Wednesday, September 23, 2015

On the necessity of anxiety for education: the wild and unholy learning of adolescence

I've just finished Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure, and it inspired this post in a sideways sort of way. It's a great read for parents and educators, highly readable and very wise -- but what if the failure she writes about is really just a means to an end that looks more like play...

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Anxiety is a condition of learning. It's a feature of adolescence, not a bug.

Schools these days are worried about anxiety, and with good reason. Young people are very anxious, and it's impeding their learning. We've been asking how to reduce that anxiety, using techniques like mindfulness with some effectiveness, and rethinking emotional support in schools so that we can keep anxious young people tracking down the path we've set for them.

While anxiety is a real problem that must be addressed by schools, it's also clear that we haven't gotten a grip on the problem. Perhaps this is because the whole idea of reducing anxiety is problematic. Maybe the problem is not anxiety at all, but the forms in which anxiety is allowed to exist that are the problem.

Anxiety is fundamental to adolescence. It's the sense that things must change, and urgently. Or, as Camus wrote, it's the "tremendous energy spent in just being normal." Anxiety is the great driving energy that funds this incredible period of reaction, freedom, intense experience and growth. Without anxiety, there would be no first kisses, no deep insight, no wonder. Anxiety is the intensity, the shimmering, that gives adolescence its life.

In my work, the problem I see is not that students are anxious. Indeed it would be strange if they weren't. Teenagers should be anxious because they are experiencing freedom and growth. The problem is that they are anxious about the wrong things -- they have had their anxiety stolen from them. We ask that their anxiety be quelled and that they submit to a known and tamed future. The goals we set for them are of an adulthood that is already understood. The world we present for them is one in which the path to happiness is much too clearly defined. Anxiety does not want clear goals or need calming. What it wants, what it needs is wildness and openness. Anxiety is a panther pacing the cage. It can only be its full self in the wild.

We think that students are anxious because they are worried about an uncertain future or afraid that schooling is not going well. But this is an adult projection. Adults worry (and rightfully so) about the future for young people. But the natural attitude for adolescents towards the future is disinterest and unconcern. The intensity of youth is founded in the way in which it is totally present in its becoming.

The problem that students experience today is not that they experience anxiety, but that they are not allowed to experience it. Parents, schools, culture, college pressure -- these things bottle up student anxiety and attempt to direct and channel into mechanical, law-abiding, and future-obeying forms something that is fundamentally wild and living and anarchic.

So, maybe the answer to the problem of anxiety is not really deep breathing or relaxation or mindfulness, but instead something that looks more like play, joy, or wildness. So long as we are intent on teaching students to "manage" anxiety, we are misunderstanding the proper function of anxiety. Adolescent anxiety can't be managed -- that's the whole point. It operates outside of the whole concept of management. What we need are school and family spaces that allow for wildness and play. We need to release anxiety into its full power.

Until that moment, until we adults realize that the structures we have built are fundamentally hostile to the practice of adolescence in all of its wild and unholy learning, anxiety will be an impediment to learning and the mental health of our young people. Let's not be content to manage anxiety in the off-base hope that eventually adolescence will just go away.

Here's the heretical claim: maybe it's only by rethinking anxiety as a feature of adolescence, not a bug, that we can begin to glimpse a different sort of schooling, wilder, freer, less adult -- a school that doesn't just tolerate anxiety, but puts its tremendous power to use on behalf of learning. It's strange but we always talk about anxiety as if it were a quantity rather than an existential reality. We say: she experiences a lot of anxiety. But the problem of anxiety is not how much there is -- but the ends to which it is (or worse, is not) put.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

On Education as a Human Act: a report from the trenches

The process of learning is call and response. It's back and forth. It is flow and rhythm. It's a method of measuring -- how much can I take in without being overwhelmed. You can't gulp the glass; you have to drink deeply but breathe while you are doing it. You have to digest.

In short the process of learning is a process of relating. In learning we establish relationships with each other and with the object of study.

Much of the contemporary discourse around education forgets this basic fact. When we think of students, we think of individuals with clear boundaries, as disconnected wholes, and our educational system tends to consider itself as the accretion of many isolated data points. Each individual accrues a transcript, which marks the ascension of a single atom through a clearly defined path. When we speak of whether our educational system is working or what it is doing, we understand the whole "system" (we are in a mechanistic metaphysics) as an accretion of thousands of isolated data points. We take the data as primary and try to derive relationships from the data.

