The effort of thinking, learning, and teaching

posted in: pedagogical | 8

Last month I noted that one of the five books Brandy suggested for commonplacing was Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Learning and Teaching. I had it on my bookshelf but had not read it, so I picked it up and moved it to the top of the queue.

It is a collection of essays that are quite good, but depressing. They were written for major journals and newspapers in the forties, collected with additional comments added in the eighties, and yet no one heeded them and things are even worse now, the holes being dug then are even deeper now, and the likelihood that anything will change for the better even less.

One of the blessings, if also difficulties, of homeschooling is that we, unlike national bureaucracies, can pivot, alter course, and apply new wisdom when we get it. Our nimbleness is our strength, and it’s a good reason to keep reading and thinking.

The difference between a problem and a difficulty

We have all got into the habit of calling every purpose or difficulty a problem, to the point where some people on hearing “Thank you” no longer say “You’re welcome;” they say “No problem.” A problem is a definable difficulty; it falls within certain limits and the right answer gets rid of it. But the difficulty – not the problem – the difficulty of making a living, finding a mate, keeping a friend […] cannot be dealt with in the same way – it has no solution. It calls for endless improvisation, some would say “creativity.”

A few years ago I started noticing how easily discouraged some of my children could become in the course of learning. So many of the early steps had come easily to them, that when they encountered something they had to work at, they immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was something they couldn’t – and therefore wouldn’t – do.

It looked and sounded familiar, because I have the same tendencies.

I realized that my tactic and my expressions had to change. We had to be able to encounter difficulty with grit, rubbing our hands together and getting down to business. Instead, difficulty was a problem – and the easiest solution is to give it a miss.

So we come to the conclusion that the mind at its best thinks not like Dewey’s imaginary scientist, but like an artist. Art is achieved not by problem-solving, but by invention, trial and error, and compromise among desired ends.

One thing I’ve seen as we’ve read about the history of chemistry this year is that knowledge does not come from neatly following the prescribed scientific method. Discoveries came accidentally, unexpectedly, and after long wrestling and trying this or that over and over again. Learning and knowledge do not happen by applying a formula, but by engagement.

There is no possibility of making schoolwork always easy and “natural.” Much of it is hard and unnatural until it has become a habit. Effort is always needed.

Homeschool moms, we are not failing if our kids cry over math or argue about revising a paragraph again. Learning is hard work, and we are our children’s support team as well as teacher. We need to let them know that there is nothing wrong with them when the work is difficult, and we need to know there is nothing wrong with us or the material when it is hard – at least, not necessarily.

Oftentimes our hunt for a better curriculum is based on a desire to make things smooth and easy. But growth requires challenge.

No one goes to a personal trainer to get into shape without expecting to be sore.

No one starts a diet to lose weight and expects to eat cake all day.

No one goes into the Marines and expects to be mollycoddled.

We know that good results generally come from consistent, difficult effort. Let us give our children the benefit of learning the habit of effort during their childhood rather than having to learn it later in life, when consequences will be even greater. The habit of effort isn’t something that will take 21 days and then it’s all free and easy. Every growth spurt comes with growing pains.

And, of course, we cannot give what we do not have. If we want to teach the habit of effort, we must be learning and applying it ourselves.

Let us model and require and praise the effort, rather than seek easy “solutions.”

effort

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Get more great quotes & recommendations at ladydusk’s Wednesday with Words!

8 Responses

  1. dawn
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    Wow. How true and profound. A great reminder that work is work and working through frustrations is part of growing up and being an adult. Thank you.

  2. Lena
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    I really enjoyed Better Than Before. Not a lot of information was new, but her categorization of people into four quadrants by their response to pressure was brilliant. I suspect there is a personality type correlation there. I have a Rebel and it is good to know that conventional expectations or at least tactics aren’t going to work with him. But I am a questioner who leans Rebel, so I understand him a LOT better than his father does. (Upholder and ISTJ – is there a connection there?) I am really interested in your coming personality type series. My family is full of rare types ( my mom is one of five who are all INTJ!)

