The Sisyphean method

The last runner in a relay is the one who takes on him a great deal of responsabilities about the success or failure of a race. No matter how good or bad his mates have been; when he catches the baton, he knows that it is his face that the everybody will remember, when he  eventually crosses the line. It might be a moment of glory, of course, but of  bitter disappointment too, as he has not been able to give his contribution to take the team to success. This truth concerns not only relays or sport in general, but also many episodes of our lives. Whenever we find ourselves in the uncomfortable situation of being the “last runners”, we are often ovewhelmed by the weight of the new responsabilities and tasks, which we do not completely feel as our own. That’s why I always try not to find myself in this position, but this year, as I haven’t been smart enough to avoid the dart, here I am, holding a baton.

I actually have “inherited ” a class, a bunch of nice people, in truth, but I have to say that after a couple of months I feel like a “last runner”, who has not started to run the last part of the relay yet. I am just holding a baton at moment going nowhere. The point is that apparently  the great majority of these students, average age 17, seems to have learnt one, only one, I swear, learning method: Sisyphus’s method. In case you don’t know, Sisyphus, in Greek mythology, was the king of Corinth who was punished in Hades for his general trickery, by having repeatedly to roll a huge stone up a hill only to have it roll down again as soon as he had brought it to the summit. This for eternity.

So, the “Sisyphean way” consists in making the effort of studying and forgetting the second after a test or an activity has been accomplished. Hence, the next time they need those rules or concepts to understand another topic, they start afresh, and on and on and on. In this “rolling up” process, apparently, the thought of developing and risking another learning strategy has not crossed their minds yet. The greatest danger of  this method, in my opinion, is: boredom. Even if Camus imagined Sisyphus smiling and happy too, while pushing up the stone, as he assumed he had accepted the punishment assigned to him, I am sure he was bored to death, as nobody is able to love any subject in this state of frustration.

Of course, they delude themselves remarking that the “hill” is too high, the “stone” too heavy or that they have not properly been trained in “stone rolling” and that is why they are so fatigued and would like somebody to share the effort with (parents, teachers, private tutoring). The fact is they don’t realize that, while Sisyphus was punished by Zeus to repeat the action for eternity, they are free, they can choose how to roll up the stone and even how to prevent it from rolling down again. They could break the stone in smaller pieces, for example, or try to flatten the top of the hill or even find a simpler path. Of course, in all those other activities they would find a teacher ready to help them, because that means they are struggling to find a way, their way. At end of this new effort, I am sure they would be even surprised to find out that they could like, after all, “rolling stones” and it is also fun.


37 thoughts on “The Sisyphean method

  1. For a time, while in graduate school, I helped people grapple with various engineering subjects.

    The people who needed help were those who relied on memorization rather than understanding. What they were interested in was getting an “A” and learning was a secondary goal (if a goal at all).

    I also saw that in the workplace where otherwise highly capable individuals didn’t know how to handle new situations by reasoning through what they knew. Their first response was looking in a book hoping to find the exact similar situation and apply that solution, usually without understanding the consequences of various decisions.

    Breaking that cycle is difficult unless the individuals really want to.

      • I believe that this method is used by most students, to reach a good grade which is often the only request. Understanding and remembering what is being studied depends on the student’s level of interest in a certain topic.

  2. I understand the point of all the article and I do understand that there is a person who can help us find new ways to “roll the stone”, but there is another point: the fact that this year we don’t have only one stone to roll, but many; and now at our fourth year changing all the methods we have learnt is very difficult for us and will take a lot of time. Every year we have struggled with lots of different teachers and methods and now we are a little tired of all this.

    • Dear Maria, I am sorry you feel tired, but this is only the beginning of what means becoming an adult. Any method you have learnt requires a little adjustment when you go to the next level, it cannot be otherwise. What was good two years ago, for example, cannot be as useful now, because subjects and goals have changed and will change, because you grow. I am sure that whatever strategy you have developed so far cannot be completely useless, keep the good part of it and work to make it more useful.

