No patience for impatience

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By John Pawlak

Every now and then, I read an article that totally grabs my attention, pulls me in and captures my interest, totally engages my focus and removes all distractions from …

Oh, look! A shiny object!

Uh, what was I saying? Oh yeah, something about the weather this weekend?

Attention. Concentration. Focus. We teachers chew on these words like candy, as if it’s a natural part of learning. It’s quite simple, isn’t it? As long as the students listen, they’ll learn.

And they’ll learn a lot.

Students have to learn the names of presidents, battles fought during wars, the depths and breadths of geography, civics, humanities, economics, government and social studies. They learn about antecedents, gerunds, intransitive verbs and nominal subordinate clauses.

They consume an introduction to genetics, balance chemical equations, learn Coulomb’s Law, apply Avogadro’s number, and use gravitational equations to predict trajectories. They study poetry and learn the difference between allegories, alliterations, and allusions. They learn to factor polynomials, compute rational exponential expressions and use trigonometry to calculate lengths in right triangles.

That’s a lot of learning.

More accurately, that’s a lot of listening. But strangely enough, listening is a skill that isn’t included on our curricula.

In the “functional” world, businesses understand that listening is not a talent one is born with. They spend big bucks training their employees to be “active listeners.”

Communication skills are of paramount importance for successful team efforts and working with customers. Writing and speaking skills are of course emphasized, but even more so is the ability to listen. Not just “hearing” what the other person said, but truly listening.

A spectrum of workshops shout the mantra, “You need to be a good listener!” Gee, how many times have I heard that? Well actually, I don’t know for sure. I probably wasn’t listening.

So anyway, I read a fascinating article about how today’s students are losing the war against distraction.

The main culprit seems to be a lack of patience, this being true for both student and teacher.

The article underscored a common gap in the learning process, that of having enough time for students to transfer “knowledge” to “understanding.” In math classes, this difference is very easy to see. Students can know a lot and understand very little.

It’s like being able to use a refrigerator without understanding how it works. Hey, plug it in and the food gets cold. What’s to understand?

It is often said that today’s generation demands “instant gratification” and as such they lack the ability to learn because they demand instant knowledge.

I strongly disagree. OK, I do in fact witness the (very) common mistake of students diving head-first into a concept without first testing the depths of the material beforehand. But that doesn’t mean that they lack the ability to learn.

It takes patience, and expecting patience from someone takes patience on your part. Perhaps that’s the real problem. We’re all too damn impatient.

Intellectual patience and comfort with delayed gratification are closely related. Given more time, anyone can learn to factor a polynomial. But the curriculum simply doesn’t afford us the time.

So students, watch as I go through a couple examples. Now, any questions? Got it? Good. I dub thee Sir Expert on Factoring!

It just doesn’t work, does it? My favorite example of education gone bad is “slope.” Students learn it in middle school. Then they learn it in Algebra 1. Then they learn it in Geometry. Then they learn it in Algebra 2.

Would it surprise you to find students confused about slope in PreCalculus? Kind of redefines the word “learn,” doesn’t it?

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy to lose patience when you have to repeat something 20 times and still hear echoes of “Idungedit” in your sleep.

Somehow, we need to slow it all down. Prune the curricula and give students more time to digest the material. Lower those speed limits and have them travel from knowing to understanding without having to break the sound barrier.

My problem is that I appreciate patience. I just don’t have the time for it.