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Friday, December 21, 2012

The Search for Elusive Success...

I had another "teachable moment" in class the other day. A student was commenting on how little he enjoyed doing math problems. I said that throughout our lives, we all must perform certain tasks which we do not particularly enjoy. I went on to say that learning to hunker down and perform distasteful tasks was one of the keys to success. This was relatively effective in terms of getting students to "hunker down" and work on a problem they had little interest in. However, I started wondering two things: 1) do I really believe that performing unpleasant/distasteful/unenjoyable tasks is a key to success? ; and 2) is that statement true? i.e. Is performing unpleasant tasks actually a key to success?

Upon consideration of question #1 above, I wondered whether "success" was the right word to use when defining a state in which I had to perform unpleasant tasks on a regular basis. I had the uncanny sense that my own investigation into "success" had suddenly caused the ground to fall out beneath my feet. Perhaps, a clear and sensible definition of "success" would be the best place to begin this investigation. Merriam-Webster defines it as: "a favorable or desired outcome ; the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence." While that definition is not extra-ordinarily helpful, it does bring up a point worth noting: success can be a singular achievement (e.g. success on a test or success in a sporting match) or success can be a state of being (e.g. someone can be described as a "successful" person).

The achievement of singular success (on, say, a test), can be achieved by performing certain tasks that may be less than pleasant (i.e. hours of studying). However, I am thinking of some other success singularities for which preparation can be enjoyable: practicing a recital piece on a musical instrument, or preparing to give a complex and deep lecture, or practicing for a big sporting match. So it seems that tackling some unpleasant tasks can sometimes help us be successful on a singular achievement. We have thus inadvertently stumbled upon half of an answer to question #2!

It is worth a digression here to wonder why it is that studying for a big test seems like such a chore? I wonder if it could be because so much of what so many of us are tested on holds so little of our interest. Rare indeed is the test which measures our knowledge/performance on a topic/skill of practical life application in which we are deeply interested and invested. Preparation for such a test would, perhaps, be considerably more enjoyable, and might be more akin to preparing a recital piece or practicing for Friday's "big game". End digression.

Considering our second sense of "success", the state of being, is more complicated. Certainly, if I spent a large portion of my time doing tasks that I found distasteful, I would not consider myself to be successful, in the general sense. However, could it be that the pathway to becoming a successful person lies through these kinds of tasks? Indeed it might, and I cannot think of a single successful person whose life story does not include hardships and drudgery that had to be handled along the way. Really, when one considers the question from a broader perspective: aren't hardships and (at least occasional) unpleasant tasks part of the human condition? Whose life is so charmed as to be devoid of hardship?

But what seems unique or distinctive of successful people is that while handling hardships, these people focus on some long-term goal, and they continue to persevere and work toward that goal, even in the midst of hardships. Perhaps success, in the general sense, comes from being able to persevere through hardships. In which case, as it turns out, I may have revealed a deeper truth about life when I advised my students that learning to "knuckle down" and get through something unpleasant would help them be successful in life.

As a final coda, before closing, I would like to point out that I still think my above digression concerning the content of "school" is something we in the educational establishment are going to have to confront sooner or later. The disconnect between what we teach and the lived experience of our students is reaching untenable levels. We can drive the change or the change can drive us, but I suspect that things cannot remain static much longer.

Keep reading! And a very merry Christmas to you and yours!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Beauty: Debussy

I've pointed out this series that Anthony Tommasini at the New York Times is doing on magical musical moments in previous blog posts. But I wanted to highlight this one, because "Clair de Lune" is one of my favorite Debussy pieces, and one small piece of it is the focus of this video. Readers may know that I am an amateur pianist and have started taking violin lessons. I love music, and Tommasini really captures what makes this pieces so unique and special. Hope you enjoy the video as much as I do!

Exam week at school...things are crazy. I hope to return to a more regular posting schedule soon. In the meantime, keep reading! Cheers! And merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Education and Life

Quick note: I apologize for my recent lack of posting. Between the holidays, the book I'm editing, and the end of semester for the classes I'm teaching, I'm a little swamped. But I have not abandoned this blog. I'll just be posting with less frequency over the next couple of weeks. You can expect me to return to a more regular schedule around Christmas time. Cheers!

Some titles for this post I considered and then rejected: "Education and Real Life" and "Real Life vs. Education" and "Real Life vs. School". First of all, I have an inherent distaste for the phrase "real life". Isn't all life real? If it isn't real, if, for example, it's a dream (or a work of fiction/fantasy), can it be life? And certainly anything that happens in the context of a persons life must be "real" in the sense that the person exists and the events actually happened. Secondly, I disliked the idea of pitting education and school against "life" (real or imagined), as if I were announcing the heavy-weight boxing matchup of the decade. I don't see life as being in a fight or competition with education/school. I see education as that disposition which helps a person become more fully himself or herself (i.e. which frees her/him); and I see school as one place people go to get that education.

This post is inspired by a conversation I had with some of my students the other day. In my (mostly senior) pre-calculus class, I had posited a particularly challenging conundrum on the board: the kind of problem that makes students groan and teachers grin, the kind of problem that research tells us we should be using to challenge students to think critically, to gather information, and to synthesize information to reach new conclusions/solutions. My students assailed me with the familiar refrain: "When are we ever going to use this in real life?!" [Note well, dear reader, the usage of that distasteful phrase "real life"; as if seniors in high school don't consider pre-calculus class to be real OR lively!]

At this point, I spotted a "teachable moment", and stopped our usual discourse on mathematics to diverge into a meta-analysis of why we engage in this business called "school". I said, "Okay, is your boss at work going to ask you to write an equation for the distance between any point on a specified function and the origin? No. But one day your boss will come to you, sit down, and explain a very complicated problem. Then your boss will say to you, "fix it." And she will get up and walk away, fully expecting that you will fix it. There will be no hand-holding, textbooks, hints, etc. You will need to analyze the problem, creatively synthesize a solution using what you know or what you can teach yourself, and then implement the solution. That's what this problem is helping you cultivate: the practice (the art) of deep analytical thinking, creative visioning (seeing beyond what is: into the nebula of what is possible), and practical implementation. And that's a skill you'll use your whole life."

So, in short, I think education helps us practice the art of living well, and that when we are at our best as educators, we're engaged in this deep process of analysis, synthesis, and implementation. Your thoughts are always welcome in the comments section!