This way of thinking is literally backwards. Every educator knows that individuality is constructed out of relationality -- not the other way around. An atomistic way of thinking about students forgets what teachers know: learning is about making boundaries of the self open and permeable and could never be measured by any test whose function is to close off a self so that it can be determined.  Tests make static a process that is dynamic. They attempt to define a river by casting a line into it. Learning is fluid -- it demands breaking open the self and interacting with the world and with other people. The isolated atom cannot learn. It can only be sent mechanically from one point to another along a line that is already clearly laid out and determined.


These are things I have learned in my educational work: good teaching begins and ends with good relationships. Those relationships are founded in trust, and trust is a binding agent that functions between individuals. A school is not a system of transcript assembly. A school is a place, which exists in a world, and it is made out of people.

The social function of a school is to be a place where human relationship can be maintained and protected, where habits of human relationship can be built while they are still open and in-process. A school protects young people from the repetition and deadening that undermines relationality and de-sensitizes the human animal. These relationships -- of friendship, of respect, of joy, of concern, of self, of inquiry -- are the material of education.

A school is, therefore, a type of utopian space, where people come together to attempt to preserve the best in each other against the social forces that would undo and mechanize the human element. Schools succeed when they protect our ability to be vulnerable, to be exposed to each other, to encounter the world, to think and to feel. Openness, exposure, and vulnerability are the conditions of possibility of relationships and indeed of sensitive inquiry itself. Without these qualities there is no inquiry, there is only violence.

All educators must resist the factory model of education. The factory model, with its atomistic and divided conception of the child and the educator, its linear conception of curriculum, and its hierarchical characterization of social structures strips the school of its essential function, which is to maintain our humanity and to construct a vision of the human that is worth pursuing. It makes the school a machine instead of a place; it gives it functionality but not relationality. It deadens and makes mechanical a process that is organic and living and can only function in organic conditions.

For these reasons, the basic function of a teacher is to simply be humane -- all educational practice stems from the humanity of the teacher. The teacher's ability to relate to the world, to the material, to herself, to her colleagues, and to her students is the sine qua non of educational practice. All pedagogy is variation on this theme, and no pedagogy can substitute for it.

So, yes, let us measure our educational practice. Let us test and revise and innovate. But when we do, let us be sure we are testing the actual material of education. Such tests are not impossible to construct or carry out -- but their implementation demands qualities that cannot be factory-produced: empathy, respect, care, concern, attention. The testing and the analysis of education can only happen at the level of life itself, and those who know how to inquire at that level remain in short supply and appear not to have their hands on the levers of the educational system.

Until we have a society capable of taking the measure of a life in a full way, we will never have an educational testing system that leads us out of the factory model of education. We will have to rely on the human element in the factory and their counter-practices within and against the machine to keep the human spark alive. Green grass breaks through the cracks in the hardest concrete, and so still in the margins and through great effort does learning and genuine education happen.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Pretending to be Nenow

The runner I thought about most when I was training hard was Mark Nenow. He's not known by many runners today, but he ran under 28 minutes for 10k something like seven years in a row back in the '80s. He held the American Record in the 10000m for 15 years, from 1986 to 2001, when Meb ran seven ticks faster. Ritz never beat Nenow's best time. He still holds the mark for 10k on the roads at 27:22.

Nenow was a total running bum. He was known as the "White Kenyan" as he was slight and had legs up to his elbows. He lived and trained during his fastest years in Lexington, KY. His training schedule was simple: 140 mpw in 13 runs: 10am / 10pm Monday through Saturday, with a 20 miler on Sunday. Apparently he would head out for his evening run at 10pm. Most of this running was at "moderate" paces, which for Nenow was probably sub 6 minute miling. He did little to no interval work, sometimes running for a year without getting on the track -- but his best times came of course with a little rest and sharpening. Nothing fancy: workouts like 4 x 1600 at 4:30 pace.

Anyways, whenever I'd get that bulletproof feeling, when my mileage built and it felt like I could run forever, I'd imagine that I was Mark Nenow running with stone-hard legs through the Nashville evening. I can't say that I knew what it felt like to be that fast or be able to weather that sort of training, but I loved the kind of running that he ran -- the moderate runs, day after day -- which matched the simplicity of his training, and, in turn, matched the grueling simplicity of racing 10000m.

These runners in the 80s had no internet, rarely ran with watches, and Nenow himself didn't even have a coach. It's likely that if he had done today's perfect training with today's perfect recovery methods he would have run faster, perhaps much faster. But it's just as likely that part of the reason Nenow ran so well was that he did it his way, on his own, listening to his body, and simply running as much as he could.

I don't know Mark, but anyone who trained like that must have loved the running as much as the racing. And why not? Think of what it must have been to be Mark Nenow feeling good: rippling along at 5:40 pace, somewhere around the 17th mile of the day, as the dogs barked and the moon shone through the Kentucky midnight -- just Mark, just running.
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