Going Back to Go Forward
Like many teachers/educators, I am also a parent. I have two children separated by five years. Though they’re grown now, they weren’t always. When my children were young, they interacted with each other in understandable, if not agreeable ways, given their different stages of maturity.
At age 7, Adam the Older was an accomplished and intense builder. At age 2, Ben the Younger was a scientist aggressively exploring the far reaches of cause and effect. Whatever Adam built Ben tore asunder, delighting in his power to effect change. The screams. The tears. The cries. The whines. The complaints. It wasn’t pretty. And soon each began to see the other through a negative lens.
In a flash of insight, I understood (or believed I understood) that this negative dynamic could morph into a lifetime of indifference. My first instinct was to address the issue head-on — to speak harshly; to implore Each to be kind to the Other; to invoke the superior age of the Older in urging him to be lenient with the Younger. Then I took a step back.
Instead of lectures, threats, and punishments, I took a page from a textbook on operant conditioning and offered prizes for not fighting. The effect of the prizes was inversely related to their monetary value. Instead of being adversaries, the Older and the Younger became partners, helping each other not to fight. In the end, Each rediscovered the Other. And just as the textbook had predicted, they soon forgot all about the prizes.
The reason for sharing this anecdote is not to impress you with my parenting skills — which may or may not be of note — but to make a seemingly counterintuitive point:
Sometimes you need to step back from a goal in order to reach it.
As a parent, my goal was to have my children engage each other in positive ways. As teachers, our goal is to have our students engage with science, or literature, or history, or math in positive ways.
If you look up engagement in a dictionary, you would find a number of meanings, some of which are contradictory: 1. The act of engaging or the state of being engaged. 2. Betrothal. 3. Something that serves to engage; a pledge. 4. A promise or agreement to be at a particular place at a particular time. 5. Employment, especially for a specified time. 6. A hostile encounter; a battle. 7. The condition of being in gear.
Whether related to hostility, love, or loyalty, engagement involves connection.
It is possible to bring about engagement and connection to subject matter by backing away from it? Yes….
Think games: Angry Birds, for example, is a game almost everyone knows and most know how to play. It’s about launching birds from a slingshot to retrieve eggs stolen by a group of hungry green pigs. It’s also about vectors, forces, and movement. Start with Angry Birds. Move to science.
Think cartoons: Collective Commons is an amazing source of political and science-oriented cartoons, but it’s not the only one. Wonderful political cartoons from our country’s history are also available without charge at the Harper’s Magazine site harpweek.com.
Many of Gary Larson’s cartoons are great launching pads for science. In one of my favorites, silly-looking musicians — a drummer and a cymbal player — are marching on a path between two steep, snow-covered mountains while they play their instruments. What the musicians don’t see is a sign that reads “DANGER AVALANCHE AREA.” What’s so funny? students might ask. Ask them to keep the question in mind as they investigate sound and vibration. Then return to the cartoon.
Think images: The internet is full of fascinating images, including those taken by the Hubble telescope at jpl.nasa.gov (available free of charge). Let your students speculate about them. Then work backwards to science.
Going back to go forward takes time, the scarcest of resources in a classroom. But without the engagement it provides, all the time in the world may not matter very much at all.