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.”
My Book Bag
- Theology: True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer (after reading the biography of Schaeffer, it seemed like this would be the right book of his to begin with) — Um, I haven’t been able to find it this week….it’s around here somewhere….
- Science: The Book Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Copernicus by Owen Gingrich (recommended by Brandy as a possible book for 7th grade next year)
- History: Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why The Greeks Matter by Thomas Cahill — meh, I’m dropping this one because it’s dull
- Humanities: Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning by Jacques Barzun (recommended by Brandy)
- Whim: Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin
- Fiction/Memoir: The Keeper of the Bees by Gene Stratton-Porter (finished – great story!)