Sunday, April 17, 2005

Steering between joy and pain in learning

I wrote this for the 4 Real Learning board.

Dear Amie,

I thought your questions were so interesting because they put into words so many of my dilemmas and puzzles during my 10+ years of homeschooling. I too have read both John Holt and Mortimer Adler, and can see the point of both of them. Do they contradict? I'm still not absolutely sure. I think with education as with all human endeavours there's a sort of balancing going on. It's not either/or but both/and at different periods of time.

Compare it to your own life -- whatever skills you have, or duties, or interests. You'll see times when you needed some down time and other times when you needed to be challenged. Sometimes you stalled for too long and made it too easy for yourself, other times you pushed yourself when you really shouldn't have, because you felt the expectations from somewhere else. But in the long run, it tended to balance out, at least in the areas you ended up fairly successful at. But in those areas, it was usually where you WANTED to learn-- your hobbies and passions, or NEEDED to learn-- housekeeping or math or whatever, or had internalized that you SHOULD learn-- character and spiritual formation.

You also probably are aware by now of what "type" of person you are -- the type that tends to push and shove, or the type that tends to give up too easily. You probably see elements of yourself in your kids. So that gives you a clue towards your "default mode" -- what you tend to do when you aren't guarding yourself.

I agree with Julie that if in doubt, when teaching your kids, it's probably better to back off and assume the best, and go into nurturing mode, rather than to push and shove. That probably COULD be argued, but I see more resistance, more burnout, more stress come from lots of pushing in a homeschool than from careful, kind negotiation. And I haven't seen remarkably superior excellence come from the pushing and shoving, either.

Now that doesn't mean just "letting go" when a kid is uncooperative, either. To me it's similar to character training. You observe the kid carefully to see where he is, you make yourself somewhat familiar with developmental stages, you expect a lot of the child but not in an inhuman, "outside" way -- that is, you try to work with his unique heart and mind, but you don't tell yourself "oh, this kid isn't capable of this or that". Because kids are usually capable of a lot, even the handicapped ones, and if they perceive that you don't think they have potential, they will fulfill your low expectations.

Now where Mortimer Adler and John Holt are concerned -- I think they both made it their business to emphasize one aspect of the truth that needed emphasizing. John Holt saw the damage caused by compulsion and emphasis on conformity and lock-step schooling. He WAS however, a man who expected a lot of himself and it’s sort of assumed in his writings that you will assume the child is capable of a lot and work WITH the child, not against him, in order to help him fulfill his potential. Since Holt was not a Christian, he may sometimes have gone off the deep end in considering a child to be naturally good and free from fallen traits, and able to know completely what he ought to learn. But a lot of his ideas are based on his keen observations of kids’ learning behaviors and are therefore very acute and accurate. Thomas Aquinas says that people learn most naturally and best what they are motivated to learn, and what they learn at firsthand by personal discovery rather than being instructed and expected to accept at secondhand. This was the truth that Holt also emphasized, that had been pushed aside in our modern, conformist, utilitarian style of schooling. Aquinas also emphasized that a love for learning comes naturally to everyone, and that the teacher must take care not to extinguish it.

Now as to Adler – I think he is emphasizing the other side of the coin. We ARE fallen. As St Paul says, we do not always do what we should – our nature works against what we know is best. Since Adler didn’t become a Catholic until his death, I don’t think he was working with a fully Catholic understanding of human nature either. We DO have to be taught and instructed, and sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. Aquinas said that our natural desire to learn and know must be channeled and trained to some extent. He compared a teacher’s work to that of a doctor. A GOOD doctor knows he can’t give a patient what he doesn’t already have – but he can help him improve on what he has by nature, and help him overcome disabilities and diseases. In the same way, a teacher can help the student overcome lacks and optimize his learning and his intellectual capacities, but the operative word is “help”. It’s not the teacher’s job; ultimately, it’s the student’s to CHOOSE to learn. Charlotte Mason puts it well – we can provide an environment where learning is encouraged and supported and expected, we can train the child in good habits of attention and observation and diligence, we can provide a richness of ideas and human knowledge that is WORTHY of being learned, but the student himself has to provide the act of will, he has to make the mental equivalent of putting the food in his mouth, chewing and eating and digesting. Sorry to mix all those metaphors.


