Friday, September 17, 2010

The importance of persistence

I was reminded yet again yesterday of how I grew up relatively "privileged."

I don't mean in the sense of money (though we had enough of that for the necessities and many of the comforts, if not luxuries), but in the sense of what my parents taught me. How much they cared, so that they gave their kids what we needed to succeed in life.

A common kid-complaint is, "This is hard." At first, fractions are "hard." Or long division is. Or algebra. Or trigonometry. Or something in physics.

My parents had slightly different reactions to my (and my brother's) protests that something was "hard."

My mother would remark: "Few things worth doing are easy." And you know, I tended to believe that. Especially coming from her: she grew up in (what I now know was) near-poverty, she was the first in her family to go to college, she worked long hours in the summer to try to earn part of her tuition, she sought out scholarships and what work-study type opportunities existed so she could go through college. She wound up earning a Ph.D. and teaching college (until first I, then my brother, came along, and she decided she would really rather stay home and raise us than continue to work and pay for childcare. And luckily, my father was doing well enough that we could just manage that financially. As I said, we didn't have a lot of material luxuries - at least, compared to the others in our small town (on a global scale we would have been fantastically rich), but we were rich in a lot of important things).

My father responded slightly differently. He'd say to me: "I know it's hard. But you're smart, and you can figure it out." And that always made me feel better. I think part of it was that my distress was being acknowledged - and at the same time, instead of allowing me to give in and give up, my dad told me he knew I could do it, just try harder, work harder.

That was actually kind of the theme when we ran into problems growing up: Try again if you didn't get it the first (or second, or third) time. See if you can find someone who can explain it differently if you don't understand. Try looking at it a different way. Go to the library and see if you can find a book to look it up in (to this day, that's my first recourse when I don't know or don't understand something: find a book that explains it). If you have to, put it aside for a while, rest, and come back to it when you're calmer.

And I realize now how important that was, and how valuable, and how grateful I am to my parents for instilling that in us. I find now when I'm faced with what seems like an intractable problem, I get stubborn: I say to myself, "You're smart. You can figure this out" (echoes of my dad's advice!). And I dig in, and most of the time I solve the problem.

But I often see students who haven't learned this - who have, apparently, been allowed in the past to give up on "hard" stuff. And it's frustrating to teach people with that attitude.

An example, from lab. I teach a non-majors bio lab. We were doing osmosis this week, which, while it's not a super-hard topic, can be confusing if you've never worked with it before. During the lab, one group of guys called me over. "We aren't sure we understand this question" one of them said.

So I used my usual method: I asked them to tell me what they did know and did understand, and then started asking them questions based on that and aimed at getting them to what they didn't know.

Almost at the same moment, the light came up in all of their eyes. "Ohhhhhhh" one guy said. "I get it now." And he started to explain the answer to the question - and another guy picked up where he left off. And I smiled and told them they had it. And they thanked me for the help.

Then, later, one of the women in the class came up to me. "This is hard." she said. "I don't get it." So I tried the same technique- which, when it works, works very well, and I think the students remember better when I "force" them to come up with the answer on their own. She was having none of it though. "This is HARD." she repeated. "I Don't Get It."

I tried to help her as much as I felt OK doing but she just clamped down. Later, I saw her pulling the same thing on the TA in the class - he tried the same method I used and she still clamped down and finally just gave up. And that frustrates me, because everyone else in that class of 24 more or less "got" osmosis after working on it for a while. And she just decided to shut down and decide it was "too hard" or too much work.

As I said, it's frustrating teaching people with that mindset. And I wonder if there's a way of getting them out of it once they've hit 20 or so - I tend to think that if you develop the "I can figure this out!" mindset, it's going to happen as a result of early experience - like what I had with my parents - where, when something was found to be "hard," I was encouraged to keep working at it until I got it, or get extra help (in the form of tutoring or having it explained a different way).

(An aside here: that's the real source of self-esteem, IMHO: taking on a challenge that's somewhat difficult and then realizing along the way, "Hey! I get this!" or "hey! I can do this!" Not being told you're Special and Unique and there's No One Like You)

The other thing that the training I got from my parents did, was that I realized "I could do that thing in the past that I thought was so hard, and once I mastered it, it was easy. So this thing that looks hard now, if I work on it, eventually it will get easier."

But as I said: I'm not sure how to instill this in kids if they're not getting it early on, at home. (And even if primary school teachers try to instill it, if it's not being supported at home, it still may not take).

I might even go so extreme as to say that a big part of America's success over the years comes from people having said, "This is difficult, but I can do it if I keep working and keep trying." People who clamp down when things get hard and refuse to keep trying don't seem to get very far (at least in my limited experience teaching college, and observing other grad students when I was in grad school).

And so it always worries me to see someone who does that "I can't DO THIS" over something, particularly something that other people around them are mastering. It's one thing to try repeatedly and not be able to (I am not much of a singer and I acknowledge that); it's totally another to not even want to try.

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