Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What we've done regularly

It is what we've done regularly that has made us.

Yes, some will have counterexamples to this. Sometimes big events come along that, in a day, make it impossible for us to be exactly who we were before.

But most of the time it is the slow shaping of routine that gradually directs our path. Habits are set that force decisions. In a moment of choice go for what seems obvious, maybe not even aware enough to say we chose it at all.

I bring this up because it is so important when it comes to learning. At least in the really important things that take time, it's essential to remember.

I used to teach math and my students frequently tried to dodge tough assignments by raising that age old question. As if I hadn't heard it a hundred times, one would ask, "When are we going to use this?"

Some teachers will try to counter that with some specific case the students might encounter someday. I'm not for impractical assignments, but I gave up on trying to get a possible example for every piece of the subject. More often than not, their question missed the point.

That skill, that assignment on that day very well might never surface again in that student's life (other than on The Test, of course). Who could know?

But that lesson was a moment in a long journey of learning that did indeed matter very much.

It reminds me of those old bookstores that stay in business even when large chains are a few miles or a click away. When I pull some random book from the shelf and read the odd title, it seems so unlikely anyone could stop in and want exactly that book. Yet as a whole, the varied collection that has something for everyone is exactly what keeps people coming.

It takes maturity to see the value of (and work hard for) every piece in a complex whole. I don't fault the young minds that fail to comprehend it. So many of us adults make the same mistake.

In the middle of any tough lesson or in that moment before we take our next big step, it's tempting to question the purpose behind it. It's easier to get objective, look at it from some other angle and call out the foolishness of it all.

But to use an analogy of school itself, that's the time to remember the course we're in (learning how to learn, growing in valuable skills), not the lesson we're on (solving equations involving imaginary numbers).

Of course there must be balance. School leaders have to be sure there is purpose behind the curriculum and teachers should remind students of that bigger purpose.

But to bring it back where we started, remembering that bigger purpose is definitely one of those things we should do regularly. What other disciplines, habits and practices make good learners?

What routines (good or bad) have made us what we are as teachers?