Thursday, February 2, 2012

Going Off Script

As a general rule I use this blog to create my own words, but today I want to make an exception.  I came across this quote about two months ago, in a book about teaching.  It made me cry.  I am not sharing here to make you cry, but because I think that it is the single best quote that I have come across in ages, and I want to talk about it (also, any of you who read this probably already know that I love Merlyn--well,wizards in general--because they always seem to know what to say):  

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn..."is to learn something.  That is the only thing that never fails.  You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, ... you may see the world around you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds.  There is only one thing for it then--to learn.  Learn why the world wags and what wags it.  That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.  Learning is the thing for you."  The Once and Future King

When we are very small, all we do all is learn new things.  If you have ever watched a small child, you know that children spend most of their days figuring out new things; most of it is incidental learning, unprompted by teachers or parents.  And it is absolutely amazing to see.  They work with diligence (some of them even with patience) to master the world around them.  They figure out how to put toys in a basket, to walk, to hold a spoon, and to talk.  Of course, they also learn how to hide things, to say no, to hide themselves (I was always drawn to the circular clothes racks in department stores), and to lie.  But everyday, no matter what it is, they are learning.  
Then, somewhere along the way, the learning stops being incidental and starts being scripted.  When we get to school, we stop discovering things and start being told things.  Facts and rules take the place of experience, and we often have very little choice in what we are being taught.  I am not saying this is true for every learning experience; in fact, I had several teachers who were wonderful at creating opportunities for discovery and application of knowledge.  But, the traditional vision of "education" persists: the teacher is responsible for giving information to the student who then tucks it away in her mind, only to later regurgitate it on a test.  And somehow, that doesn't really feel like important work to most students.  

A few days ago I asked my students what it meant to know something; the first thing they told me was "if you have it memorized."  God damn it, no!  Eventually, though, I talked them around to the idea that you also have to be able to use it in some way, although they are still pretty unclear about how they are supposed to use it, other than to answer text questions.  They still don't see the value of learning, of knowledge.

Part of it, to be sure, is that they are teenagers.  They are at that terrible point in their life where being "smart" and being "cool" are polar opposites.  Some of them are starting to come out of it, but it is hard work.  I know, because when I was 15, no one could have convinced me that learning and knowing stuff was better than being accepted socially.  Part of that is definitely developmental, but a big part of it is also because of the context of school.  The difference is in choice.  When I made the choice to learn, it suddenly became an integral part of who I became.  And I can't imagine my life without it; I can imagine not being able to run anymore, but I can't imagine a life where I am not learning new things all the time. 

Real learning, the kind that Merlyn is talking about, the kind that saves you from the evils of the world, comes when you have made the choice to learn.  When I said that learning doesn't feel like important work to most students, it was because I don't believe they see themselves as active agents who have made the choice to learn.  Instead, they see themselves as captives in a system that is telling them what to know.  But it does not have to be like that.  I don't want to spiral off into a monologue about best practice here, because I think that anyone who reads this already knows what it is and how to do it, so I will just say that as teachers we have the power to offer our students choice, and if we do it well, they will choose to learn the content that we have planned for them.  They will be active agents who find the value and joy in learning, and they will carry that with them for the rest of their lives. 

But this isn't about teaching, this is about learning.  It is about finding a way to pull ourselves out of the rut that we may have fallen into in our lives by learning something new, something we choose and feel is important.  And it might even be something that you chose not to learn in school, because it felt forced.  For example, I hated physics in high school; I refused to let any of it sink into my brain.  But now I find it fascinating, and I watch hours of TV specials about it.  I have seriously been considering auditing a class at the community college where I work, because now I want to learn about it.  I want to learn about everything!

There is no clever or profound way for me to wrap this up.  Just go back to the top and reread the quote.  Reread it as many times as you need to, until you are ready to make the choice to go learn something new.  And then, once you have learned that, learn something else.  Then a third, fourth, fifth thing.  Learn as many things as you can, while you can because learning is the thing for you. 


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