Wednesday, September 15, 2010

My head hurts... and other symptoms of learning

Ouch! My head hurts...
I have often thought of my emotions as following into two categories: "good" emotions and "bad" emotions. The good ones include such well-accepted feelings like joy, happiness, love, bliss, and contentment while conversely I tend to lump anger, fear, anxiety, frustration, and despair into the "bad" category. It turns out that I'm not the only one who has such ideas. Many of the young people that I work with, not to mention most of us humans in the developed world, seem to be on one continuous pleasure hunt.

And in the modern world, there's plenty of opportunities. My particular version of this often consists of eating really delicious food and being unable to get enough. As soon as I'm done eating a meal that was too many calories for one day, I'm thinking about what my next meal is going to be. Or maybe I'm strategizing how my next errand is going to take me past my favorite chaat spot or fish taco joint. The bay area is just one hedonist, local, organic delicious love-fest.

On the flip side, if I'm experiencing pain of either the physical or emotional variety, it's really hard to get perspective. The muscle knot in my shoulder becomes a major physical handicap for the day, the tiny stomach rumbling is a symptom of some nasty gastroenteritis, and my scratchy throat warns of impending sickenss that will confine me to a bed for days.

So what does a splitting head pain mean? Well, when one of the students at my high school went complaining about how her work has been causing her head to split open, my principal responded with a smile and what sounded nearly like "congratulations! you've won the lottery!" Literally, she said, "That means you're learning!"

For the last few years, our school has been on a mission to get students to see pain as normal, to see mind-taxing work as beneficial exercise for the muscle in our head, and ultimately to embrace hard work. Just like me, our students seem to have a desire to feel good and avoid those "bad" emotions. Thus, many would much rather spend all evening developing their social networks than writing a thesis statement to a prompt they don't understand or solving math problems whose answers elude them. They would just rather not feel dumb. Based on my own experience, this seems like a totally logical response to work. My problem in high school, which turned out to be more beneficial in the long-run, is that I was much better at figuring out answers to textbook questions and solving math problems than becoming cool and popular at school. Therefore, on Friday nights, you might just find me saddled up to a desk, solving math problems instead of getting twisted at a party.

Unfortunately, by the time, most of the students reach MetWest, school work feels like pain more than pleasure. They feel stupid more of the time than smart. So, somehow we need to convince them that the pain they experience when faced with challenging work is actually a normal and healthy process. They are, in fact, exercising their brains to be stronger and smarter. Luckily, we are not a cult, brainwashing them into working hard so that they can have both the analytical prowess and disciplined habits to be successful in life. There are studies that seem to indicate that what we are espousing has some truth.  One's intelligence is indeed malleable.  The brain, particulary during adolescence, is developing, and students who perform certain types of tasks will become more and more proficient in those tasks. The implications are high-stakes. As long as young people experience failure in school and carry the idea that they are dumb, they will likely avoid work in school and never develop those parts of their brains that would actually help them do well in school. The cycle is vicious.

Until someone comes up with a magic homework powder, I will keep cheering when I hear students complaining of their heads hurting in school. No need for aspirin, pain is what the doctor ordered.


  1. Hi Young Whan, I found this post very thought-provoking. I totally feel the idea of helping young people experience success rather than failure. Feeling "dumb" definitely does not make a young person (or any person) want to try too hard to get "smart." Experiencing a success, and building on success (instead of setting kids up for failure) certainly helps build self-efficacy and self-competence.

    The part I wonder about is the idea that it has to be "painful." Maybe one aspect of learning is painful, but I hope that the overriding experience is fun, enjoyable. It's kind of like learning yoga, or meditation - as we grow in our practice, sure there might be some moments of pain, but I hope we should mostly be enjoying it. It's the enjoyment that makes us want to come back for more, right?

  2. I hear what you are saying! In part, I think that I was being a bit facetious about school needing to be painful, but on the other hand, I think that for most students to address significant learning gaps they need to embrace a certain amount of struggle (perhaps, pain is not the right word).

    On the flip side, yes, it totally makes sense to build on students' successes so that they will want to come back to it. This is why the internship program at MW has had such a remarkable impact. It is the first time for some students that they have envisioned a place for them in society where their work, ideas, efforts are valued and considered important. I think all young people are really seeking to understand that during adolescence. Where do I fit in "regular" society? Those who don't see themselves having a place, seek alternatives that are often less healthy.

    Thanks for the comments and for reading! So cool to be in dialogue this way.