Ironically, in writing a post titled Just Start, I couldn’t figure out how to start. Oh, wow… I think that’s what I needed – to just start!
Two days ago I told my students a made-up story for the sake of doing math – that I wanted to build a fenced-in play area for a puppy that I want to get. I had 300 feet of fencing to use – what length and width rectangle would maximize the area available for my new puppy?
Yesterday, I told them I had changed my mind – I wanted the play area to be a pentagon. Specifically a regular pentagon, with all sides the same length. I set them to work finding the area created using 300 feet of fencing. A student came up to me after about 10 minutes, telling me that she had no idea how to start the problem. I asked to see what she had (in terms of ideas) so far. She had nothing. Literally, she was staring at a blank notebook page, paralyzed by a fear of making a mistake and having to do any section of the problem over again. “Just start,” I advised her. “Write the date, write the title of this activity, underline it, draw a regular pentagon. The ideas will flow.”
There are many moments in our lives when we think we just need to be struck by the muse and then we will begin on our masterpiece – or, for God’s sake, just our daily task. The truth is, that so long as the stakes are low enough to be manageable if we fail, we just need to start. We don’t need the muse’s permission to be struck by inspiration; action begets inspiration.
In the case of the pentagon problem I gave my students, just getting started progressed through the simple tasks of writing the date to the potentially more complex task of drawing a regular pentagon. In drawing this shape, students were able to ask the next question: How do I draw a regular pentagon? My side lengths don’t touch if I draw them at equal lengths!
Well, why don’t the side lengths touch? The angles aren’t correct. What would make the angles correct? Well, the angles come from 5 corners, which should be spaced equally. So, if I went around in a full circle from my central point, I have traveled 360 degrees. Divide 360 by 5 to get the central angles. What now? Draw five lines out from the central point to the five corners. Connect the corners to one another. How will this help me find area? Well, now you have a pentagon made up of triangles! [So on and so forth!]
Answers spill out of action. In my personal life, this theme from my day led me to get home and just start on the laundry list of things I had to do around the house. I had no motivation to do these things – hang the new toilet paper roll in the bathroom, clean the gutters, rake the yard, and the list went on. However, just getting started felt good. It propelled me into the next task and gave me motivation. For two weeks now I had been waiting on motivation to get started! It turned out that just starting was the motivation I needed. I went to bed feeling good last night.
Then, today, I realized that my simple framework wasn’t so simple. My friend Eric told me about a student who had brought a fish in for a friend’s birthday. Because the friend wasn’t able to take the fish home, it found itself a home (hopefully temporarily) in Eric’s classroom; however, it wasn’t being totally cared for and seemed to not be doing so well. Eric noted in the presence of a student who has a totally bleeding heart that the fish needed someone to care for it and change it’s water. He left the room to go make some copies, and when he came back in this student had taken it upon herself to change the fish’s water. “Hold on!” he cautioned her, “what are you doing!?”
“Changing the fish’s water! I am going to save it!” she said. He explained that the water has to be changed very carefully – bit by bit allowing for the bacterial ecosystem in the water, upon which the fish relies, to replenish itself. Changing the water all at once would almost certainly leave the fish worse off than it started. His lesson to the student – who often acts quickly and without thinking or researching beforehand – was to slow down and not act so rashly.
Sometimes just starting can be tricky, I realized! It made me think back to my many years of working on my own passion projects – my bicycles. I love bikes – I even rode one from Maine to California one summer on my move out west after college. However, maintenance of bikes can be expensive when performed by a shop. Over the years, I began to learn how to service all of the components on my bike myself – but learning to be a master mechanic took many years and still isn’t complete (I still can’t service suspension components on my mountain bikes!). Often the process would go like this: realize I needed maintenance; research proper ways to perform the maintenance; buy the proper tools; budget more time, energy, and money for all of my screw-ups in the process; perform the maintenance and mess up even more than for which I had budgeted; curse a lot; figure out an even better way that I hadn’t researched previously; repeat this process several more times; and finally, now that I’d become an expert, be able to offer help to expedite the process that I was watching other friends go through with their bikes.
The through-thread in all of these stories is twofold. First, What are the stakes? When the stakes are that you may have to crumple up and throw away a page of your notebook because you messed up, Just Start! When the stakes are killing an animal that you find beloved, do your research first! When the stakes are potentially having to buy an extra kit of mineral oil for a bike repair, do some research first, and then just start knowing that you will make some major mistakes, and that they are part of the learning process. When the stakes are destroying your $2000 bike, do your research first.
The second through-thread is that different people have different natural tendencies in terms of the Just Start life advice. I am the type of person who likes to obsessively research to the point that I never take action. I do the same with waiting on motivation. For me, I need to know this about myself and tell myself to Just Start, even when – no, especially when – I think I’m not ready. Others, like our bleeding-heart fish-friend, have a natural tendency to start that needs to be tempered with sensible caution. It’s our task as educators to help students develop awareness around their own tendencies and how the stakes affect them.
How well do you recognize where you are on the parabola of Just Start? Needless to say, that’s the first step in getting our students to be metacognitive about where they reside.