Perseverance and Learning: Walking isn't for Everyone

Applauding children as they struggle, and not only when they succeed, are the keys to life-long love of learning.

Watch a toddler learn to walk, and you will see risk taking, failure, tears, perseverance, and success.  When that toddler falls, and cries, we don’t say, “well walking isn’t for everyone.”  Instead we sooth the tears and encourage another try.  We applaud the tentative steps, the struggle, and the perseverance. 

Watch a child learn to read, and you will see the same process.  If it looks easy, its only because some children fall less often – they may be the athletes, or they gather the rules of language more easily – they may be the writers, or they see patterns naturally – they are the mathematicians.  But shouldn’t every child learn to write well, compose numbers, and understand his/her body in motion? 

In a school where each child is encouraged to struggle and to persevere, the natural mathematicians learn to write, and the writers learn to manipulate numbers.  At my school, Touchstone Community School in Grafton, and small progressive schools like Touchstone, perseverance, risk-taking, failure, and success are integral to the processes of learning. 

I was observing a math class today.  The teacher gave the students a sheet of 30 math facts.  She gave each student a thin green marker and a thin orange marker.  Here is what she asked them to do:

“Take your green marker and for the next five minutes do all the math facts that you know in a flash - the easy, easy ones for you.  Then when those first five minutes are up, I’ll tell you to put down your green marker and use your orange one to do as many of the not-so-easy-for-you ones.” 

I watched as some students completed nearly all the facts and some just three or four.  When it came time to switch to orange, each student was persevering.  Each was taking some risk by picking up that orange marker and continuing with the “harder” problems. 

The teacher explained to the class that they would then pick at least three, and up to ten, of the problems done in orange as their next set of math facts to study.  Here was individualized challenge, supported struggle, and goal setting all in five minutes. 

I was struck the other day by an article on NPR about Asian school cultures, where perseverance is applauded and that success comes not just from innate smarts or natural talent but from hard work -- continued and supported hard work.  There is every reason to support innate smarts as well as great perseverance, after all there are a lot of ways to be smart and it's important to teach the math smart kid to learn to be a social smart kid, and the social smart kid to be a reading smart kid, and the reading smart kid to be a body smart kid.  Because sooner or later, whatever your child is naturally smart at is going to get harder, in fact so hard that he/she will fail, and learning to "fail and persevere" is one of the most important life skills of all.

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