Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Gritless, not Witless

So let me begin by saying this cartoon is funny. And there’s some truth to it, too—school could be more interesting if teachers “taught” about more interesting things. 

But it isn’t too much of an extrapolation, in this culture of ours that is quick to cast blame,  to argue it’s the teacher’s fault, then, for children's lack of motivation or poor grades. 

I reject that notion completely. 

School can be fun, and it often is. Nothing wrong with that! But it’s also hard work, and despite what some may think, may also be boring and tedious, requiring real discipline and grit on the part of a student to plow their way through it.

Helping our kids develop “grit” to do the hard work now for longer term gain is among our greatest failings as adults and educators in raising and educating kids today. Even as few as twenty years ago, kids had much more inclination to buckle down and grind through unpleasant tasks, whereas today it’s more likely kids will give in to despair and give up. 

Most educators of thirty or more years would agree, but it’s harder to discern the cause. However,  I’ve noticed this tendency even in myself. It used to be, if I had a practical problem to solve, like how to get my television to communicate with my old wi-fi router, I would spend the better part of a day reading through directions, seeking out solutions on the internet, or conducting “trial and error” tests to see what works. Today, I get frustrated pretty quickly, and will inevitably conclude, after about fifteen minutes, that I need a new wi-fi router. 

Why is that? 

It strikes me that an underlying theme to most modern marketing is some variation on this theme: If you use this product, your life will be simpler. Or require less work.  Or will be less frustrating. That is to say, using product X will make one’s life easier. 

Think about the family meal, which is nearly non-existent, as fewer and fewer of us cook. Why?  Because cooking takes a lot of time and work. We must research which ingredients we need, then go to the grocery store, find these items there, and purchase. Then we must spend hours preparing and cooking, then serving, and then cleaning up the kitchen afterwards. 

Or we can simply eat out. We do that much more often now,  in comparison to the past (see stats). 

But even eating out isn’t convenient enough. Who wants to sit at a table for 30-45 minutes and wait for the food to be prepared and cooked? And so was born the fast food industry, which has absolutely exploded in popularity.  The average American— man, woman, or child—spends $1200/year on fast food,  and on average, 80 million Americans eat some form of fast food every day!

But walking into a fast food restaurant is becoming too burdensome! So now virtually every fast food restaurant has a drive through window. Or even better, why not have fast food delivered directly to your home? Home delivery is not just for pizza anymore—web apps like “uber eats” will help coordinate someone to deliver your favorite fast food, right to your front door. 

Does this never-ending quest to sell us something by seducing us to make our life easier have an effect on how kids tackle school? Of course it does! Watch 14 year olds try and solve  a math problem they’ve never seen before— they give up almost instantly.  It’s not because they are without the intellectual capacity to solve the problem! They’re plenty smart enough to figure it out. But our culture has trained them to believe problem-s0lving should be easy, and they'll  crumble when it's not. 

Instead, they’ll ask the teacher: “How do we do it?” And if the teacher shows them, then gives them 5 more questions just like the first, they’ll go about their work, happily. But if the 6th question introduces a twist, or requires a new insight, they’ll give up again, waiting for the teacher to again show them how. 

The lack of grit, or stick-to-it-ness, or whatever one calls it, robs kids of the chance for real success in school and further down the road. And it isn’t their fault—it’s the world that we’ve created, the world they live in, and what we have taught them. 

If we’re going to develop grit in our kids, we have to go about it very intentionally, emphasizing three main themes:

  • Emphasizing “mastery” and not merely “completion” or work. This means, of course, that we must reduce the breadth of content, so that kids have time to revise their work, over and over, until they reach mastery level. 
  • Shifting our pedagogy away from teachers “telling” and “memorizing” to a pedagogy that insists that students discover, problem-solve and  figure stuff out without becoming reliant on the teacher. 
  • Focusing on “process” and not only “results.” How well students work with each other, how much effort they put into their work, the habits they develop, the strategies they use--these are important. We should see our roles much more analogous to that of a “coach,” who breaks down a play by position groups, practicing with each, then putting it all together and running the play over and over until they get it right. 
And parents, how you handle your kids will have a large effect on their grit. Don’t make things too easy for them, and challenge your children when they take the easy way out. Don’t instantly rescue them when they’re having troubles with a teacher or a class—mentor them instead  how to approach the teacher, what to say,  so they can work through it by themselves. Make them save their money before they can purchase something.  Don’t be afraid of denying them what they want if it’s not good for them. 

Our kids are not lacking in wit--they're as quirky, honest and funny as ever. But they do lack grit, and we need to help them develop it. 

Monday, February 18, 2019

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

These were my remarks to students at assembly on February 18, 2019.

In the Scripture readings for Mass today, we read about the story of Cain and Abel. You remember the story: Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain (the older) and Abel. Cain grows jealous of his younger brother, because, Scripture tells us, they both made offerings to the Lord, and “The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not.” (Genesis 4). 

Scripture is very economical with words, but I think we can read into this much more than just unhappiness about an “offering.” Abel was likely the favored one, the one that was more naturally gifted. Perhaps you have a sibling, or a friend, or a classmate, that is (fill in the blank) smarter, prettier, more athletic, and gets more attention than you.  It’s easy to get jealous of that person, like Cain did of his younger brother. So he invites Abel out to the fields, and then kills him. God comes and asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?,” and Cain says, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain could have easily lived today, because his implication, that I am NOT my brother’s keeper, that I am concerned only for myself, is very much in vogue. We’re studying abortion and euthanasia in our junior morality class—and advocates of both take a similar position: “This is MY body. I can do with it as I please. I am not responsible for others, nor do they have any authority over me. They should mind their own business.” 

But over and over again, Jesus tells us to look out for each other. “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers,” he tells us, you do unto me. “ 

We’re not likely to go out and kill the people we’re jealous of like Cain did. But we ARE inclined to speak poorly about those people, to find ways to put them down, embarrass them, to act destructively. Our tongue is the most powerful “weapon” we have. We can use it, if inclined, to tear people apart.  I’ll bet that all of you can remember unkind things that people have said to you or written about you, even if that were years ago. It stings. And it stings for a long time. 

But on the other hand, what we say to people can also build them up. Kind remarks, too, are memorable. I remember when I was 14 or 15 at McGill and had a locker next to the prettiest girl in the school. Once I cracked a corny joke and she laughed, genuinely, and told me “You’re so funny.” That’s all she said, but I remember it 40 years later. 

So be courageous enough to become your “brother’s keeper.” Do that by going out of your way to be kind to others, to build them up, to compliment them about things worthy of our notice. You can make a transformational difference in the life of your classmates, your younger brother or sister, even your parents, if you are willing to do that. 

Let’s not tear each other up, fueled by jealousy, like Cain was. Do the opposite. Compliment your classmates. Praise them. At the end of the day, do an inventory of who you built up that day.  Not only will it lift them up, you’ll be surprised how much better you feel about yourself, too.