  3. I totally agree with you (and I don’t seek easy and useless consents: it would be a vile move). I know well the benefits of Sisyphus’ method (mythological sweetening of Italian “chiusa”) in the immediate time, but this method (if it can be defined in this way) is destructive, more informative and less formative, mortifies student’s creativity and undoes almost a zero probablities to debate in classroom for lack of contents. In my opinion, orality (I prefer talking in my native language, to remain in my “comfort zone”) has an important role at school and, in general, in one’s own life, because listening to teachers’ monologues everyday six hours per day, is extremely boring: I believe that interaction between students and teachers or among only students (in full respect of personal opinion of everybody’d like to speak without preconceptions and without fear to say stupid or wrong things) is the unique way to arise from “aurea mediocritas”. Following this humble suggestion, without changing immediately my own method of study (because it’s very difficult changing in that age, if you don’t quickly have the guarantee of a good outcome), learning will become more exciting, will be more active than ever and it will be a pleasure finding out new stuff or examining in deep certain topics. This one is my realistic “Modest Proposal”.

    • 🤔🤔🤔Your “Modest Prosal” has a bug. The excitement of debating you are looking for arises from knowledge, curiosity, wish to improve etc. All these factors require time and work and at the moment, let’s say, they have not manifested themselves yet.

  4. My personal opinion about this post is that it is important to focus always on what you do or study trying to understand as much as you can.
    Most of the students today think that the aim of studying is only achieving good grades rather than preparing for future trials and goals.
    In the end, I personally believe that the Sisyphean method has become very common among students, because today the school gives more attention to grades rather than to learning itself and it is important for teachers trying to teach in the best possible way and with passion.

  5. I agree with this article and I think it’s difficult to change our method of studying now because we are in the fourth year and we have changed many teachers with different methods, but I think it’s necessary to do it because we will need it now and in the future and with the right person and with the right time we can do it.

  6. I agree with the post. Today adolescents are bored and don’t really want to work, but that doesn’t mean they don’t try. I think it’s difficult to get results immediately by adopting a new method different from the first one, especially for people who have difficulties.
    I agree that there is a teacher ready to help you … and I hope that in the end the athletes will succeed in winning the relay.

  7. I think that the goal of many students is to get good grades or at least to avoid problems by doing “homework”. This is caused by the school system which was created by teachers, students and families.
    What this article says is right, in fact I am also trying to change my learning method even though I know it will be difficult but not impossible if I stay focused on my objectives.

  8. I completely agree with what the article says and in fact I will be the first that will try to satisfy what the teacher requires. Even if it takes time and it will not be easy, just a little bit of effort is needed.

  9. About the “Sisyphean way” I think it depends on our learning method, for the fact that many students study only the day before the classwork.That’s a negative fact because, they think only on the number which is written on the classwork when they have it back. We students (including myself) have to understand that it is for our future and not to make somebody else happy.

  10. I think that what is written in the post is right. This method is the most used but in my opinion it doesn’t help because you should study regularly and not all together, in this way you will remember the topics better. However, it is not easy to adapt immediately with a new teacher after 4 years with another teacher with different methods. But I think that surely this can give us a hand for the future, even if at the beginning it may seem difficult.

  11. I found this article “constructive”.
    It gave me a sort of “input” to use a new strategy to optimize my study.
    During this four years we have had different teachers and different learning methods, so we haven’t had a sort of continuity. It’s also true that if we change our learning attitude, we will be able to “defeat” the “greatest danger”.
    Learning must be an incentive to do our best.

  12. I completely agree with this post. In my opinion the Sisyphean method is used by the majority of the students because it affords to learn something in a quite short time (even if not for long). But I believe that everyone must find his own learning method to start appreciating what is studied and not how long it takes to study. In fact I think, if everybody discovers his own curiosities and passions, even studying and staying at school six hours a day would be not so boring as it can seem.

  13. I debated (with myself) answering because I’m 5070 miles (8170 kilometers) away and 40 years distant in time. But, as is my nature, I’ll suffer the burden of boring others.

    So, about the difficulty of adjusting to new ways . . . Well, that’s what jobs are. At least, good jobs. If someone is planning (and will be content with) a job that requires no challenge, requires no learning curve, requires one to do nothing but the same thing over and over again . . . well, they’ll be replaced by robots soon enough (robots who don’t complain about how difficult it is doing new things) soon enough.

    I suggest reading Who Moved My Cheese, but before that let me tell you a bit about myself.

    Boring, I know, but there is a point to it.

    I stutter due to an accident when I was young (didn’t speak for a few years). I went to school in Italy until I was 13 and at the time (I don’t know how it is now) most exams were oral. It was easier for me to say “non so” than the answer.

