It’s been a rough week. Things at work are going fine, but life outside of work – especially life as a new homeowner – has been, shall we say, challenging. Full of minor and major inconveniences. Full of questions about whether buying a house, buying THIS house, was such a good idea. My husband and I are trying to keep a brave face on, but we’re really stressed and tired, and have gone from being annoyed to being overwhelmed. This is all new to us, and it’s really hard.
I keep reminding myself that difficulties help us learn, and learning helps us grow.
I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Gretchen Rubin’s Happiner at Home. She quotes Yeats as saying
Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.
This is good to hear, as pleasure and virtue are in short supply around here. It also sent me looking for an old post about education and growth, one I published in 2009. As I keep telling my students: learning isn’t always fun. It isn’t always pleasant. It’s sometimes really crappy. But it always makes us grow. The trick is to grow in a direction that will allow us to keep growing. If we can do that, then we’re golden.
What exactly is “growth”? Does “education” always foster it?
The philosopher John Dewey defined education as an accumulation of experiences that stimulate both growth and the capacity for further growth. In Experience and Education, Dewey tells us, “the educative experience can be identified with growth,” and further clarifies that we must understand “growth…in terms of the active participle, growing.” This suggests that growth is an ongoing process, and it is the process that is valuable, not arrival at full maturity.
However, according to Dewey, not all experience is educative:
Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience…when and only when development in a particular line conduces to continuing growth does it answer to the criterion of education as growing.
Growth is a process of change or evolution, but it is not, in and of itself, a positive thing. We can grow in negative ways, and such growth can limit our ability to grow in the future. Such growth is not educative.
As a student, for example, I can have experiences that lead me to be dependent on others for my learning. If my early teachers teach me that “learning” involves parroting material I learn in textbooks, then I will grow in that direction, and when I leave formal schooling behind, I may have difficulty learning in other contexts; I will have a limited capacity to think independently and to learn creatively from non-textbook-generated experiences.
Each of our students arrives in our CEGEP classroom with a unique set of experiences. Some of these experiences have been conducive to growth. A student who is not yet be cognitively ready to be an “independent” thinker (and Baxter Magolda would say that most of them aren’t) may still be well prepared to become such a thinker, because he’s been asked to grapple with challenging, open-ended tasks in the past, and has received some sort of satisfaction or reward for his efforts. He may also have models – parents, older siblings, teachers, coaches – who’ve demonstrated “how to be a learner”: models of curiosity, hard work, creativity, and excitement about new knowledge. These students arrive in college knowing how to learn.
Some of our students, however, have been stunted in their growth; they’ve grown in directions that have cut them off from further evolution. They’re easily frustrated and angered by difficult questions and tasks. They want to be told what to think, or else they are infuriated when their ideas are challenged. Some shut down, and stop coming to class, or to school altogether.
Perhaps this is because “growth” can be frightening. Growth inevitably involves leaving old ways and knowledge behind. For some students, this may seem daunting or impossible. In some cases, however, we as teachers are not providing new experiences that will help students redirect their growth in a more fruitful direction – out of the concrete and into the soil, as it were.
Let’s imagine, for example, that I return a student’s first paper, and that student has failed. Let’s imagine that the student becomes frustrated and angry, and accuses me of “grading too hard.” I’m likely to become irritable and defensive in such a situation, but if I step back, it may become clear that this student has never learned how to deal productively with failure. Her past growth in this area has led her to an impasse.
It’s my job to teach her how to learn from failure, or rather, to provide her with an experience of failure that leads to learning. How can I transform this experience from a blow to her self-esteem into an opportunity for growth?
How can failure help us grow?
For one thing, it can give us the impetus to ask important questions. If I understand this, I can communicate it to the student. I can ask her, “Why do you think this paper should pass? Why do you think it failed? What comments have I made that you don’t understand? Look over the first page of the paper, and then ask me three questions.” Maybe this student has never had the opportunity to ask sincere questions about failures, nor has she received sincere answers. Students who learn from failure almost always have this skill, and it’s a fairly easy skill to demonstrate, if not always easy to absorb.
Other qualities – the willingness to take risks, an openness to new ideas, an ability to identify what one doesn’t know, a talent for organization – may seem like innate characteristics, but it would be interesting to analyze the degree to which these qualities are in fact skills that are learned through appropriate experience, and to consider ways that students might be able to learn such skills even if they arrive in CEGEP without them. [Editorial note: Paul Tough's How Children Succeed is an important reference here.]
If we see effective education as a series of experiences that induce growth and that lead to further growth, then our role as educators, along with every moment we spend in the classroom, becomes transformed. We’re not just teaching students a pile of material. We’re teaching them how to learn, and how to continue to be learners.
Image by Kym McLeod