Growing Pains and Learning

The high school where I teach hosted “Career Day” last week. Speakers from various professions, most of whom are parents of students, share about their work, why it is significant, and how one gets into it.  One speaker, a personal trainer who played football for Georgia Tech, exhorted the students to develop good study habits in high school so that they would succeed in college and not risk flunking out.  This advice is pretty common in such settings.  What was unusual and memorable was his response to my questions about what specific habits did he wish he had before going to college.

He replied, “I wish I was frustrated in high school.”  He went on to explain how because he breezed through high school and was never challenged that he was not ready for the demands of college academics and did not know how to handle difficult classes and heavy work loads.  I was very glad he said this to the students and we had a wonderful conversation about education and character growth afterwards.

In our instant gratification culture, frustration and pain are interpreted as signs that something is wrong, and so are avoided.  When students have difficulty understanding a topic or struggle to make sense of it, they often just blame the teacher or give up.  I rarely see a student who is willing to persevere in order to figure out a challenging problem.  Instead they immediately say they cannot do it and stop.  When they report feelings of frustration to their parents,the parents often conclude that something is awry in the class and criticize the teacher.

While frustration can be a result of incompetency or unfairness by the teacher, frustration is also inherent to the learning process.  For learning to take place, connections in one’s neural networks that form misconceptions must be broken and replaced by new connections.  This process literally causes physical discomfort.  This strengthening of the brain is analogous to strengthening a muscle – it must be stretched and torn a little, which is uncomfortable, to grow.  To learn, one must persevere through frustration and discomfort.  Retreating from it short-circuits the learning process.

The Proverbs liken the pursuit of wisdom and understanding to the quest for treasure: for wisdom is more precious than rubies,
and nothing you desire can compare with her” (Proverbs 8:11).  As any gold-miner or treasure hunter would attest, finding precious gems or metals is no easy task, but requires years of toil and frustration.  Why should we expect less in the pursuit of wisdom and understanding?

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