A Learning Paradox: The battle of being present and preparing for the future

A Learning ParadoxLife & Death, Present & Future

Over the last two years, I have been to two funerals for parents of my former players: two 19 year-olds who have had to deal with an unimaginable reality. Each has spoken with pride, poise, sincerity, and a million other qualities I’m not sure I could have conjured up in the same situation. As I battled the tears this past weekend, I couldn’t help but consider how frequently this young man was torn between the present and future; how he had to cherish the time in front of him while preparing for and starting his freshman year of college, a milestone on his path to the future.

We are constantly telling our children, our students, to prepare for the future, to stay focused on their work so that they will have the opportunities they deserve down the road. Yet, we also frequently think and want to say, don’t grow up too fast, cherish childhood before it gets away from you. So which is it, think ahead or be present?

Peter Barton highlights this paradox in his book, Not Fade Away, in which he reflects on his life at the end of his battle with cancer.

Commentators on human happiness, from the Buddha to the latest psychobabbling guru are always harping on the importance of living in the present moment. But, unless you’re content to spend your life sitting under a tree and begging alms, that simply isn’t possible. To be a functioning human being you’ve got to be concerned about the future.

Kids learn in grade school that present actions have future consequences. Cause and effect. If A, then B. The ‘smart’ kids are the ones who grasp that right away. The ones who dawdle in the present are thought of as dummies or hopeless daydreamers.

As a businessman he explains that in order to get ahead, “you’ve got to worry,” to plan for what others haven’t yet considered. In his mind, this is how we transition to responsible adulthood. “Maybe this is necessary to ‘succeed’ in life. But I can hardly imagine how to assess the cost of it – in enjoyment, in peace of mind, maybe even bodily health.” Throughout the book, he highlights the apparent lack of preparation in his youth, inspired partly by his Baby Boomer generation, partly by his father’s early death, and a seemingly innate desire not to waste his time on unworthy activities. He lived wild and free until it felt like the time to settle in to a somewhat more traditional career and life path. *

As he nears his death, however, he also recognizes that his lack of preparation may have been the exact training he needed to succeed later on. He quit his masters degree in order to avoid jobs he detested, even though it would have been easier to just finish the degree and then choose a different career path. He took gambles that most would have judged as stupid, only for some of them to work out and spur on similar future risks. His string of successes and failures led to a lucrative career in media. So, who is to say what the correct preparation for life is?

Young Originals are more comfortable in the present than the future

If we think about the unique learners that often challenge and frustrate us in the classroom, they can often be identified by their lack of urgency, their inability to find value in the work we assign. (Last week, I wrote about these Young Originals and their importance in our classrooms.) They want to spend an extra minute playing a game at recess, just a little more time talking to friends, sometimes even a few more minutes completing an assignment for which they have finally gained momentum. They rarely want to move at the teacher’s pace. As I sit and reflect now, I wonder if I need to learn more from them, if their pace of lie is a better balance between the present and future.

If we could take a step back, I’m not sure we would blame them.

If you went back in time, could you fault a fellow nine year-old for wanting to read Calvin and Hobbes instead of Island of the Blue Dolphins? Could you fault a student for wanting to doodle an image of a cool new cartoon, rather than write an algebraic equation that their teacher just introduced? Could you understand a student taking a bathroom break to avoid writing one more sentence with proper comma use? You might not love any of these choices, neither do I, but I’m guessing (hoping?) you can empathize with them.

I am also not saying we should allow students to avoid learning, but the process of learning is typically slow, no matter how fast we teachers want it to move. We teachers always want it to be faster, because we have so much to squeeze into our yearlong curriculum. The students don’t have a yearlong curriculum to cover.

John Spencer and AJ Juliani asked a question in their book, LAUNCH, “Do you remember how long it took you to write a lesson plan when you were a pre-service teacher?” My answer would be a long time, and it wasn’t very good when I finished. It takes time to learn, it takes time to improve. And it is rarely pretty.

So, when a student is doodling, or going to the bathroom too often, or reading their book instead of the one the teacher assigned, we can look at it in multiple ways. One is that the student is defiant, unwilling to learn, and needs strict rules and consequences to put them in their place, both physically and mentally. Another is that this student is a canary in the coal mine.

Carla Shalaby used this canary in the coal mine idea in her book Troublemakers. She encourages educators to use students with that label to identify the weaknesses in our teaching, our classrooms, our school cultures. For example, if my student continues to doodle on her whiteboard, what haven’t I done to engage that student in the lesson? What can I do to engage her now? Telling her that she will need ____ skill in the future is probably not the best method, but it may provide some context. Better yet, I am confident that there is a way to find a combination of this future context with a redesign of the lesson to effectively capture her attention. (I do think there are times that a student might just need a reminder to focus, but there are also times we need to do some self-reflection and recognize our role as teachers in a student’s struggle to work with an eye toward the future.)

However you want to define them, as Young Originals or Troublemakers, they are often the students that give us the warning sign we need. Whether we heed that warning sign is up to us.

