One of my favorite pieces on learning begins with a story:
Once upon a time, an astute and beneficent leader in a remote country anticipated increasing aggressions from a territory-hungry neighbor nation. Recognizing that the neighbor had more military might, the leader concluded that his people would have to out-think, rather than overpower the enemy. Undistinguished in its military armament and leadership, the country did have on remarkable resource: the reigning world chess master, undefeated for over twenty years. “Aha,” the leader said to himself, “we will recruit this keen intellect, honed so long on the whetstone of chess, teach him some politics and military theory and then outmaneuver the enemy with the help of his genius.”
Would this be a good idea? Could the chess master apply his skills to the battlefield — or would he have difficulty applying the insights of chess to human warfare? More generally, are cognitive skills context bound?
I think an entirely sensible answer to these questions is, maybe, who knows. It depends on the person. Some skills, for some people, become so much a part of who they are that they cease to be skills at all. There is no clear place where the skill stops and the person begins.
I can imagine that chess master developing an instinct towards caution in her gameplay. And then maybe, because she’s thoughtful and sharp, she starts seeing her life in terms of chess. Not right away — it takes many years. But she starts to understand her life partly in terms of chess, and she starts noticing opportunities in her life when that same chess-born instinct towards caution applies. And now there’s a two-way street between chess and her life, and the things she learns in one arena sooner rather than later show up in the other.
For me, teaching is structured empathy. I spend all my time trying to understand how other people think, in the hopes of changing how they think. This isn’t to take a stand on whether teachers should primarily be talkers or listeners. I sure hope that even the talkers out there spend a lot of time worrying about their students’ thinking. (For that matter, I’ve always found that talking is an important part of listening.)
I mostly worry about how other people think about math. I know a thing or two about how people think about numbers or shapes, but I couldn’t tell you how people think about molecules, slavery or elections. I’d have to spend a lot more time listening (and talking) in order to know anything about that.
At the same time, like that chess master, it seems as the habit of listening is no longer easy to separate from the rest of my experiences. In this sense, my teacher identity has taken over its host.
Yes, this piece is a plea for listening.
In school today I saw a lot of sad students. (Mostly happy ones.) The adults did a fantastic job supporting students today, giving them room for their fears and sorrow. If you’re living in NYC in 2016 you don’t experience a lot of elemental forces that leave you feeling powerless, but an election is (of course) entirely out of your control, and that’s a feeling that can leave you reeling if you haven’t developed a taste for powerlessness.
Take a day or two, and listen to the kids. Hear their fears and stories, understand how they think. But sooner rather than later we need to listen more widely, to voices that are literally far away from us. (Thanks, urban/rural polarization.)
You can’t persuade people if you can’t listen. You can’t continue the fight against bigotry if you can’t listen. You can’t fight racism if you can’t listen. The only way to challenge your neighbors is to understand them, with the tenaciousness and curiosity you’d bring to a kid with a bizarre strategy for solving an equation.
I can’t think of a much better use for a classroom than helping kids understand that you’re supposed to understand how the other 50% of the country feels.
In my attempts to understand why we elected DJT, demographics are conspiring against me. My values, education, incentives and experiences all stack the deck against understanding what the hell is going on out there.
The piece that has helped me the most to understand what just happened goes like this:
The rural folk with the Trump signs in their yards say their way of life is dying, and you smirk and say what they really mean is that blacks and gays are finally getting equal rights and they hate it. But I’m telling you, they say their way of life is dying because their way of life is dying.
We’re supposed to understand each other. I can’t figure out whether that’s trite or not (it is) but sometimes we teachers are trite.