Sunday, January 16, 2011

Getting past "can't"

The always-intriguing Joe Hoyle blogs today about students -- and teachers -- who claim they just can't succeed in their classes.  To the student who says, "No matter what I do, I can't seem to get an A in that course," and the instructor who says, "No matter what I do, I just can't get those students to learn the material," Joe says: What if you were offered $10 million if you did what you just said you couldn't do?

In that case, I believe we'll all agree, the student who find a way to get an A, and the instructor would find a way to reach those unreachable students.  Which reveals, Joe says, that it's not a problem of ability, but a problem of motivation.  What these people are saying is really "I can't succeed within the parameters of what I am willing to do."

For some weeks now I've been bothered by a few memories from my crafting class -- memories that fit into a pattern I frequently witness among other friends and on social networks.  "Oh, I just don't get knitting charts."  "I could never make socks."  "Lace (or cables or colorwork or whatever) is beyond me."

It's simply not true.  These are smart people.  They learned to manipulate complex symbol systems as children.  They have aced organic chemistry, raised children, served souffles, become fluent in Japanese, filled out IRS forms.  I think they believe themselves when they say they can't do it.  But it's shorthand for some far more complicated statement.  "I consider myself a beginner, and that is an advanced skill.""I'm not willing to make the effort to figure out a chart when I can muddle through with written directions and get the same result."  "I can't picture the process of doing this, so I prefer to believe it's utterly mysterious."

If they really wanted to, of course they could do whatever is under discussion.  Their excuses or self-deprecation all come down to this: "My desire is not strong enough to overcome my inertia."

Putting it that way might just shock somebody into hearing their excuses for what they are.  I'm in favor of being honest with yourself, always, and I think what bothers me when I hear people say things like this is that they are not being honest with themselves.  If they are happy with their skills the way they are, say so.  But if they contend that acquiring new capacities as a student, teacher, or maker is something they actually want to do, then they shouldn't pretend that some immovable object -- their own inadequacy or the impenetrability of the task -- is blocking their way.

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