Creating Intrinsic Value, Interest and the Desire to Engage in Students

“…my best guess as to his never dispensing wisdom like other dads is that my father understood that advice — even wise advice — actually does nothing for the advisee … and can actually cause confusion when the advisee is made to feel the wide gap between the comparative simplicity of the advice and the totally muddled complication of his own situation and path.” — David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

The odd thing about learning — and a lot of things — is that it’s not very fun and doesn’t seem very important when people try to convince you that it’s fun and important. It’s the oddest thing, but you can’t help it.

I remember sitting in math class a while ago and something began to dawn on me; I think it had to do with seeing why it was that some formula worked. I had one of those feelings of an understanding of something where you don’t have to think, exactly, to get it; it just sort of makes sense. Some time later, we were looking at that formula. I remember our teacher, who was always in the best spirits, taking a moment to pause and show something about it, and saying something like, “Isn’t that sort of magical? Look at that! It’s like some inner harmony of the universe! If that’s not unbelievable, I don’t know what is!” She said this with a lot of things, and I thought it was usually maybe a little contrived and made me feel sort of guiltily put off, but this time, I knew exactly, exactly what she meant.

But more often than not, these expressions of affection aren’t accompanied by a coincidental revelation beforehand — the knowing exactly what my teacher was talking about when she said “inner harmony of the universe.” Usually, you just tune it out and it sometimes makes you feel a little bad — maybe like playing a game of croquet or tennis with a professional who is talking about the beauty of the game when you’re still focused on learning the rules. It’s off-putting. As much as you might want to enjoy croquet or tennis and maybe tell others that it is fun and interesting, it can sometimes make it more difficult. You sometimes feel that you’re unable to speak with any authority about what you might really think of the game because it becomes something inaccessible and hard to think about for yourself.

My point is that teachers are really good at what they do — enough to be able to recognize some harmony or maybe genius in math, or in literature, or in DNA replication, or in art from the renaissance. And I wonder if, in some cases, that can make it easy to be the professional tennis player or croquet player.

And, of course, it may be very true that a formula is elegant or a theme from a piece of literature makes it a work of genius — and there’s no question that teachers really do mean it when they say that. I only wonder whether it’s possible that by trying to inspire and provoke a certain feeling or a revelation, you can sometimes make people roll their eyes or feel that something is inaccessible.

I am not a school teacher, day in, day out, so I probably don’t understand how difficult it is not to do this, or maybe that not showing a sense of awe with students probably seems impossibly dry and dull and a quick way to make people bored.

But when it’s common to hear from teachers that something is incredible or beautiful or easy or magical, it usually sounds sort of like an advertisement that you just skip over.

I only mean to suggest that, most times, revelations and feelings of incredulity with something in school don’t usually coincide with times when teachers say how unbelievable something is. These moments always seem to happen at unpredictable times — like with that formula.

Sometimes, when teachers have these moments for you and before you do, it can feel like being with the tennis player or croquet player who has already mastered the game.

But this is only a long way of saying that maybe teachers have the hardest jobs in the world. With something you understand deeply, it is almost impossibly difficult to resist saying, “Look! Look! Isn’t this incredible? And do you know what that means as a result?” I think I may have caused my younger sister to permanently not care very much about math because I sometimes succumb to proselytizing when I’m showing her how to do a problem (saying something like, “See? Isn’t that kind of cool? Just think about it this way.”). And then it’s definitely not very cool — and, you feel like you need to ask for help again when something doesn’t look right because there’s always some tacit, involuntary understanding that makes it prohibitive and scary to go and figure it out on your own.

It seems sort of easy to think that one’s awe of something is contagious. And sometimes it can be — if you’re talking with someone whose understanding isn’t already fragile and who isn’t in danger of being put off. Otherwise, it can sometimes have a different effect. I only wonder — probably against all good advice on being a good teacher — if teachers may be at their best when they resist showing affection for a subject; proselytizing, if you will.

As hard as it may be, they might give students room to experience it themselves. And maybe this is where the real work of learning and discovering on one’s own can begin.

There are a few ways teachers might step in this direction.  One way good way: Be a learning facilitator not an instructor. Be a resource – like a dictionary or search engine.  Google won’t tell you how to accomplish an entire problem or project, but it will give you facts that could be helpful if you ask it the right questions.

Another way might be to deflect answering particularly interesting or thought-provoking questions and leave them as challenges to puzzle over.  Maybe when students say, for example, “It doesn’t make any sense how carts hitting each other doesn’t make them lose any momentum at all, but still, energy is lost” – maybe that could be more of a special challenge to take time to figure out instead of going through an explanation.

And maybe the best way: one of the most fun parts of being a student is when teachers say, if it’s sincere, “Now how did you do that! I have never seen that before!” When the norm is for students to be the ones teaching the teacher, learning can become personally important. Often, when teachers are curious and interested in how you are doing something, you find yourself puzzling over questions even after class is finished and nobody is watching.

And last, this is a paraphrased excerpt — a conversation — from The Glass Bead Game, by Hermann Hesse, between an accomplished and beloved student and his piano teacher, who is the finest pianist in the world and also, in this story, not so different from a wise man.

“But don’t you try to inspire a love of music in your students? Don’t you show them why Bach’s Fugues are sublime? Don’t you clap your hands and share your love of music with them?”

“No. But I do teach them how to count their sixteenth notes.”


About “GenDIY”
Young people are taking control of their own pathway to careers, college and contribution. Powered by digital learning, “GenDIY” is combatting unemployment and the rising costs of earning a degree by seeking alternative pathways to find or create jobs they love. Follow their stories here and on Twitter at #GenDIY. For more on GenDIY check out:

Nick Bain, a high school student at Colorado Academy in Denver, CO.

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