As a student, I hated group assignments. I dreaded the moment when the teacher would put me with two or three other students and give us a task to accomplish. I would groan, shoot the instructor a micro-glare, and reluctantly move over to join the others who were equally ‘enthusiastic’. Why did I hate it so much? Was it because every group has a slacker and I hated the imbalance of effort? Or because I truly am an introvert? Or was it the fact that I would have to approach a problem in a different way than I was familiar with? Because if a teacher gave me a page of math problems, I could fly through them pretty quickly and end up with fairly accurate results. If I had to answer comprehension questions on a chapter in US History, no problem. Zip, zap, zoop. However, if a task involved more complexity and I had to sit in that complexity with a group of people who approached problems in different ways than my slam and jam method, that was uncomfortable for me. I didn’t like it.
You might think that in my role as teacher I have avoided assigning group work because it made me so uncomfortable as a student. Not true. It’s been a bit of a psycho/social experiment for me to watch my students obediently trudge from their desks to the groups that I have put them in. The ones who are like me grab the paper and just ‘get it done’, huffing and rolling their eyes the whole time. They are missing the point — just like I was.
Often learning is not about the product, but about the process.
Teachers don’t put students into groups so that they can find the answers. The answers have already been found. Teachers put students into groups so that they can witness the processes of other people and so that their own processes might be refined.
In my current position, I am working with two students on a course of elementary science. [If you know me well, just take a moment to digest that last sentence.] One student is a nine-year-old who is sitting beside me in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has pretty dramatic difficulty with reading and paying attention. The other student is an eight-year-old with less dramatic learning challenges who is sitting in front of a laptop in London, England. We meet every day from 10-11am EST, which is 3-4pm in London. As you can imagine, this arrangement requires involved technology, elaborate communication, and creative scheduling. Why go to all this trouble for two little girls? We go to all this trouble because — and I have witnessed this first hand — the girls learn better together than they do apart. Not only that, they share their lives with each other — tales of pet cats, horseback riding, and celebrating learning accomplishments. They giggle together as they squish clay to discover the properties of a solid, pour water to measure the volume of a liquid, and watch a steaming kettle to see a gas. They are learning about science, yes, but they are also learning how to learn and that the process of learning does not always have to be drudgery.
As a student, I was always pretty good at learning. Give me the problems; I’ll find the answers. I could figure things out on my own, thankyouverymuch.
I’m writing about this like it’s ancient history, but as you might’ve already guessed, not much has changed. I still think my systems are working pretty well. Give me a problem; I’ll try to find a solution. Slam, jam. I don’t go out of my way to find the refining process, nevertheless, it finds me.
Recently, our pastor, Gabe Kasper, referring to the writing of Kirkegaard, said that in moments when we meet a challenge to our preferred way of thinking and living we can find opportunities that produce personal transformation. Kirkegaard called such moments ‘the occasion’.
I am not a fan of such ‘occasions’. I do not like change, perhaps because in order to change I have to acknowledge that my system wasn’t the best one after all. My slam and jam method of getting assignments done wasn’t (isn’t) really teaching me anything other than how to check off boxes. It wasn’t (isn’t) allowing me the space to sit in the complexity of a problem. My box-checking was (is) productive, but not transformative.
I recently stumbled upon a book by Barbara Brown Taylor called Learning to Walk in the Dark. I had requested the book from the library because another author I love, Jen Hatmaker, often refers to Taylor in her own writing and speaking. I didn’t know what I was asking for when I requested the book, but I was a few pages into the introduction when I found myself face to face with ‘the occasion’. I was staring down a challenge to my preferred way of thinking and living. I had grabbed the book in the middle of a sleepless night, so I faced a choice at 2am — step into this transformational space or put the book down and forget I ever saw it.
I stepped in.
Taylor’s premise is that we are conditioned from childhood to avoid dark spaces. Our parents tell us to come into the house when the streetlights come on. We have night lights beside our beds. We know where the emergency flashlight is for when the power goes out. When things go dark — literally and metaphorically — we rush to grab a light. My approach to getting caught in the dark is similar to my approach to math problems–I quickly find a solution. I turn on a light. Taylor suggests a different approach. What if, she says, we sit in the dark spaces for a while? What if we acknowledge the complexity of difficult situations instead of rushing to find solutions? After all, she says, “when, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died…Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again” (5).
I have another student who reminds me of me. He wants my help super-fast so that he can score well on the test and get a good grade on the paper. I sometimes get frustrated with him. I say, “I know you want a good grade on the test, but I am more concerned that you fully understand the concepts.” He sometimes blurts back, “What? You don’t care if I do well on the test?” I do. I do care about his test, but life has taught me that the test will be over in a blink; the lesson might matter for much longer. If we don’t master the concept, we are going to have to revisit it over and over until we finally have it.
If you’ve been reading my blog for any amount of time, you know that this concept of sitting — literal sitting or figurative sitting — is not easy for me. I want a super-fast solution to every problem. I don’t know why, because each time I find a solution to one problem, another one takes its place as though it had been waiting in the wings for its turn. I continually find myself standing in the dark.
In fact, at this very moment, I (and maybe you) face several circumstances that are pretty dark. I would really like to turn on some lights, clean up some messes, and make everything perfect. However, I’ve been using that system for most of my adult life, and I’m beginning to see that it’s a flawed strategy. So, I’m going to get comfortable here and just observe the space. I’m hoping that “the things I learn” here will “save my life over and over again.”
But guys, I’m not approaching this lesson alone. I’ve assigned myself to a group project. I’ve asked a few of my dear friends to join me because I know that although it’s not my preferred way of learning — I’d rather hunker down and check off all the boxes myself — they have different approaches that I can learn from. What’s more is that they are willing to sit in the dark complexity with me for a while — not trying to turn on lights and clean up messes, but just to sit and observe and learn from the dark.
The people remained at a distance,
while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.