You probably thought I was done!! but here's a few more thoughts -- You asked whether moms of older kids can always tell whether their kids are “slacking” or being strong willed or not.

Well, personally, I can’t usually really tell. Observation helps, as you mentioned; sympathy helps – expecting and assuming the best about the kid’s motives. But also, as you pointed out, it’s usually a mixture. You mentioned your child resisting reading and you couldn’t tell what was his strong will and what was fear or inability. I had the same problem with one of my kids. I found it most effective to assume he COULDN’T do whatever, and work with that. Because really, a strong resistant will IS another form of CAN’T. It’s an inability. Charlotte Mason calls it a weak will, that can’t make the child do what he ought.

So the methods I use to change CAN’T to CAN, also tend to change resistance to cooperation; whereas if I am in punitive mode, trying to discipline the child for resistance, I am also in oppositional mode, making the situation into a battle of wills, which is I think almost NEVER productive in education because as I mentioned above, in Catholic educational thinking, learning is always and everywhere, finally an act of the student’s OWN will. You can never FORCE a kid to act right, or to learn, or to be a devout Catholic. Even God can’t or rather, won’t, do that. He steps back – invites, desires, encourages, exhorts, lets consequences happen, but doesn’t make us into robots or automatons. He wants us to use our wills, to freely cooperate.

When a "battle of wills" between parent and child DOES seem to work, I think it's only because it cements to the child that there IS a right way and that the parents are taking the matter very seriously. In other words, there is an effect of chastisement and putting things in proper perspective. So I'm not saying a mom or teacher should be a Stepford human, always bland and lukewarm, but that she, the mom/teacher should realize that this power of righteous indignation should not be used as a club to force the issue, or over-used in every single matter of disagreement.

I probably don't need to add I learned most of this the hard way ....

To be more specific, with reading or math, or whatever – I expect the child to try, but if he is resisting, I step back – not into passiveness, but into a lower mode of expectations. Kids don’t usually LIKE working in a lower mode than what they are capable of. I think that is one of Montessori’s great insights. If they are working in a lower mode than you think they are capable of, it’s probably because they need to overlearn, to master the new skill and consolidate it. It won’t be wasted time. So you are expecting the kid to be working and putting effort into the skill, but you don’t have to expect work AND progress. The kids themselves tend to take care of the progress part, or so I believe. Baptized humans have a natural desire to do good and to learn what’s right, so we as parents do our best to foster those desires and remove the obstacles of “can’t” or “don’t want to” which are part of our fallen nature.

So to be even more specific still, if my 6 year old is fighting reading, I’d back off completely for a certain amount of time, a week or two, and spend that time motivationally – read-alouds, or whatever is fun for both of us. Then I’d pick it up but a little behind where he was working previously, so he is at his level of competence and ease. I wouldn’t expect much at all at this point except that he is sitting there for five minutes, or whatever, working on decoding – then slowly, increase time spent or whatever, but be sensitive to real heart-felt resistance and heel-dragging, as opposed to just perfunctory “I don’t want to stop playing”. If the resistance is severe, you go back to review or to read alouds and fun readiness projects, or whatever.

