Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Welcome to Legoland

Every semester—without exception!—I see the surrender in the eyes of my students when I assign an essay. It's as if I've asked them to play Rachmaninoff and they've never touched a piano.

And, predictably enough, when I read their "essays" I want to throw them across the room and head for the bar.

With each class I think to myself: The system is broken. Students arrive at my class unable to construct a coherent sentence. And I respond to their helplessness with: "Write an essay!"

Well, writing an essay is goddamn hard to do! Especially if you can't write a sentence.

Yet I repeat the same futile activity, year after year. "Write an essay!" And they figure out what hoops to jump through, and I figure out ways to pass them, and nothing has changed—not for them; not for me.

And I despair at finding a solution. And they lose confidence in themselves. And my class, for both of us, is a big, hopeless joke.

And then I read something like this fascinating article on a method of math instruction called JUMP.

And I remember how I learned. Slowly, so slowly—like building a castle with Legos. And it was wonderful fun. And most of the discoveries I made on my own, experimenting: a child at play.

Real epiphanies aren't so mystical: they merely allow us to finally see the obvious. Today's epiphany is the manifest point that competence in anything is always acquired through very small steps. Those small steps—the approach I use, for example, every season as a basketball coach—make possible rock-solid competence. For some people, those who really love what they're learning, those small steps will carry them to greatness.

The fact is, my students aren't the ones with the problem. I'm the problem. Telling them "Write an essay!" is the problem.

As with everything else, we must begin with one Lego. A verb. Now two or three more Legos. A sentence.

And language—the mind—blossoms. An essay.

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