Recently I have heard a handful of executives speak about “red threads” in their corporate learning programmes. For me, this was a new phrase. Certainly I was familiar with “golden threads” that are woven into stories and programmes, but I began to wonder how the two concepts might be the same or different.
The academic in me had to investigate. What does “red thread” actually mean and how might be fairly use both terms?
Golden Thread–the thing that binds it all together. At least for modern history, this concept seems most strongly tied to Dickens and The Tale of Two Cities. Here, the character Lucie is a young girl with golden hair and is adored by all. While this is the literal description of Lucie, in the book she is the character that binds the family together. “She becomes the “golden thread” that unites her father with his present, not allowing him to dwell too much in the horrors of the past.” Throughout the book she unites people, making it quite easy for us to now refer to “golden threads” as those ideas which run through anything (e.g., an education programme, novel, etc) and unite it as a whole. Morally, this use of golden thread seems linked to a higher purpose or goodness in people’s lives.
As we will see next, in this comparison the fact that golden threads are public and loved by all, the way Lucie was, is important. The public nature of golden threads make them usable and useful to people.
In antiquity, we find the story of Ariadne and Theseus. Ariadne helped Theseus slay the minotaur and escape the labyrinth by providing a thread he unraveled and then followed back out again. Here, the thread both connected people and provided guidance to a destination. The thread helps us find our way through something that can be confusing and difficult to navigate (not unlike some educational experiences).
Morally, the thread here is pragmatic, solving a real problem (that of escaping the labyrinth after slaying the minotaur) and thus enabling love.
Threads connect, run through, bind and unite. for me, that would be consistent with how I have heard the term “golden thread” used in literature and common expression.
Red Threads–a hidden connection between two people. “The story of the red thread comes to us from east Asia. There is a very famous Chinese saying: “You are thousands of miles apart but you come together because you have YUAN between you. You face each other but you don’t know each other because you don’t have YUAN between you.” Chinese like to say that YUAN is an invisible thread that connects people.”
By definition, the concept of fate will give “red thread” a very different meaning than “golden thread” Both connect. That much is certain. But the root concept of red thread is something that is invisible, known perhaps only to the two people who are connected, and is something that lies outside our control. Fate is something predetermined by supernatural forces.
Do we have morality when something is predetermined by supernatural forces? Without that element of free will, the moral angle slides into the background leaving “red thread” a concept outside the boundaries of human choice.
There appears to be some loose evidence that the Chinese concept of “red thread” did find its way into English language in the 19th century, and perhaps I will later spend more time looking at this line of questioning. But my initial inquiry, however, suggests that the concept of a “red thread” was interpreted in a way more consistent with western history and the way I am using “golden thread” here. “Red thread” appears to have not retained a meaning similar to that in eastern literature when brought over to the English language.
So How Might We Fairly Use Each Expression?
In the end, I think the choice emerges with some clarity–do you want people to be in a predestined position or do you wish to convey the free will to create and discover? “Red thread” seems much more appropriate for the former while “golden thread” seems more suitable for the latter.
Coming to this question of golden versus red thread via other educators, these investigations make it easy for me to conclude that “golden thread” makes more sense when we talk about education, programme designs, and human learning. The two terms seem to convey very different meanings.
The invisible, predetermined, and amoral qualities of how “red thread” as used in eastern literature I think makes it less than ideal as a metaphor for describing education and learning. Frankly, it seems much more akin to the notion of “soul mates” in the west, something that relates to love rather than learning.
While this post reflects only my curiosity at play, I have learned a bit along the way and now have clearer guidance regarding the use of both terms. I will be sticking with golden thread in my educational references.