I hope this makes sense. In other words, you are separating the two issues. One is training the will. For that you use patience and slow increases in expectations. If your child can only work on phonics for five minutes, then you start with four minutes and build gradually. If he’s having a bad day, you go back to three or even one minute. You are starting where his will is NOW and building, but slowly. For the other issue, developing literacy, there are so many FUN things to do – read alouds, phonics games, whatever. Some kids find different things fun. One of my kids loved those twaddly worksheets – word searches, abc dot to dots, etc. As to will training and habits, Charlotte Mason says a kid shouldn’t be a victim to decisions all the time – having to consciously CHOOSE to learn phonics every single day; obviously most little boys won’t freely and consciously decide to sit down and work on phonics daily. But you can expect regular habits based on pegs or anchors in the day – “right after breakfast we work on phonics” or “right before snack or outside time, we do math” and then focus on making the habit a routine and sort of a satisfying thing – making sure he is successful, engaged, and not bored to tears or over-challenged. In the long run, you will see progress BOTH in will-training AND in literacy.

I think that’s where some secular unschoolers miss out on the potential a human being has to regulate himself and to learn a teachable spirit – sometimes they seem to expect a child to be able to DECIDE on what is right day after day, which even most adults have a hard time doing. So by the time the child, in his teenage years, gets more serious about learning and can focus better, he has already lost a lot of ground and sometimes, from what I've read in unschooling articles, has fallen into a sort of rut or track -- good at certain things but weak in others. I think the more successful unschoolers tend to expect their children to be comfortable with lots of things but leave a lot of flexibility as to HOW. Charlotte Mason writes, quoting Psalms "you have set my feet in a wide room" and I want that for my kids -- lots of "scope", and that delight and gratitude for the gift of that space. But kids don't always "naturally" have that delight in the expanse of knowledge and ideas and I think that's where environment, and training in routines and habits, can really help make them feel comfortable in the big world of learning and discovery.


Oh, and I see I dropped Adler in the middle.

I think that there's some pain in all worthy endeavours, but emphasizing the pain too much leads to a false, not fully Catholic view of existence. We are taught that our goal is happiness, joy, true peace -- those things aren't synonymous with ease & comfort but transcend them. Joy etc even transcends suffering by FAR. The point is that some pain etc is acceptable in pursuit of a worthwhile endeavour, like learning.

We don't do hard, worthwhile things BECAUSE they are painful but because some things are more good than pain is bad. Pain is certainly not the worst thing in our existence. Sin is.

I think it is good to teach this to our kids through life but also to acknowledge that pain IS painful. Sometimes we all don't want to get out of bed, scrub the toilet, be patient with a toddler, etc. It's just that we shouldn't let the pain stop us or turn us aside.

David Isaacs in his book Character Formation says that the best age to start really working on fortitude and courage, which is what I'm talking about above, is about ages 8 to 12. You don't do this solely or even mostly through schoolwork but by chores, sports, hiking, etc. I think the younger set needs to focus more on loving obedience.

I think some people like Adler who discuss the pain in learning are trying to counter the view that all learning should be immediately and at all times pleasant, comfortable etc. CS Lewis said that some learning is painful in the beginner stages because it's hard to see where it's going. The learning itself isn't immediately rewarding, but when you HAVE learned it, you are rewarded in the long term because you can understand something you couldn't before you got to that stage. The example he is is of the early stages of Greek grammar, leading to an appreciation of Greek poetry in the original. You wouldn't even be able to see WHY reading Greek poetry is so great UNTIL you are to the point where you can start actually reading it a little (not that I know this from experience). So when I'm talking to my (older) kids I try to emphasize these two points -- (1) that most worthwhile things are hard sometimes and we don't HAVE to be daunted by hardship and (2) that sometimes you can't realize the rewards until you are at a stage where you have learned enough to appreciate them. With a little kid, I try more to SHOW this by rewarding and approving good efforts, etc.

I imagine this is the sort of thing Adler and others of the "no pain, no gain" school are emphasizing. But if it becomes a sort of pleasure in inflicting pain -- a sort of "I had to face bullies in the schoolyard and boring, meaningless classes, so why shouldn't you?" then it's gone too far and is not Catholic IMO. That's where John Holt is absolutely right in resisting a kind of academic tyranny imposed on the child from outside.

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