Yes We Are Demanding, Because Learning is Hard!

How might we push so that we are supporting learning and not the instinct to opt out?

By Graham Vogt, Assistant Head of School, Academics

Learning is hard. If we are engaged in an activity that is highly challenging, we then know that we are also engaged in learning. Conversely, if we are engaged in something easy, it may be that we are not learning much of anything at all. Students will often defer to what is easy. My 10-year-old daughter will choose practicing the math she finds “easy” over spelling she finds “hard.” In fact, students sometimes have highly-developed strategies that allow them to adopt the easy route, avoiding the hard one. This is why, as educators, we grow concerned when witnessing the instinct of a student to opt out of a particular activity or expectation. Opting out because something is “too hard” may also be a decision to not learn. And so we face the delicate balance that continually challenges the instincts and expertise of the teacher. How might we push in just the right way, at just the right time, to just the right extent so that we are supporting learning, not alienating students from learning, and certainly not supporting the instinct to opt out?

I love the analogy of running, and what the exercise allows us to realize and say about learning. Jessica Sheppard, our Director of Program Integration, has written beautifully about this in the past, and so I couldn’t help but to think about the power of running as she prepared us for the Terry Fox Run this past Wednesday. It was a stunning afternoon. Mother Earth seemed to clear the clouds at the precise moment we wandered out of our Mentor Meetings and onto the front field where Sully Burrows led us through a whole-school stretch. The sun shone with a clear invitation to reach and surpass the lofty goals we’d each set for ourselves. Indeed, throughout the run—as hot and humid as it was—it was gratifying to witness so many students willing themselves beyond their own expectations. As educators, it is easy for us to recognize and celebrate moments of perseverance and achievement. Our true challenge is found in circling back to those students who found ways to not reach their goals. Were the aches, pains and cramps really too much to overcome? Or, were they used as a way out of something hard? Tricky stuff to be sure.

In his memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”, the Japanese author (and marathon runner), Haruki Murakami, identifies “himself” as his greatest asset. He—as in who HE truly is—is his one distinguishing feature; it is the one thing that he has that no one else does. This is a powerful idea that could easily describe the entire purpose of a school. For Murakami, running not only provides him with the opportunity for endless self-reflection and assessment, but also continuous and poignant moments of severe challenge that reveal something of his character and will. When the running is at its hardest, how does he respond?

It could be said that every expectation we have at our school is intended to “elevate” student expectations of self, and to become good at expecting and achieving more. In doing so, we are also fostering a process that allows students to begin truly knowing who they are. This is at least partly why each of us is relentless in our insistence upon uniforms, cellphone expectations, and full participation in academic, co-curricular and community programming.

Perhaps this is my long-winded way of thanking each of our parents for your endless support of us as we embrace the privilege of challenging and supporting your children through the highest level of expectation. Thank you!