    • Mystie Winckler
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      5 INTJs in one family?! That must have been a sight to behold. :) Yes, I think all ISTJs will be upholders (maybe they are the only ones? Maybe some ESTJs), and probably the Obliger category is going to be entirely Fs (not that all Fs are, but that all those in that bucket will be).

  3. Kate Snow
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    Mystie, I love the way you are able to say hard things but to do it with grace and love. Thank you for this! I was just finishing writing an article on why it’s okay to change math curriculum when I read this post, and it was a terrific reminder that changing curriculum is not always the answer.

    I agree, Lena, Better than Before doesn’t have a ton of new information, but I still found it very helpful to have all that information in one place. It’s so fascinating to read after having read Charlotte Mason’s work on habits; there’s so much overlap, even though they’re writing in such different contexts.

    • Mystie Winckler
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      Yes! Of course there are times when curriculum should be changed, but I think a lot of the assumptions underneath those who change curriculum over and over is that they are looking for the easy path.

      It’s so easy to assume that if someone is struggling with something, there’s something wrong, when really something might be very right! He might actually be grappling with real learning instead of plug-and-chug.

      However, moms have to be thinking and aware to discern if it is struggle towards understanding (which is normal and healthy and something we should all be going through) or struggle due to an underlying problem that can be addressed.

      But our goal shouldn’t be seeking to make everything easy. The best things in life never come by taking the easy route.

  4. Rebecca Mohr
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    Good post to read as I continue to consider our next year of school.
    So I was wondering how you combine these two ideas/thoughts:
    One thing I’ve seen as we’ve read about the history of chemistry this year is that knowledge does not come from neatly following the prescribed scientific method. Discoveries came accidentally, unexpectedly, and after long wrestling and trying this or that over and over again. Learning and knowledge do not happen by applying a formula, but by engagement. And
    There is no possibility of making schoolwork always easy and “natural.” Much of it is hard and unnatural until it has become a habit. Effort is always needed.

    It seems that so much of school is “applying the formula” and yet that isn’t how learning happens. I’m just curious what your thoughts are as I keep trying to make our homeschool more and more “education and learning” and less and less “school”.

    • Mystie Winckler
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      Hm. This is interesting. What do you mean by “combining” those two quotes? To me, they seem like the same thing.

      What in school is applying the formula? Where it is applying the formula, then a change of approach or mentality is required. It’s a hard shift, and one you can’t make all at once, but it is the point of that shift toward education and away from school.

      For example, I’m teaching a small class sentence diagramming. I’ve seen Shurley Grammar demonstrations where the child is putting the sentence through steps to parse it, but not necessarily because he understands what he’s doing and why. And, they can only do that with sentences especially designed to fit the program, not with any ol’ sentence met in the wild. I give my students steps to diagram, but it’s not forcing the sentence through a formula, it’s looking at and thinking about what’s going on in the sentence. So I’m always asking, “What part of speech is it? What is it modifying? What’s it doing in the sentence?” If they ask me a question, I’ll most likely answer them with one of those questions.

      Circle Time is not at all a formula – it is a ritual, a liturgy. Reading and talking or writing about what is read is not formulaic.

      Even some things like math can look much the same, yet be approached by a different underlying assumption. In the formulaic school mindset, what matters is the right answer. In the education mindset, what matters is reaching understanding of why that formula gives the right answer. It pretty much always means slower progress, but it’s progress that sticks with the student rather than an achievement that’s checked off and promptly forgotten.

      Formulaic learning is easy to quantify, test, and run reports on. Learning is engagement, thinking, wrestling with a concept, working to figure it out.

  5. […] was recently reading Mystie’s post The effort of thinking, learning, and teaching. At the time, it was a timely read for me as I had just been discussing with a good friend of mine […]