I had a conversation with the parents of a fantastic student last week about their son Mark’s recent performance in math class. The dad, Jim, told me that he is withholding privileges from Mark if he doesn’t have A’s and B’s in every class, but that Mark came home last Friday saying “Dad, I’m just not going to have a B in math this semester…” The dad was struggling to reconcile this statement – it wasn’t that Mark hadn’t been working hard in math class! He spent about the same amount of time working on math as he did in his other classes. It was just that Mark truly takes a little while longer to process and learn in mathematics, and that’s OK. Jim didn’t know whether or not to abandon the withheld privileges because of this fact.
“Only the paradox comes anywhere near to comprehending the fullness of life,” noted Carl Jung. Is it possible that Mark is a great kid, a great student, a great person, and he still isn’t going to make a B or above in math class? I mean seriously, if we really ask the question in such a way, it seems ridiculous. Of course it’s possible! But our systems of thought, to which we subconsciously fall no matter what our lofty conscious beliefs hold, seem to disagree. Somewhere along the line, we decided that being a good person or a ‘smart’ student is synonymous with making good grades, and if our own student turns out to not make good grades when they become a teen, we often see parents reconcile by going the completely opposite direction – by downplaying the importance of grades and completely disassociating grades and personhood, which creates a positive feedback loop often driving the students grades down further.
Jung’s conclusion related to his statement above was that “the paradox is one of our most valued spiritual possessions.” Knowing a small amount about what Jung studied and his conception of spirituality, I think he meant to conclude that ultimately, spirituality is about seeing the world as it really is, without our hopes, fears, and egos overlaid on top of it. In this way, paradox can open our eyes to the true nature of things that doesn’t always fit within our desired (or pre-programmed) conception of the world.
In education, we are constantly confronted with paradoxes or dualities. For many of us ‘new-age’ teachers, it’s ‘not about the grades,’ and we try to convey that message to students. Yet, at the same time, the grades really do still matter, and the students know it. This is just one of many paradoxes we face in education, so let’s start with what I consider to be the Foundational Duality: We, as educators, must hold extremely high expectations and be invested in their fulfillment, yet be absolutely detached from the outcomes of our efforts.
What I mean to say is that if we hope to do our best part to provide opportunities for the growth of souls, we have to challenge them. We have to expect big things, and those expectations may start with the habits of scholarship and craftsmanship that we, as humans now rather than teachers, have found to be valuable in our own lives. But as in all learning (aka meaning making), the meanings derived from the lessons may be different than the meaning we intended to occur.
Always in big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into. You are undertaking the first experience, not of the place, but of yourself in that place. It is an experience of our essential loneliness, for nobody can discover the world for anybody else. It is only after we have discovered it for ourselves that it becomes a common ground and a common bond, and we cease to be alone.
– Wendell Berry
We have to know this will happen – my guess is that it happened to you the last time you were attending Professional Development! But for some reason, we don’t know this happens, or don’t want it to happen, and so for some reason we become blind to all of the meaning that has been made, the learning that has occurred in our classroom because it’s not our intended or preferred meaning.
In this way, teaching is most certainly an art form centered around the intricate dance with this duality. But when we begin to master not the dance itself, but our consistency with it (of holding high expectations but detaching from the outcome) a cool thing begins to happen. You will begin to notice that during a student-driven GroupThink session, when you place your listening ears around the classroom, students are debating the dynamics of a logarithmic function rather than who Sally likes, or what happened on SnapChat. Students are, for short periods of time, entering Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow. Maybe that’s a bigger lesson than the logarithm we want them to learn.
There’s a benefit to teaching in a way that engages with this foundational duality. You don’t have to base learning in emotional motivation. Now, of course that statement contains nuance (what a surprise, right?) because all learning has a behavioral, emotional, and cognitive component to it. What I mean to say is that we (teachers, humans) often think of the emotional component to learning as the outwardly expressive component of emotion. What I mean is that we, as teachers, don’t have to get mad or disappointed in our students. That doesn’t mean that we can’t express anger or disappointment to our students (without actually feeling those emotions) in order to light a fire under their butts – because sometimes that’s exactly what’s needed – it just means that we don’t have to actually become emotionally entangled in the outcome, leaving us to plan our actions around what actually supports learning. If we are legitimately upset at a student because we are attached to the outcome of what we wanted to happen, we may not be able to provide that smile and sense of ‘you know I still love you and believe in you,’ that can be the pivotal moment after chewing a kid out for being a jerk (or whatever).
Sir Ken Robinson wrote that “what people contribute to the world around them has everything to do with how they engage with the world within them.” Of course he was speaking about teaching students to engage with the world within them, but let’s start with ourselves first. As teachers, if we can understand the Duality of Educative Experience and use that to help us maintain homeostasis in our own internal world, we will be able to laugh, play, and forgive with our students while holding extremely high expectations and hard lines of accountability; we will contribute more to their lives than we could otherwise.
