schema, I was only able to do surface level reading and learning on complicated topics. My learning curve began to increase once the vocabulary and prior knowledge began to develop. Based on my experiences, I believe novices expand knowledge best by rolling up their sleeves and diving into a task – direct experience. I believe that experts learn best by teaching because they’re forced to articulate their reasoning or beliefs. My incessant questioning and attention to detail with things stated in the past have caused my boss to reconsider his position on certain matters.
Experts are better at managing time than novices. They know what needs to get done, what can be put off until later, and what is imperative to complete. They know shortcuts to increase efficiency and are able to prioritize tasks in order of importance. Novices, on the other hand, only see a pile of tasks. They all seem equally important, or unimportant, but the novice has trouble getting everything done because they place unnecessary pressure upon themselves by the inability to prioritize.

Lastly, I believe that novices are generally self-conscious and lacking in the area of creativity. When faced with a new or old problems, novices typically think only inside the box when generating possible solutions. This, in my opinion, is due to the fact that they haven’t felt the success that comes from overcoming obstacles. There is a fear of being wrong and looking foolish. This fear my prevent them from trying new things and, consequently, from the satisfaction and confidence that comes with achievement. Also, as stated, they simply don’t have the experiences, resources, or network that an expert can lean upon.

Willingness to jump in and try different approaches to solve a problem without fear of failure is at the heart of what we’re trying to instill in students. Explicit instruction, modeling, direct experience and establishing prior knowledge are paramount to build the confidence necessary to tackle old problems with new solutions. These realizations have become evident only because I was thrown from the seat of an expert into that of a student. It can be a painful experience of frustration and low confidence. It also affords a unique view into the way our students feel as teachers wax poetic about their personal topic of expertise. If helping students is our ultimate goal, it would serve us as teachers well to place ourselves in the shoes of students from time to time as part of our professional development.

3 thoughts on “The Blind Aquarist

  1. Craig,

    Being placed into a position of responsibility for an entire living system, especially one as potentially complex and alien as an aquarium is a really strong example, and is one that I can certainly empathize with. We all carry with us this large library of previous experiences and understandings, yet when we encounter a situation were we have nothing to draw from, we’re left grasping. I like how you highlighted how difficult it can be to even try something when the consequences of failure are entirely unknown. I’ve often witnessed similar paralysis when people approach technical problems. Rather than “just start clicking” and hunting through menus and options, many freeze.

    Also, when consuming information, as in your example of the article on ammonia, novice and expert achieve different outcomes from the same experience.

    And I like how you highlighted a potential connection with creativity. How can we be creative in a context within which we lack fundamental understandings? Sometimes, however, ignorance or an uneducated perspective can lead to new questions, opening doors to new insights? Can understandings lead to burdensome expectations and assumptions?

    You make many good points, and I’m appreciative of your great example of the Blind Aquarist.

    Nice work.


  2. Hey Craig – very interesting and unusual situation you found yourself in. My entire body of knowledge regarding aquariums is that they look cool, so I’d feel overwhelmed in that situation! I find your insight about experimentation particularly interesting – novices lack the ability, willingness, and resources to experiment. That can be so frustrating! Maybe it’s the most frustrating thing about that position? So often in the course of life we’re learning something new and we might go along for a very long time on an easy and understandable path. You can learn something for months or years and have no problems with it, but if you’re still a novice, if you encounter a problem and your go-to set of tools to fix that problem don’t work…then what?

    Every discipline, job, activity, etc. has a toolbox of tricks and resources and skills that can be drawn on to address roadblocks. Expert bicycle repairmen know tricks that your average cyclist doesn’t, right? Expert aquarists (?) can experiment with fish fungi in ways that would never in a million years have crossed a novice’s mind. I looked it up and apparently “expert” and “experiment” have similar root words: so the relationship between the ability to problem solve without worry must be essential to the expert process. It’s probably one of the major learning hurdles one undergoes – the first experimentation in a new field. That’s especially poignant for educators of all kinds. We have to experiment and doing so can sometimes be frightening given our test subjects!

    I wonder about the time issue you mentioned, also. If you’re struggling to get everything right, you simply don’t have professional time to experiment with new paths. Not much to say there, but I’m rolling it around in my head. Do you think that this kind of roadblock can be alleviated in groups? Say, you had a group of three newbies all working together in the aquarium (and you’re one of them), without your boss there to help with the fungal infection. If two people can maintain the aquarium, does that make it more likely for the third to try new things and share their knowledge? Do you think this would’ve been less of a frustrating experience if you weren’t on your own at the level you were at?

    Very enjoyable read.

    1. Hello Craig
      I would first like to say I really enjoyed reading your reflection. I can relate to much of your experience. As a novice learner I feel that we are left with so many questions. And even when we develop strategies to problem solve, our questions remain because we don’t have the context. The context only comes from knowledge building and experience.
      I can also relate to your point about not wanting to ask questions. Many novice learners feel they should know more and ask less. I’ve seen people assume to know the answer and I’ve also done this myself.
      I would like to thank you for your insights.

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