    It frustrated the crap out of my teachers. My report cards were a disaster. I was lucky; at 13, we moved to the US . . . Written exams, a stellar honor student (I find most challenges easy to master) and scholarships to college. Except, starting the second year at college, I had some personal issues in my life and basically skipped 90% of my classes. My A-average dropped down to a C-average and then a D-average (I was about to be expelled) when I met my wife, got back to studying, got all As and some Bs . . . but my scholastic GPA was 2.4 out of 4.

    The point to all this? I should not have been hireable, not by any large company, not with that GPA.

    Enter Dr. Oliver, head of GM (Cadillac Motors) Personnel office. I interviewed with him and to make a long story short, he hired me. Seven years later, I quit GM (for reasons I won’t cover here) and started working as a contract employee.

    GM approached me and a friend of mine and said if we formed our own company, they would hire us as consultants, That was 1984. We closed the business in 2004 (again, reasons not relevant), but in those twenty years, I never forgot the lesson.

    You don’t hire a record; you hire a person. Over 120 employees passed through our company (our normal headcount was around 50 employees) and except for two we misjudged, all were excellent. Excellent enough eventually to be hired away by GM, Ford, and Chrysler (why we processed so many people during those 20 years). Many now hold very high positions in the auto industry and except for the ones who retired, all are still working and in demand.

    We were very good at looking at people and seeing the potential. None of the people we hired had stellar grades. We hired based on what kind of persons they were.

    Here’s the thing . . . we were doing high-end work using Finite Elements Analysis to simulate full vehicles (durability and crashworthiness) and direct the design before any parts were stamped and prototypes made. At the time, it was a new tool. Very few people were trained in it.

    We weren’t looking for people who were trained in it; we looked for people we deemed smart enough to learn, personable, confident in themselves, and willing to apply themselves.

    The grades they got, the courses they took, were secondary. I mean, yes, they must have a basic engineering education, but the rest they had to learn.

    Here’s what I can offer from experience . . . companies want capable individuals. If you are a capable individual, you will get jobs. If you just know how to do one thing one way and are afraid of change, you aren’t a capable individual. You will find a job where you will be at risk with every layoff, every downturn. Our guys never got laid off.

    By the way, I retired when I closed the business . . . but then went to work in the Aerospace industry . . . without any aerospace training. You see, I could learn about aerospace . . . but no one was going to teach me how to learn. That, I got from school. How you learn to learn . . . it really matters.

    But, what do I know . . . I can’t possibly understand how difficult it is to learn one way and then have to learn another way of doing things, right?

    In my life:
    from slide-rulers to calculators, to multiple versions of PC with multiple Operating systems; LP records, to CDs to DVDs to MP3s. Microwaves, Betamax, VHS, changes in policies, insurance, medical procedures, political systems, banking, investing . . . heck, I’m writing this from 5070 miles away on a computer that blows away (in processing power) the supercomputer that costs our company $500K in 1990 . . . and I use it to process photos, write emails, and do blog posts.

    Lots and lots has changed from my days of saying “non so” . . . except it’s still easier saying “non so” than to do the work. Almost as easy as saying “it’s too hard!”

    • A story of change and success that my students have already had the pleasure to read and debate. Will they understand? Life will make them understand, we know that well, my fear is that when the time comes they will be defenseless, naked.
      We still have oral exams , which they hate and fear and I can assure you that the rate of “non so” is still very high.
      My Dear Emilio, I do hope you’ll always find the time to drop by and leave your witty comments, even if you are 5070 miles away. I truly appreciate it. But I am sure you know it too.

      • A consistent theme I read in the other comments — and which you so aptly address — is the idea that the problem is the “method”. As you say, the method has little to do with it. Yes, a crappy teacher can make it more difficult . . . but it’s the student that determines most of the outcome.

        “Boring” also comes up as an objection . . . well, make it less boring, and no one can do that but yourself. Compete with others, compete against yourself, do whatever it takes to raise your interest level. Do something extra to raise your level of interest. Translate the assignment into Morse code (I did that once when I wanted to learn Morse code), learn short-hand, learn the assignment in sign language (pretend you’re mute when you take your oral exams and that way they will have to bring in a teacher who knows sign language). Improvise, adapt, and overcome (Gunnery Sergent Thomas Highway in Heartbreak Ridge).

