Tenacity in Pursuit

A few weeks ago, I assigned a few online ‘quizzes’ to my Seniors in Financial Literacy. I didn’t write the quizzes, and thus they were not being graded as an assessment – I just wanted the students to search for a bit more information than we were covering in class and to learn something in the process. Having not created the quizzes, I took them along with the students; instructions at the beginning of the quiz were to “research each question and submit the answers only after becoming confident in your solution”.

In my mind, an assignment like this is great because in my personal financial life, I come across questions that I don’t know the answers to and have to research all the time. What great practice! The problem was that almost all of my students scored between 0 and 20% on the quizzes, and even my best students came in the next day telling me that the quizzes were “impossible.” What the heck!?! I had scored 100% on every one of them without a ton of research time spent!

As I questioned my students a bit further, the stories seemed fairly consistent: they had searched Google for about 5 minutes, but “couldn’t find the answer, so [they] just guessed for the rest of the questions.” Hot damn…

Now, as you will know if you’ve read previous posts, I teach at an Expeditionary Learning school, a branch of education based on the ideals of Kurt Hahn. Without going into great depth as to Hahn’s backstory, one of his most famous quotes is this:

I regard it as the foremost task of education to ensure the survival of these qualities: an enterprising curiosity, an undefeatable spirit, tenacity in pursuit, readiness for sensible self-denial, and above all, compassion.

The experience of this quiz with my seniors left me stunned, asking “where is your tenacity in pursuit?!”

When one of Hahn’s five ideals from this quote has come up in the past, I’ve felt the need to really analyze what the particular character trait actually means, beyond the constructed social definition of our culture. In the case of Tenacity in Pursuit, this seems especially pertinent, because here’s the thing: whenever a character trait is lacking in students, I’ve come to learn that it’s never the students’ fault. While I’d love to lament the past and say “tenacity in pursuit is about having the toughness and motivation to push past boredom and achieve goals at any cost, no matter how big or small, and kids just aren’t as tough as they used to be,” the fact remains that kids haven’t changed – what they are learning from adults has changed. And, if my vision of the problem I encountered while giving these quizzes is muddled by not first placing the character trait at hand into the modern environment and asking ‘what are the obstacles to its development?’, I am the one creating the problem! So allow me to explain further.

Really, what was happening with my seniors can be broken down into two trends: first, I’ve come to believe that my students really did lack tenacity in pursuit. But we’ll discuss that more later, because that is only the second half of the problem. First is the problem that they lack the ability to decode information.

Decoding information in the contemporary world really requires not one, but two skills: sorting and decoding. Sorting refers to the fact that we live in a world with an abundance of information available to us. If I search Google using the terms “Financial Literacy,” I am greeted with about 27 million results in 0.58 seconds. Even for more specific search terms, like “how to create an amortization schedule in excel,” I have the ability to choose between well over a million web pages in under one second. That’s overwhelming! When I was learning mathematics in High School, if I wanted to learn how to, say, complete the square for a quadratic, I had one resource to learn from: the textbook. More specifically, the introduction to Unit 8-4, which included 5 example problems with steps listed. It might not have been easy for me to follow those steps (decode them), but at least I wasn’t faced with over a million choices as to which set of steps I wanted to try to follow first, with many of the potential resources turning out to be irrelevant to my needs anyway.

Thus, I have made the idea of quickly sorting information that is irrelevant out from information that may be relevant into a learning target for my classroom. Secondly, my students were struggling to decode information after they had successfully sorted what they thought might be useful. The process of decoding information actually does fit well with the metaphor I used earlier – that when we are learning from a textbook, it’s not easy, but it gets easier with practice. Students at my school, having almost never learned from a textbook (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), do not have the skills to quickly understand the intent of an example problem. They often try to read over the example problem, thinking they will simply download the information and understand; they often don’t recognize that the process of decoding requires you to actually write out the example problem and work it next to the text in order to understand it, or that sometimes it takes productive discussion with a partner to understand it. The more practice one has had with decoding a textbook, I am finding, the easier they will find decoding modern resources, whether webpages, YouTube videos, or textbooks (yes, I am told they do still exist).

Now, this idea of sorting and decoding information is a simple enough concept to grasp on its own, but it deserves a bit more attention if we are to do this topic justice. Not only does it lead into the topic of students needing tenacity in pursuit to be able to sort and decode, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that more than one of our most prescient social thinkers has noted that information overload should be treated as a problem deserving of the same level of attention (or more) than what we deem to be the most pressing threats to human freedom and democracy. Neil Postman, comparing the dystopian visions of 1984 and Brave New World, wrote

Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. […] As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists, who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny, ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’

It seems to me that, as educators promoting tenacity in pursuit, we must keep in mind that an ‘infinite appetite for distractions’ combined with a world filled with them is cause for training adolescent minds very intentionally, and that what is at stake is much greater than teaching kids how to manage credit effectively. Without the ability to sort information effectively, our Nation and world will be at the whims of those who can control emotion rather than reason, of those who provide information that is easily accessed and understood rather than true but complex or hard-won. To me, that seems like a vacuum of power and a potential recipe for disaster, as a democratic republic relies upon an engaged and informed public to exist.

