Bud to Bloom

I read a post on Edudemic written by Patrick Larkin called “How Staying Uncomfortable is the Key to Success.” The post got me thinking about all the different ways we make learning comfortable or uncomfortable for ourselves and our students.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

These were the last roses of the season on our rose bush.

I don’t know who has a harder time dealing with discomfort: students or teachers. On the one hand, some of my students demand easy answers and rote assignments. They want to know precisely which details are worth memorizing or what one-right-answer can be found in the textbook. They like the comfort of worksheets with predefined limits. They demand “study guides” that are little more than veiled versions of the test. It takes us a while to move away from this mindset toward the open fields of intellectual risk, argument and counter argument, and original creations. More than once this year, a student has said to me, “Just tell me what to write. Just tell me how many sentences. Just tell me how many pages.” These students are stuck between anxiety and their own comfort zone.

On the other hand, teachers can be too quick to judge themselves and their practice, sticking to the safe paths already marked and traveled. It takes courage to experiment with new methods and when we fail to meet our own expectations, the sting can take a while to fade. When it comes to technology integration, it can feel like there is so much to know that even the smallest change feels like walking into a minefield. Doing things the way they have always been done feels safe and soothing. To upend our curriculum, examine our pedagogy, confront new research about how students learn best: all of these things can send a wave of panic in motion. No one who loves teaching wants to think of the work we do is less than our best, but often that’s what we are left to conclude. It’s even worse if we work in an environment that feels punitive or makes us question our own competence. Self preservation can make staying comfortable feel like our best option. It’s a fatalistic version of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Just as students need to know they are safe to step outside the boundaries of what they know and find familiar, teachers need that support from one another and from our leaders if we are ever going seek a little discomfort over staying comfortable. Any learning endeavor has a curve. Many times it starts with a goal that seems daunting or just too far away. It demands patience, practice, and persistence for us to achieve it.

Just when the flower feels snug in the bug, it's only holding back the bloom. Gotta keep blooming and show your colors.

Bud to Bloom

As for me, when I first read the title of the article, it made me think of a rosebush. As the stem develops a bud, the flower develops inside a nice, safe, protected place, but it only fulfills it’s purpose once it splits open into a blossom. If we allow ourselves or our students to stay only where it feels safe and comfortable, we keep from blossoming to our full potential.

Feynman: Asking Questions, Solving Puzzles

What I cannot create, I do not understand. --Richard Feynman

Found on the chalkboard in physicist Richard Feynman's office after his death in 1988. Image by Jennifer Leung.

A wonderful performance of QED in Mansfield, Massachusetts taught me about physicist Richard Feynman, the beauty of mathematics, and the restless questioning and creating that lead us to find meaning in life.

The primarily one-man show brought to life a man who was more vibrant and chaotic than the particles and quarks he studied. To Feynman, everything was a puzzle, and questions, especially the ones that seem the most simple and have already been answered by “the experts” are the ones most worth exploring.

Among his exploits, this Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped design the atomic bomb also loved appearing in productions at Cal Tech–stealing scenes with small parts just because he could. He successfully picked the locks on every file cabinet and combination safe at Los Alamos just because it was a puzzle to solve. His office was a playground of bongo drums and sketch pads, short stories and theorems. As the show began he explained how collecting stamps as a child led to his desire to visit Tannu Tuva in the USSR by learning Tuvan–a Russian dialect–and scheming ways to enter the remote country.

His mind was agile and curious. He viewed the natural world and its mysteries with appreciation, wonder, and bravado when called for. In short: this was the type of man I would hope education could encourage. He was not a product of education, rather, he never allowed the voice or expertise of another to dissuade him from his many passions or his curiosity. He never took “yes” or “no” for an answer and swore “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

In my own educational experience, I missed the beauty in physics that captivated this man’s imagination and wished my science teachers had shown me how to ask unabashed questions rather than explaining what to memorize and what to know. Through the performance, the actor shared Feynman’s joy–demonstrating how even a simple piece of glass reveals a mystery of the natural world: light as particle and wave, reflection and refraction–but how do the particles know whether to pass through the glass or bounce off its surface? How often do I allow my students to ask questions with no definitive answers–or help them understand that there is a difference in questions others ask them to “prove” they’ve learned the “right” material and asking themselves “I wonder why?”

I found myself alternatively inspired and challenged by this man’s vision and passion. I wondered what he was like in middle school, this man who picked the locks of file cabinets containing military secrets. Are there Feynmans in my classroom who bide their time until they can leave the confining walls of uniform knowledge, doled out in memorizable bites? How will they feed their curiosity? How will they know it’s okay to be in love with an idea? That joy and learning are not impossible sides to the same coin?

Will the obsession with testing crush the next Feynman before he (or she) can create his (or her) own way to question nature?

UPDATE:

GOOD Magazine recently posted this video of Richard Feynman explaining how rubber bands work. I would love to see my students this restless and excited about the world and their understanding of it.