I have a tendency to make things hard, and I wonder if you have the same issue.
Almost everyone in an academic environment gets behind at some point during the semester. I have watched students do this for years. Typically a student starts to get behind, feels bad about themselves, and the bad feeling makes it hard to work and the student falls further behind. After an episode like this, a student will often come to me apologetically, promising to do better, and telling me about how they are going to get caught up soon and will keep up after that. The trouble with that is that it rarely happens. I think it’s a bit like how dieting causes weight gain. For the most part, we all want to do well when we take a class, and when our actions run counter to that goal, then something is going on. Maybe we really don’t want to engage with the course, and so we avoid the work because we don’t want to do it. Maybe we have more on our plate that we can handle, so we start letting go of things, coping with feeling overwhelmed through avoidance. Maybe we feel bad when we do work for the course because we don’t think our work is good enough, so we avoid possible failure by avoiding the work. I do each and every one of these, and more. We all do, because we are only human.
I think we actually use our tendency to get angry at and disappointed with ourselves to give us an excuse to do even more avoiding. Sure, you may be letting yourself down, but if you feel really awful about it, then that gives you a little distraction from the fact that you really do have a dream or a goal and your actions are hurting that dream. We can’t get out of the hole by feeling really awful, or by making a vow that now we are going to be perfect and we will never fall behind again (that’s making promises that our future self doesn’t want to keep any more than our present self does). There’s really only one way out: Take one step. Taking an action that points your feet in the right direction, an action that gets you moving, that’s the only way out. Any one real action right now can make things better.
I’m talking about this as if it’s a student problem, and it’s not. Everyone does this, and we all deal with it in different ways. I deal by staying really busy and pushing myself hard. Then when I get overwhelmed I have an excuse to throw up my hands and give up since there’s not enough time to really set things right. If it is true that the only way through is to take the next step, then maybe I should make the next step easy, rather than hard, which is my natural inclination. In fact, I’ve decided to let everything be easy. Ironically, that’s not easy to do. It runs counter to what I’ve been taught in my years of school and what I’ve taught my students since I graduated and became a “source of knowledge” (note to readers: use an ironic tone in your mind when reading that last phrase). We all know that the secret to success is hard work and that “practice makes perfect.” Particularly in math, I have always believed that lots of practicing is absolutely essential if you want to do math. The trouble is that I’m starting to think it’s a bit more complicated that that.
In K-18 education, we have students practice by giving them homework, and there are arguments both that homework is “good for kids” and homework is “bad for kids” with research about the impact of homework on achievement (grades, test scores) backing up the different sides. But is achievement what we really care about? In K-18 we care about grades and tests because grades and tests will serve as a signal to future schools and employers that they should pick us for their team. If we can get the right GPA, degree, or test score, the promise is that we can have something that we want in to future (like a great job), so achievement is something we care about when we think about the future.
But what about our current selves? Do we really have to wait to a diploma or degree to have what we want in life? Sometimes the answer is “yes” — for instance, if a master’s degree will get you a promotion and raise, then you really want that marker of achievement, and that may be enough of a goal to sustain you along the way. But for many of us the game of grades and tests is stressful, scary, unpleasant, and hard, even if it is necessary. Many of us need something to care about something besides achievement in order to make it through all of those difficult tasks, to make things a bit easier. We also arguably need to care about something other than achievement in order to make our school experiences truly transformational. So, if its not achievement that turns our cranks, then what is the point of homework, practicing, and all that hard work? If we have an authentic purpose, aside from achievement maybe we don’t have to slog through the drudgery. For instance, if you want to launch a rocket, you might need to test out configurations and do hundreds of calculations, but its not practice and it doesn’t have to be hard. True, it may take time, your path to that rocket launch may not be direct, and you may sometimes be very frustrated, but you don’t have to drive yourself forward, convinced that if you don’t keep your nose to the grindstone, you’ll never get there. Some of your best ideas will come when you distract yourself and take time for play, and you can have faith in your dream and keep taking that next step.
As a teacher, when I worry that my students aren’t “getting it,” my inclination is to do to my students just what I do to myself: push harder. I do the same thing to my kids; when things aren’t going well I make more demands, thinking that pressure is really what they need (that, and lectures too). I do the same thing to myself — when I feel that I am “behind” or that I want to be doing something more or different, I remind myself that I’m lazy and that I really need to push myself hard if I want to have my dreams. After all, I did watch three TV shows last night rather than working on this blog post.
What if I stopped doing this? What if when I feel really bad about what I’m not doing, I think back to my big goal, remind myself that the work really is easy and pleasurable, and just get myself to engage for 15 minutes and then take my TV break? What if instead of lecturing and threatening my kids, I remind them of how great they really are at the things I’m wanting them to do? And in the classroom, what if I point out to my students what they are doing well and find a way to increase my connection to them, believing for them that it is going to be easy to re-engage with the class and get over the obstacles in their path? No, none of these would be perfect solutions, but expecting things to be perfect never really gets me anywhere.
My questions for all of you: Why do teachers have students do work outside of class? That is, what is the purpose of practicing the math concept, reading the article, writing the paper, or whatever else we are asking students to do in K-18 classrooms? Is the work we assign the most effective way to reach our goals? Is the solution to difficulty to work harder? Do you believe that you should work harder? What do you do when you “get behind?”