Wednesday, August 25, 2021

There Is Very Little We Can Teach Other People



I've been trying to teach other people about the importance of wearing protective masks during this pandemic. 

I've tried reasons and facts, but they don't learn it.

I've tried shaming and scorn, but they don't learn it.

I've tried appealing to their emotions, but they don't learn it.

I've tried framing it as a public good, but they don't learn it.

I've tried offering them appealing prizes, even money, but they don't learn it.

I've tried threatening them with punishment, even ostracism, but they don't learn it.

I've tried yelling at them. I've tried crying for them. I've tried frightening them.

I know they're smart enough. I know they're good enough. I'm wondering if maybe they just need more time listening to me, like on the weekends, evenings, or even their summer holidays. I'm wondering if I need to assign them homework and then more homework. I'm wondering if maybe I should dose them some sort of drugs to help them concentrate. I don't want to, but left as they are, they just don't seem to be capable of learning what I have to teach them.

None of it works. Despite all my efforts, they still persist in their belief that not only do they not need to wear a mask, but they even tell me it's dangerous or injurious or immoral. It seems that my only recourse is brute force. If I can't teach them, then I'll compel them. I hate it. It's not who I am, but their inability to learn what I have to teach them leaves me no choice. After all, I've tried everything . . . 


My mother-in-law tells the story about her brilliant daughter who fell asleep the moment she was forced to open a geography or math book. This daughter grew up to be one of the best traveled people I know. She loves people and can't wait to meet new ones wherever they are in the world. She solves complicated math problems in her head, in a snap, but only if she has a need or desire for the answer. She was not taught these things, but she did learn them.

Learning anything without desire, without curiosity, is neigh impossible, yet that's what most teachers spend their time trying to do. Someone has told them what the children must learn and by when they must learn it. It is then the teacher's job to figure out what combination of tricks and threats will work. A few students find it interesting enough and these are the ones who become the star pupils. For these few children, school is a joy. Most, those in the middle, aren't exactly reluctant, but they don't see the point. They would rather be thinking about something else, so they "learn" it by cramming, by figuring out what the teacher wants and giving it back to them, by going through whatever motions are necessary to get the carrot or avoid the stick. These are the ones that teacher's praise as "hard workers," but for them school, which is to say their life, is a dull grind. And then there are those who simply will not or cannot do it without desire, but since they absolutely must learn it, we label them as broken and take it upon ourselves to compel them to it.


There is very little we can teach other people, especially if they aren't interested in learning what we seek to teach them. In fact, if we persist, we are likely to damage them. As Leonardo da Vinci wrote: "Just as eating contrary to the inclination is injurious to the health, so study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in." 

So what is a teacher to do? Many see their role as hyping the curriculum content in the interest of stimulating desire. It's not a bad idea and, to a limited extent, may work for some children. Most, however, resort to one or more the techniques I've theoretically tried out on those who won't wear a protective mask. These are all undeniably bad ideas that have nothing to do with learning.


Successful teachers, however, know that learning has almost nothing to do with teaching or curricula, and everything to do with connection. It's through connection, be it with people, places, or things, that our desire to learn emerges. Curiosity is the word we give our drive to deepen our connections. Successful teachers need know little else. Once curiosity is on the table, about anything, even if it isn't part of the curriculum, even if it doesn't follow the prescribed schedule, all things are possible. But only if we see our role as allowing it, and avoid the urge to encourage it, which too often results in killing curiosity. No, our job is to connect. Beyond that, curiosity will instruct. Curiosity leads to thinking, which is the other word for learning.

If I want someone to learn something, my first and only step is to connect with them, which is to say, listen to them; to ask them questions, not in the spirit of testing, but out of my own curiosity about them and concern for them; to provide counsel, but only if it's requested; and, finally, to be a role model of curiosity and open-mindedness myself. This is the only way anyone has ever taught anyone anything of importance. 

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"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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