So what about the process of teaching students to engage with their internal world? It can’t just be ‘let’s work on ourselves and everything will work out,’ right? To attempt to answer this question, let’s get back to Mark: he is an absolutely great kid, and he is going to get a C in math class. And let’s throw in another layer on this cake: Mark is trying with 100% of his effort to get above a C in math, but he isn’t trying hard enough. Uh, what now?
You see, Mark is one of those kids who is trying with 100% of his perceived possible effort. He doesn’t even know what he’s truly capable of… and that’s what I want to show him. When I had the conversation with Mark’s parents last week, I was very frank with them, and with Mark later on. I used a short anecdote to further what I meant: when I first started coaching the Mountain Bike team at my current school, I got really frustrated with the student-athletes (including Mark, who was on the team) because they would ride for fifteen minutes and then go over to the park’s water station and take a twenty minute break. Trying to stay detached from the outcome, I would present to them as angry to try to light a spark under their butts and tell them that they weren’t even trying! At first, some of them got offended by this and told me they were trying very hard, and I would respond by telling them that they “[didn’t] even know what it means to try hard! For me, trying hard in a mountain bike race means that when I get that feeling of sickness creeping into my stomach and urging me to vomit, that is my signal to push harder,” (I know that may seem extreme, but ask any competitive racer and they’ll know what I mean). After working with these students for the next two years, I finally knew they had learned what it meant to try hard just at the end of last year watching them finish their final tests for the mile run. Some of the student-athletes were coming across the finish line gasping and crying and dry heaving while sprinting across the line. After a few minutes of rest, they were crying tears of pride in the wake of their accomplishment – most of these students couldn’t complete a nine-minute mile when I started at the school, and during this testing times of 5:30 to 6:30 were commonplace.
Now, as I was relaying this anecdote to Mark and his parents, it’s not as if all of it was just being digested hunky dory. Our culture has, for some reason, developed an aversion to working hard in the right ways, whether we like to admit it or not. We tend to either let our work consume us until we no longer have balance in our lives and strangely brag about how much we work, or we don’t actually push ourselves far enough to find out of what we are capable. In the physical realm, we see this with the extremes of crossfitters versus the large portion of the population that is obese. In our educational work, we see AP-driven students who also do every single extracurricular possible, and we see expectations and standards lowered so that ‘every kid can succeed.’ Let’s get to the point here: when telling this story and being straightforward with my expectations to Mark and his family, I had to embrace the Duality, and I mean hard. I was saying that I believe Mark is capable of far more, and that he hasn’t actually been trying because he doesn’t even know what it means to try. At the same time, I have to accept the fact that Mark really might be at the limit of what he’s going to achieve, and that’s completely fine – meaning, it’s not a bad thing to just be a C student. But I want him to buck up and get an A. That’s the Duality at play again. It matters, but it doesn’t matter. I expect high-level performance, but it’s alright if my students never actually reach that point – I don’t give up or get frustrated about the result. It’s the process that matters.
When I said that it didn’t all get digested hunky dory by Mark’s parents, I don’t mean that they disagreed and threatened to call our Executive Director and get me fired. I mean that they are still holding on to the expectation that Mark is an A student, and that trying to swallow this sort of a duality is challenging. The fact that it’s challenging should not preclude us from embarking on this endeavor, however. And for their part, Mark’s parent’s integrated this new way of seeing quite gracefully.
As for Mark himself, I think he’s still on his way there – by staying detached from the outcome, I am reminding myself that he’s on the graph from The Educational Grind, growing perceptibly but also falling into regressions that don’t seem to the non-temporal eye to be anything resembling ‘growth.’ He did end up pulling off a B in math last year, but this year is down to a D, has privileges revoked and is upset about it, and is still a great kid working hard to now earn those privileges back. My students all struggle to integrate Duality into their daily mindsets, as I am sure yours do or will as well. We each need to come up with our own unique ways of teaching the Duality as a daily practice, but I have added below two ‘thoughts’ posters I created that I have hanging colorfully amongst the artwork in my room:
“The opposite of a correct statement is an incorrect statement,” proposed Nobel physicist Niels Bohr, “but the opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.” Postman, referencing Bohr, wrote “He meant to teach us, as have other wise people, that it is better to have access to more than one profound truth. To be able to hold comfortably in one’s mind the validity and usefulness of two contradictory truths is the source of tolerance, openness, and, most important, a sense of humor, which is the greatest enemy of fanaticism.” May your own educational community continue to have a sense of humor about them by embracing the Duality of Educative Experience.
Berry, W. & Meatyard, R. (1991). The Unforeseen Wilderness: Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. Counterpoint.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
Postman, N. (1995). The end of education: Redefining the value of school. New York: Knopf.
Robinson, K., & Aronica, L. (2015). Creative schools: The grassroots revolution that’s transforming education.