The most pressing issue that I noted amongst my seniors when sorting information is that many of them wished that the information came in bite-sized, digestible chunks. This is where tenacity in pursuit comes into play. I’ll use my own experience here so as to not paint a caricature of ‘modern adolescents’ facing a problem that those of us in the older generation are immune to: I have found myself getting distracted recently when trying to read a book, or a scientific article. The culprit? Freaking YouTube and Facebook! It’s so much easier (more pleasurable and less satisfying) to consume a funny, mindless video or to read short, disconnected statements posted on social media than it is to concentrate my attention on linking together big ideas presented over many pages. I’m sure that you (the reader), upon reflection, have experienced some of these same tendencies within the past couple years – to prefer the short and digestible to the long and weighty. If you are reading this site, the likelihood is good that you are keenly conscious of this trend toward a more shallow, fragmented consumption pattern, and have constructed systems to stave off the disappointment of it all.

Now that we have established this is a trend extending beyond the confines of modern adolescents, place yourself into the perspective of an adolescent – they have never known the joy and value of steadily concentrated attention in the pursuit of something greater than bite-sized information. Furthermore, the majority of their information comes from applications like SnapChat, Instagram, or YouTube. When I spend my precious morning time getting on Facebook (or even reading a news article that seems important but simply isn’t compared to my daily tasks), I feel bad afterwards. I feel like a sloth; I know I have let instantaneous pleasure get in the way of what I know is good for me. Adolescents may not feel this way!

It makes sense that when faced with (perhaps) what is the first problem of real-world significance in their lives (the contrived nature of most ‘problems’ in schools is a whole different matter unto itself that we won’t get into now), like a financial decision surrounding a loan they have taken out, they are so used to bite-sized information, so used to saying ‘well, it’s not real so who cares?’ that their discouragement and decision to just avoid the problem rather than tackle it should really come as no surprise to me as a financial literacy teacher.

Well again, I’m sorry, but at some point we have to take responsibility upon ourselves and the way we are raising children. We so want our kids to be happy, and we are so busy, that we allow the family to not eat meals together (that’s BORING for kids), and we give them constant access to smartphone entertainment from age 2 onwards. Well, boredom, perhaps, is a key component to developing tenacity in pursuit. It may give kids the ability to say, ‘well, I don’t want to be here right now, but I have to be so dammit I am going to make it work.’ Instead, we are hearing temper tantrums thrown every time a kid is bored for 10 minutes or feels that what they have to do right now is ‘inefficient.’ Well guess what – sometimes sorting all of those dead ends on your financial literacy Google search is inefficient in the moment, but pays off when you have the skills to quickly and effectively find the information you need to make a solid financial decision.

We have fallen into this same trap with ‘feel-good learning.’ We don’t require kids to learn from a textbook, ever – instead relying on prepared lessons and ‘individualized attention.’ These practices are, of course, incredibly valuable for instilling confidence and a love of learning in some kids, but it’s a delicate balance because they also need to develop tenacity in pursuit through learning in challenging and difficult ways sometimes as well! The reason is because we want our kids to know the satisfaction of being producers rather than consumers, and doing so requires more than copying a template of an amortization schedule with no idea how it works, and no ability to analyze further than the table (e.g. is it better to put any extra monthly cash towards a prepayment on the mortgage, or to the S&P 500 assuming an annual return of 7%?). It requires connecting big concepts, painstakingly integrating them together, messing up, and persevering long enough to create something new. These are going to be the skills that cure cancer, uncover the next scientific revolution, and mitigate climate change. These same skills also keep our kids from falling victim to one of the many swindlers and boondogglers out there, hoping to trick them into a poor loan deal or into taking 2% from their 401(k) earnings in order to have an ‘actively managed’ fund rather than taking the low-interest index option.

A few months ago, a friend of mine who is not a runner ran a 100 mile race. His efforts were catalogued in How to Run 100 Miles – it’s worth a watch. Soon after seeing the film, I was talking to our Art Teacher in the hallway after school when a little girl walked up to her and showed Michelle a mask that she was painting. The mask wasn’t close to finished, but the pattern that she intended was beginning to emerge. The little girl said “I wanted to finish it completely, but I couldn’t because we ran out of paints.” The little girl’s mother, strolling up beside her, said “Oh, honey, I didn’t realize you wanted to finish it – we’ll stop by Michael’s on the way home and get more paints so you can finish at home.” The girl slowed her speech and said “Well, I mean, that’s alright, I didn’t really want to finish it anyway.” I’ll tell you what, Brendan and Jayson were in a lot more pain and had a lot less reason to want to finish running 100 miles, but they did it anyway. They’ve developed tenacity in pursuit, not through an outer muse, but through doing hard stuff and not quitting when the job isn’t done.

So let’s begin to consciously think about how we can teach sorting, decoding, and tenacity in pursuit. The cool thing about this is that both sorting and decoding, I believe, require tenacity to become good enough at them to actually be efficient (like all things, I suppose), so the recipe is simple: give consistent, skill-building work – it’s OK if it’s boring – give large, challenging projects – it’s OK if they’re hard – hold expectations super high, hold the line, and make it a Learning Target in our curriculum. Have students do challenging fitness tasks to integrate mind and body. And for Huxley’s sake, set limits on media and internet consumption! It won’t always feel good in the moment – tenacity rarely does – but it will create a generation that can not only manage themselves, but that can overcome the Huxleyan dystopia to which we are currently rocketing.

References and Resources:
Postman, N. (1986). Amusing ourselves to death: Public discourse in the age of show business. New York: Penguin Books.
My Amortization Project for Seniors (discussed briefly in the context of my story):
Amortization Project      Example Work – Amortization Project


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