Sunday, September 21, 2008

Scrubbing Pans and Learning...

I wrote this one morning awhile back and then shelved it because it struck me as slightly silly. But I do think the main idea is important, so I'll go ahead and post it.

I made oatmeal this morning, and, immediately afterward, I washed the breakfast dishes. I scrubbed for a while to remove the cooked oatmeal from the bottom of its pan, and although some of it was coming off, it was taking a lot of elbow grease, so I let the pan sit in the warm, soapy water while I washed the other dishes. Then I began scrubbing the pan again, but it was still requiring more pressure than I wanted to put to it, so I walked away to let the pan sit in the water for a while longer. When I returned to the pan this time, the sticky oatmeal problem had fallen entirely away. I simply swished the rag around to make sure the pan was really clean, rinsed it, and put it in the dish drainer.

I could have stayed at that sink right from the beginning and scrubbed on the pan until it was completely clean and shiny, but it was a lot easier to let it happen naturally in the warm, soapy water. No strain. No unnecessary effort. The problem took care of itself.

In life and learning, many things (not all things by any means) come "unstuck" all by themselves, as if by magic, with a bit of waiting in the proper environment.

John Taylor Gatto said that when a child is ready and willing, he can learn the entire scope of basic math in less than 100 hours. I believe him. When it comes to learning, readiness is everything. And-- contrary to what the scope and sequence programs of our schools suggest (dictate)-- all children are not ready to learn the same things at the exact same age. God has made each child unique, with his own scope and sequence for learning and developing. (I read in a book that Einstein didn't speak until he was four years old. Can you imagine how much a modern parent would wring his hands and fret over this and search for the best therapies and "help" for their child?!)

I don't think it's necessary to worry and press a child, to the point of tears and frustration, to learn something. We shouldn't watch him literally break into a sweat when trying to grasp something he's not quite ready to learn. Study might be hard work (of a rewarding sort), but learning is a gentle art. It should be a lovely thing.

I knew a little girl who was a late reader. When she was eight-years-old she still wasn't reading, and her mother was quite stressed out about it. This mom had tried many different reading programs with her daughter. She had pressed forward, gently, faithfully, and consistently, in an attempt to help her daughter learn to read. Nothing worked. The little girl could very slowly and painfully sound out basic words, but she was not improving or becoming fluent. She was often in tears, and her mother was increasingly discouraged that her daughter was "falling further and further behind."

One day this little girl's mom asked me what I'd do in her situation. Okay, this is different than asking me what one should do, so I told my friend what I would have done: "Nothing. Just let your daughter keep doing the other million interesting things she's doing, and keep reading and reading and reading aloud (the girl loved it). Read aloud "living" history, science, literature, everything! And have fun."

So, the mom, mostly out of a sense of powerlessness, did just this. About six months later she called me and said, "Guess what?! She's reading! All by herself, she's reading. I don't even know how it happened. I just caught her with a book and asked her if she could read it. She said yes, so I had her read aloud to me. She's reading chapter books!"

This kind of thing is not as unusual as it might seem. I could tell more stories similar to this one-- about spelling, about other late readers, about math, about writing, about lots of things. Sometimes all that is needed by a child who is truly not getting something is to stop working on it and let it sit. Surprisingly often, the sticky problem completely disappears, as if by magic.