The truth is rarely pure and never simple”

 

Everyone, who has been teaching for many years now,  knows how learning has changed, since we started. We are now requested to be entertaining, dynamic, technological and on this purpose we are continuously overwhelmed by new educational theories in a sort of didactic frenzy. Another thing I keep observing every year is that school books have become way less extensive than they used to be with a great deals of patterns, photos  and alluring covers. When I was a high school student, schoolbooks were made of words only, dull and the very few pictures were usually/unfortunately placed  at the very end of the book, so when we had a daily assignment of twenty pages, twenty meant  twenty, no discount.

 Books nowadays are 50% made of pictures. Learning must have a visual and quick impact to catch the students’ interest, who actually strain in being focused for more than 20 minutes. One of the most recent learning theories is to segment the lesson in 3, 4 different moments in order to keep their attention constantly alive. But, is this what we have become ? Comedians who seek for the audience’s clapping by means of a good laugh or the wonder of a magic trick? As, there is another thing I noticed. There has been  a growing lexical gap between me and them in time, and I don’t mean in English, but in our language: Italian. Not long ago, I remember translating the word “bedside” into “capezzale” and they looked at me as if I had all of a sudden started to speak German. We are talking about  18 year old teenagers who have never come across a simple word like that and  which they understood only translating it literally from the English: bed= letto,  side = lato, “ al lato del  letto”= “capezzale”. They are of age and can vote.  What has become clear to me is that the outcome all our endeavors in order to keep them away from  the  “boredom-land”  of activities like reading, writing etc.  has only brought to a dramatic impoverishment of their language eventually.

Several studies have demonstrated that the outcome of the decrease in lexical knowledge and the impoverishment of the language consists not only  in the reduction of the vocabulary used, but also in the linguistic subtleties that allow to elaborate and formulate a complex thought. The gradual disappearance of tenses, for example,  gives rise to a thought almost always in the present, limited to the moment: incapable of projections in time. How is it possible to capture a temporality, a succession of elements in time, whether past or future, and their relative duration, without a language that distinguishes between what could have been, what has been, what is, what could be, and what will be after what might have happened, actually happened?

The use of capital letters and punctuation has become on option of late. An increasing number of my students (who theoretically  are supposed to  be used to studying  Latin, philosophy, physics..) are absolutely refractory to start the sentence with the capital letter , for example,– due to the extensive usage of WhatsApp, I know -, but,  every now and then,  they use it with some nouns, like “ Book”, for instance.  Why? Are you German? No useful answer is produced, but distraction. Let alone punctuation. They master “the stream of consciousness” technique without having read a single line from Joyce’s Ulysses;  it just comes natural.  These “deadly blows” to precision and variety of expression  are but symptoms of the difficulty in organizing thinking,  which affects not only learning, by the ways.  Fewer words, fewer conjugated verbs, lack of speech organization mean less ability to express emotions and process a thought. Without words to construct an argument, complex thinking is made impossible. The poorer the language, the more the thought disappears. If there are no thoughts, there are no critical thoughts and  there is no thought without words.

The historical moment we are living, dominated by mass medias way of communicating, reflects exactly what we have said so far. What is this constant polarization in any matter : vaccines, masks, politics, football, but the consequence of the habit of simplification, which leads to the rarefaction of critical thought? We are no longer used to seeing or better understanding the nuances of a question; everything  is black or white, and you know why? Because it is the simplest thing to do, but “ the truth is rarely pure and never simple”.

School should give the tools to understand what is complex, rather than yielding to this process of simplification. Let’s start from words again. Let’s make read and practice the language in its most diverse forms, even if it looks complicated, especially if it is complicated, because in this effort there is freedom. Everything that creates complexity is the real architect of the improvement of human mind. Without complex thinking there is not any truth.

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.

Copy,Edit,Paste.

We were very different from the students we teach, it is a matter of fact, but pray, when I say different I don’t mean better, just different. Making an effort to understand that assumption is, my opinion, essential, if we do aim at being of any help to the generations we are supposed to form. This epiphany came across my mind after the sixth school board meeting few weeks ago and after hearing for the sixth time in a row the same things: teachers complaining that their students are not able to develop any learning strategy different from memorizing useless notions which are usually soon forgotten and students complaining on the amount of homework and above all on the fact that they don’t understand what we actually want, that we should feel satisfied and praise them for the (pointless) effort they produce. At the end of these meeting each party goes home fully convinced to be on the right side of the question and the next day everything starts afresh.

Since I would like to try and work on bridging this gap between we teachers and our students, I will focus on what I consider the two most striking generational differences on which to ponder and a humble suggestion in the end. So, difference number one is: parents’ behaviour. Really, I do not understand. Whenever I have to attend P/T conferences, there is one common issue: since teachers give too much homework, parents feel somehow compelled to help their children do their homework  – if we are lucky – or they do it in their place. I’m wondering, this must be the reason why I didn’t have children, as, if after a day at work, you have to cook or look after the house and family and besides, there are your children’s homework waiting for you, well, it is hell. The parents of my generation never thought about doing our homework, for many reasons, but first of all because it was our duty and responsibility, however, they did check whether we had done what had been assigned, I can assure you and I have vivid memories about it and….bruises.

The second difference, of course, concerns the media. Being digital natives means not only that you have grown up online spending a lot of time on various social media, but also that you have developed the attitude of getting to information very fast and superficially at the same time. Messages must be simple, short, catchy  and whatever requires thought, pondered analysis is pushed aside as “démodé”. If this is the scenario, is there a solution?

Yes, there is. Learning proficiently is like making your own fix net of information and the new generations should actually have the effective digital native attitude, rather than the old Sisyphus one. Sisyphus was the king of Corinth who was punished in Hades 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, and this is exactly the 3 step learning strategy of most of my students have developed: study/memorize,forget,start afresh. That is why they always assume it is too much homework, because they keep on studying the same things they had forgotten, which, however, keep on surfacing even when they deal with apparently different topics.

The correct approach when you study is: copy, edit, paste. An example: if it took an entire hour to study 3 pages about the Magna Carta, I said study, not memorize, when you deal with the Petition of Rights, you’ll have just to copy the concept, edit it with the new protagonists and paste it. It will take 45 minutes this time. Furthemore, if your history teacher wishes to assign you homework on the English civil war, you already know the basic events and you’ll have just to do a little editing, hence 15/30 minutes will be enough to accomplish your task. If you studied the characteristics of English Romanticism and studied some poems, it should be quite natural to find the same issues when you study the Italian poet Leopardi, for example. In this way boredom and a great waste of time would be avoided. Homework is not your enemy, as all the time you spend on training in one of the sports you practice is not your enemy if you have goals. Working pointlessly and with no passion, that is your enemy.