Friday, November 16, 2012

The Discipline of a Scholar

Yesterday morning I got the audio file above in my email box, and I have been turning it over in my head ever since. The link is to an NPR show discussing the different attitudes that western and eastern cultures have to a child's struggle with academics. (I'm going to talk about the ideas contained in it for the rest of the blog post, so make sure and listen to it and then come back to read. Here it is in print if you'd prefer. )

When I first pulled my seven year-old son this out to homeschool this August after two turbulent years at school, the biggest hurdle we both had to overcome was the sense that school work should be easy. Mikalh's experience at school had been anything but. Hampered by auditory processing disorder, what looked like dysgraphia, and symptoms of depression and low self-esteem, school for him was difficult and frustrating. What he knew for sure is that it shouldn't be. The depression and self-esteem were the natural results of his conclusion that work should be easy for anyone smart, and was hard only for people who were dumb. He sat and dropped his pencils and refused to do his math. A first-grade year went by without anyone being sure what he could do.

My own school experience took a different path. At his age, I could read grade levels above my peers and therefore had filled my world with background knowledge that often found resonance in what I was taught. This was before No Child Left Behind, before three-week tests administered with covered walls and silenced bells, worried adults and all the pencils and the gum. I did not shine in math or sciences, but the rest of school for me left ample time for daydreaming and consisted largely of the filling out of forms that, once turned into the teacher, signaled I was free. I liked school. Why not? It was easy and I was held up, with very little effort, as an example for other kids.

All this was true until middle school. Grades, it developed, were measured based on effort, as in work produced,  rather than on native talent. This was disheartening in the extreme. I, like my son, dropped pencils and refused to work, but with an adolescent flair. All my life, I had mistakenly believed that my talent would get me through, while it turned out something else entirely would be required. My adult life has proven the truth of this to me. It is completely irrelevant that once I was an early fluent reader, now that everyone else can read. It makes no difference if I am smart. What matters is what I can work for and achieve (or not). To a large extent, my life has been defined by the ingenuity with which I approach the matters that I don't think I can deal at all, almost entirely non-academic.

Sitting across the table from Mikalh, within a few weeks, it became clear that we would have to go to war with this notion of entitlement to ease.

"If you weren't making any mistakes, it would just mean you didn't need to learn this," I'd remind him.

"There are no dumb mistakes as long as you are trying."

He repeated these refrains sagely to his stuffed bear.

I tailored his whole academic program to his learning style, but I wouldn't allow him to guess at math problems and insisted he ask for help if he was stuck. If he refused to work entirely, I cleared his schedule, so he had time to complete it all, and waited, sometimes adding more. This makes me sound like a terrible person, but I am honestly less concerned with his momentary irritation than a lifetime of flawed expectations.

I want to open up the world to this child who imagines everything. I want to nourish in him the discipline of a scholar, no matter what he should choose to be.

It's mid-November now. Four months we have been working together, and this is what I see. A child who is ridiculously proud of his achievements and frames them in terms of hard work rather than ability or smarts. Someone who is developing the discipline to memorize a poem, to copy a passage, to correct a series of grammar mistakes without frustration as a matter of course.  I see a child who expects to work, and who complains that I have canceled school for Thanksgiving because there is something about that work he likes. There is, after all, something satisfying about pressing oneself hard into something worthy and feeling the ache of effort as you learn.

None of this is to say that there are not groans and dirty looks when some new difficult thing is assigned. Sometimes we still go to war. But, at the end of a battle, when my son emerges with a writing journal legible and grammatically correct, and the two of us both say, "Look a capital letter at the start! No reminders," then I know we've done something right.

In my work life, first at a public school and now as a tutor, I have taught for some time the kids who struggle, the ones who do not know, the sideways learners, misfits, misspellers and chatterers during class. I work with the ones who cannot sit in a chair or remember phonograms or tell me plot from plural noun. Wouldn't I just love a world that prized their effort, rather than the ease with with the answer can be summoned to their lips? Wouldn't I just love to see their work displayed as an example for the class, their thinking through to the right answer be rewarded with applause? Wouldn't I love to see them know themselves as something other than dumb? Wouldn't I love to see the discipline of a scholar cultivated in them, too?

