My work as a teacher, and the founder of JP Green School, has been informed by a wealth of stories. Endless stories: Because everyone has a story they are longing to tell about their education, or their children’s education. And I want to hear all the stories. I especially want to hear the success stories: What have you learned well in your life, and how did you learn it?
The stories of failure all come to sound the same. We wanted to learn something, but we were taught in a way that made us feel stupid, humiliated us, or bored us. In other words, the fun went out of it, and we doubted ourselves. Too often this is the story of school: Drudgery, failure.
“But learning can’t always be fun!” “It takes effort to learn hard things!” “Kids today are spoiled–they want everything to be easy.” These are the words of protest we both hear and say. And I agree–it’s not always fun. Work and learning both involve some drudgery. Learning hard things is hard. Failure, repetition, discouragement, boredom–all part of life as well as education.
I looked at my own educational history and found three examples of how I learned hard things. Two are success stories and one is a “failure”. Here they are:
1. Guitar: My parents were working class people with no education in music, and they wanted to give us a serious musical education. So I took classical guitar lessons for 10 years as a child. I loved my teacher–an elderly Austrian immigrant–and I loved my guitar, but most of my early musical career was spent feeling frustrated at my mistakes (classical guitar requires an absolute precision that isn’t compatible with the way I do things), and hating daily practice. When I was 15 I asked to switch to a blues-rock oriented teacher, but I was discouraged (my parents thought, wrongly, that learning to play classical music would enable me to do anything I wanted with the instrument later.)
Maybe you can guess the outcome. I became a reasonably good guitarist, but I don’t enjoy playing and I don’t play. This is because feelings of anger and frustration at myself became attached to the guitar, and I can’t play without calling them up. I didn’t really want to play classical guitar–I did it to please my parents. I managed to rescue my abandoned musical self by taking up singing and strumming in my thirties, but I still struggle with irritability when I’m playing and I make a mistake.
2. Philosophy: In high school I had a great platonic love-affair with my philosophy teacher. Jeff was a big, wild man with a passion for politics, debate, and reckoning with the really big questions. (If you know me today, you’ll recognize these qualities–that’s how profound his influence on me was.)
I doubt that I would have volunteered to read Homer, Socrates, Shakespeare, Locke, Jefferson, Marx and Engels, Hobbes, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou and Simone de Beauvoire (this is just a partial list–it was a four-year course in the great books of western civilization). I don’t think I would have done all that underlining on my own. I don’t think I would have learned to make and defend a point, tease out a complex argument, and parse the difficult language of philosophy without a great mentor. But I did these things because I was inspired by a subject and a passionate teacher. He encouraged me to do hard things, and I learned to enjoy using those intellectual skills. To this day I feel real joy when confronted with big philosophical questions, and a chance to debate and discuss them.
3. Gardening: Most of us who garden talk about it as a great joy and passion. I can easily spend three hours outside working without a break. I have to make sure I drink enough water or I’ll find myself suddenly dizzy. It’s a classic “flow state”: the work is so engrossing and inherently motivating that I don’t notice that I’m tired and thirsty — that it is “hard”. I hear the plants telling me what they need, and I follow my instincts to serve them. This does not feel like work. (There’s more I could say here, about how we feel passion for the elemental work of being human — parenting, cooking, growing things, hunting — because we are designed by evolution for these tasks, but that’s another blog post.)
When I consider these and other examples from my own life, I realize that I only ever learn under conditions of joy and passion. Those qualities come from a place within me that really longs for a certain knowledge or skill. And they are enhanced by loving mentors. When passion and loving mentors are present together, learning hard things is possible.
What hard things have you learned in your life? When does work feel like play?
This is what is meant by “play-based learning”, or “self-directed learning”. Joy and inspiration for a subject or a skill have to be present in the student. When those qualities are apparent then the teacher can teach. If you try to force learning you end up with me as your guitarist.