        There is an argument to be made about adapting teaching methods to students (presenting things in a way that will elicit attention and interest) but that has less and less relevance as we progress to higher grades and it completely disappears by the time people enter the workforce. At a job, no one will cater to your particular needs; you either do the job or you don’t have a job. And, if there’s training involved, it’s not with the interest of the workers in mind.

        Your comment about being defenseless and naked is apt . . . the sad part is that students and future adults voluntarily put themselves in that state.

        For example, I’m constantly confronted with people who don’t know the first thing about the phone they are holding (which could have cost them as much as $1K) other than how to text and play games. When I mention they could do something better or easier (email, photos, whatever) the first thing out of their mouths is “it’s too hard!”

        The one that infuriates me (but I don’t say anything) is “Why don’t they make it easier!”

        The whole industry of electronics (and most things) is geared toward people who are not all that capable; manufacturers work hard at making people “feel special” because they have an amazing tool in their hands (which most can’t effectively use). Things are so easy that kids learn how to do complicated stuff on their phones and other electronics much faster and with less effort than most adults.

        Obviously, not all kids and not all adults, but if there’s no willingness to learn, it’s a lost cause.

        The difference (in kids and adults who learn things) is they’re excited to learn stuff for the sake of learning. Sadly, the rest are (metaphorically) destined for the Ark Ship B.

  14. I disagree, because we may have some problems and we do not study only because we are bored , but rather the teacher who affirms this, should be more involving to avoid our “boredom”and interact with us . It is obvious , that if there is a teacher who speaks endlessly and does not even let us interact or read only what is written in the book, an hour or two in such a way would be tedius for anybody.

    • Oh, what a word you used! Interact! How interesting! The best recipe for an effective interaction, I agree with you, is the ability of a teacher of being involving, but it cannot be the only ingredient. On the students’ side there should be curiosity first of all, desire to break limits, a genuine will to improve. Interaction must be searched on both sides, it doesn’t come naturally otherwise. I never said you don’t study, because you are bored, you are bored you keep on studying the same things without any improvement and this makes everything deadly boring.
      ( Please check the original text , so you may see the difference. Full stops, every now and then at least, are a must).

  15. I think that after four years it is difficult to change the method of learning. In my opinion, everyone has developed their own method because they know their own difficulties. Not all students are blocked by boredom and there are those who want to study and there are those who find learning at a bit difficult. In my opinion, students should be more involved so that studying is more fun.

  16. Certainly in a class there are always people who struggle more difficulties than others for different reasons. They can find the method used by the teacher more complicated than the one previously found, and because of the obvious difficulties of the subject.
    The only way to adapt to teacher is to take time and understand what is your right method of studying and understand the target you are to reach

  17. I really appreciated this article, especially the metaphor with the Greek world,and I totally agree with you. As a matter of fact ,I believe that studying by heart is not constructive for the students. In the past three years,however, we have used a completely different method and it will not be easy for us to change our learning system because we haven’t had a sort of continuity.

    • Dear Luca, do you truly believe that “continuity ” is the problem? You are deluding yourself. Methods always need to be “adjusted” , as objectives change, otherwise only one meyhod should be good from elementary school to university!😏

  18. Wonderful advice by a wonderful teacher 🙂 as I’m living with a teacher for a lifetime, I understand your effort completely. Though, this Sisyphean way is a very temptative way 😂💖💖

  19. I´m not sure I understand, if those students do good on whatever subject using one method why switch? They´re already found their own formula to win. And also how can you study hard for an exam and then be expected to forget about it? That’s kind of an orthodox method. About the last runner…. I think that is life, there are winners and losers. Hummmm Mrs. Tink, I would be a terrible student for you. But I´d manage to convince you to go out on a dinner with me the student. 😉
    By the way that Sysphus was punished for trickery, so it´s a light punishment for a King. That rock should have cactuses so he could really feel some pain every time he pushed it up the hill, and I would make it a mountain instead of a hill.
    You seem upset you got a class full of smart hardworking kids, kind of rare now a days to see hardworking kids. You can also put them to work in construction, I did it at that age so is not all that far fetch. Make them put the bricks up and down while they recite some Greek philosopher…that would be fun. Fun for you, or at least give me a call so I can see it and I could have fun.

    • The point is, Charly, that it doesn’t work. They study for nothing, that’s why it is necessary to “upgrade” the method. I would like them to work less and to enjoy more what they do. Christmas wish, of course. 😅

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