I think we put too much stock in ability and it hurts all of us—the bright, the challenged and everyone in between. We speak too much of what we can do, as if it is the sum of all we have done before, rather than remembering that new neural connections can always be forged. We are playdough, rather than stone. We say "I can't" when we mean "I won't" and "I don't want to" when we mean "I'm scared." We are afraid to fail, so we mumble answers quietly under our breath, rather than glorying in the courage it takes to raise our hand when unsure of our success. We give our kids the impression that those without the right answer should shut up and let a few students, leaders, and bullies have the floor. Personally, I am one of the worst in this regard.

Being a homeschooling parent is teaching me better. It is teaching me to try, even when I am wrong, to thumb my nose at no subject area, to try and find the answer, and to demonstrate an ability to work without complaint. We're being watched. All of us. I hope we make a good lesson of ourselves.

Team Ambiguity: What do you think? I'd like me your honest reflections. Let's have a real coffee klatch in the comment section and find out what we all think and have experienced with this. (Don't forget to subscribe to comments if you want to play.)


  1. I was having this very conversation with my husband last night, albeit not about academics, but the principle still applies.

    Somewhere along the line our collective idea of parenting is to protect our children from hurting, or from feeling bad. This is, of course, an impossible task. As that southern American sage, Michael Stipe, said: "Everybody hurts... sometimes." It hurts to grow, it hurts to learn, it hurts to fail, it hurts to suffer the consequences of poor choices. It's not fun to watch that in our own kids, but it is so valuable in terms of our real work as parents - to teach them how it is to live.
    In the academic arena, raw talent is useful, but unbridled, undisciplined raw talent becomes unfair to the child. Why is it that we think we shouldn't have to work hard? Hard work is what gets any of us anywhere in life. We know that as adults, but shy away from teaching it to children. Part of hard work is failure. Disastrous experiments, terrible mistakes, miscalculations. Academia is the safest place to learn this lesson, honestly. I know my own daughter struggles with the fear of making a mistake; she's afraid she'll disappoint, she'll get in trouble, she'll be embarrassed. This gives rise to lying to covering up mistakes, making excuses, even cheating. How is that all right?
    Don't get me started on No Child Left Behind. My own academic career was similar to yours. Skating by. I was a good test taker, a good memorizer, and I was intrinsically motivated. It wasn't really until college that I learned the hard work involved with learning, but fortunately, I had learned the value of hard work in other areas of my life, so applying it to academics was strange and uncomfortable, but not a completely foreign concept. Now I'm a degreed, intelligent stay-at-home-mom. No one cares about my GPA, my SAT scores, even my field of study. All I have left is the ability to work hard whether I feel like it or not to achieve whatever my goals may be.
    Our society doesn't value or reward hard work. It shows this by its pay scale. The people who make the most money are the people who do very little to actually get their hands dirty. It is the American dream to elevate oneself to a point where one doesn't have to work any more. This is topsy-turvy to me. Life is work, work is life.
    Learning the value of a job well-done, hard won, is what truly builds self-esteem. I have had to spend a lot of quiet time reconsidering my parenting style in this regard. I can't change the schools, really. I can change the way I teach my children to operate within the schools, though.
    It's haaaaarrrrdddd, though. (I realize the irony of this whining.)

    1. It's interesting...I think a lot about the idea contained in that "Everybody hurts" statement. I think the very difficult task of a good parent is not to protect our children from all hurt, but to decide when that hurt is making them small and when it has the potential of making them large. Over the breadth of one day's hours, I will always think that I have been too easy on a child and also that I have been too demanding, too hard.

      One decision that is very like this was the decision to take my youngest out of school. I could have pulled him out because I thought he wasn't capable or what they wanted was too much and then communicated that to him. There really was that danger. Ultimately, I think I pulled him out so that I could be unfettered in my ability to teach him how to face his challenges himself, so that I could make sure that task was not neglected, and I don't think it was one that I could accomplish between 3:30 and 8 every night. I needed to be there. In the end, no one is as invested in him as I am, not by a fraction.