The paradox in schools

I feel like we frequently put students in a position where it easier to conform, even though there is clearly not a definitive path to success. We try to make it easiest for them to conform, rather than making the work so meaningful, so engaging, so empowering, that they want to continue their pursuits. How often do students say something along the lines of, “But when am I going to use this in real life?” Some people scoff at this question and say, kids should just put their heads down and do the work.

The truth is that I do believe there is a time for grinding it out, and kids need to learn this. But that feeling, and that lesson, should not dominate a student’s experience in school. How often do adults tune out a speaker, a boss, or a colleague, because that speaker isn’t selling what they’re buying? Yes, maybe those adults stick it out in the meeting, or do the busy work, because they feel like they have to, but how often do we also go home and complain to a loved one about the annoyance of it all? How would you respond if your significant other told you to suck it up and just do the work? Is this what we want our children to grow up doing? We may have turned out alright, but is that all we want for our kids?

I want something different for my son, and for all of my students. I want them to feel excited about what they are doing in class, to be engaged in the present. I also want students to see how the work can help them in the future, maybe even help them decide how to make it useful for the future.

My guess is that we all have friends who did school ‘the right way,’ coloring in the lines, getting top notch grades, and then getting lost somewhere between high school and a ‘successful’ career. We also have friends who seemed to putter along, exploring a passion that took them off the beaten path, looking lost because they didn’t follow ‘the right way,’ only to find out that they turned those experiences into a life, not just career, that many would envy.

I worry about both ends of this spectrum in the classroom.

I worry about the student that can’t seem to get out of the present, that has no eye toward the future; the student who is so happy to dawdle along throughout the day that they accomplish little, at least little in the eyes of the teacher. Some of these have been the ‘brightest’ students in my classroom. I worry that this student won’t be ready for the next grade, let alone middle school, high school, or life as a whole.

I also worry about the student who stresses about every grade, as if a C on their 3rd grade math test will keep them from their dream job. This student asks for help on every part of a project or test, because they want to make sure it is done perfectly, to the teacher’s liking. I worry that this student will never love learning, and will be so burnt out on school by the time they get to high school or college that they can’t possibly reach the goals they set for themselves at a young age.

The question for educators becomes, how do we help students have one eye on the present and one on the future.

Where do we go from here?

Our job is not to prepare students for something; our job is to help students prepare for anything.   – from Empower, by John Spencer and AJ Juliani

I believe that we can engage students in the present in order to prepare them for the future. I think a successful classroom finds the balance between these two elements. Of course, the mantra now is that our students will have jobs in the future that don’t exist now and we have not yet imagined. I think we can be confident, however, that certain skills will maintain their value well into the future. These skills need to be the core of our teaching.

I wish I could give you a list of all the ways that we can help our students balance being present and preparing for the future. Maybe that will be my next post. I also know that other educators are working on similar lists. Here are my questions for you:

  • What strategies or tools do you use to keep your students present, but also give them the skills they need for later in life?
  • How do you engage them in the work so that they stay focused and empower them to apply it meaningfully?
  • How do you help students recognize the value of their current work on their future success?

Please take a minute to share below or tweet your thoughts. I’d love to compile these for us to use in our classrooms.

*This book is filled with moments of white privilege that go undiscussed. I’m not sure if they warrant discussion here, but I do recognize that his ability to live with a carefree attitude and little money and all of a sudden to turn his experiences into a lucrative career were less likely for a person of color. This also makes me wonder about our willingness to let certain students be more carefree in classrooms than others. Studies done on the punishment of students of color demonstrate a clear trend/difference in what is permissible in the classroom if you are white vs. brown. It deserves a conversation that others have already started writing about. Here is an article by and interview with Christopher Emdin. This article highlights the impact of school suspensions on students of color.

3 thoughts on “A Learning Paradox: The battle of being present and preparing for the future

  1. Chris, this is such a thought provoking post. Each paragraph has it’s own point to ponder. The title alone has had me reflecting ever since you shared. After participating in a #whatisschool chat in December, I was sure my #OneWord2017 should be mindfulness. As an educator, being truly present is challenging across all aspects of life and the one thing young children are especially good at. Watching my friend and teammate’s one-year-old daughter savor every bite of watermelon and cantaloupe was a perfect example of this. I don’t have answers to your questions yet. Our admin has encouraged us to help our students understand why they’re doing what they’re doing…we try to discuss how it will be helpful to a 4th grader tonight as well as in the future. This does help with lesson engagement.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Elizabeth, I’ve been pondering my oneword lately, too, and I’m a bit stuck on it. As I read your comment a thought popped into my head. Engaging students is for the moment, while empowering them is for the future. Sometimes we need to engage students to capture their imaginations, but at some point in our teaching, we need to shift (ourselves and the students) to understand the context of their learning and the future benefits. When we make that shift, we empower students to take control of their path to that future. We give them the sense of power to use their learning in order to control their future, to change the future.


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