      I guess my point is that you're right. No matter what kinds of kids you have, whether they are educated at school or at home, it is hard to teach the value of hard work. And I always have to watch myself to make sure I am showing it to them.

    2. OK, so. Immediately after I hit "publish" on this comment, the grayness seeped in as it does and you have spoken to my additional thoughts exactly. There is a fine line between "hard" in the sense that it can be done, it will be done, it just takes a greasing of the elbows. That's the kind of hard that builds confidence and character and all that good stuff. And then there's "too hard" - unreasonable expectations (for whatever reason) that just crushes and belittles and saps confidence. It's hard (ha ha) to see the difference between the two from the outside.

      I was thinking about Mikalh and students like him where the subject matter isn't too hard, but the whole process is an unreasonable expectation. That for whatever reason, the child learns to give up in school rather than to dig in and make it work. In a public school environment, the teachers try, but there are so many factors limiting their ability to make this discernment for each individual child, so some do get left behind or out in the cold. And, like you say, no one is more invested in him than you are.

      So, all of this makes me wonder: did students like you and I skate through not because we were so brilliant (ha!) but because the process of school was not hard for us? Is it possible that our schools do teach hard work to certain types of students, but for others it only frustrates them? I think this is entirely possible, nay, probable. I guess that's where parental investment and vigilance comes in. When you have a bright kid for whom you know the material is not too hard, but is having that confidence robbing, grinding down, losing interest type of experience in spite of everyone's best efforts, then the obvious conclusion is that he needs another system. That's not at all the same as a kid who just wants someone else to do it for him - there are those, too. It is the second kind of kid that makes me worry for the future. The first kind of kid fills me with hope because they are the ones who learn (or do they learn? Is it innate?) from a young age to look at things from a different angle, to seek new solutions to old problems.

      Having said all that, you are so right - it's what you do, what you show them. I can preach at them from my permanent dent in the couch the value of hard work, of failing and trying again, and really anything, but what will they really learn from me. Mad video game skills. That's what.

  2. I just found your blog via blogher's nablopomo. I don't have time to listen to the podcast but just wanted to say hello and that it sounds like you and your son are doing wonderful work! I look forward to reading a bit more over here.

    1. Thanks, Casey. Welcome and thanks for the shout-out,too. I look forward to getting to know you.

  3. Well, I like your approach, which seems to fit your son exactly!
    The idea of hard work as opposed to pure talent reminds me, oddly enough, of the sports approach. I have no interest in most sports, but I'm a big fan of hockey and I follow the Colorado College team (my alma mater). I've noticed how the coach will always stress that a player who has native talent but doesn't achieve highly in the beginning needs to work hard - with hard work he'll improve and succeed. And don't just stand around on the ice and expect the puck to come to you - keep your feet moving and pursue the puck and probably somebody will try to take you down and you'll draw a penalty. So maybe that "keep trying, keep working hard" mentality that people learn in sports should be applied more to academics. I never thought about the value of sports in those terms, but it seems relevant.
    My only other remark would be - I have never understood how anybody can home school their children. I could do the language and literature and probably history, and I could teach them something about art (at least the history) and about culture, etc., but when it came to math and science, forget it! Music, too. We could listen to stuff, but I couldn't teach them how to play an instrument. I admire anybody who can home school their children successfully, but I would never in the world attempt it.

    1. I do think sports have a lot of value in this regard, Lorinda! It's one of the reasons I encouraged all my boys to do Tae Kwon Do, which has a lot of reinforcement of basic skills and progression through ranks only with hard work and attitude. And Devin also does competitive soccer, which is coached very much as you describe. I think it's done tremendous good for him, personally.

      As to the homeschooling thing, I choose good curriculum and then apply my teaching skill to communicating it. I am teaching math in a way I had never learned and science concepts I had long forgot, but it is no different in public school. Most of the teachers I worked with in elementary school were uncomfortable personally in various subjects(and basically ignorant of history entirely. They relied on curriculum and their teaching ability. If I had to teach it all out of my head, we'd be sunk. And I pay for violin lessons. :)


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