Friday, March 11, 2011

Screwtape for Teachers

One of my favorite books of all time is The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.  Very practical and grippingly clever, I can read and reread it to great benefit.  On a recent family trip we were listening to a passable dramatization of it, not as good as the excellent audiobook read by John Cleese, and I resolved to make a bible study of it.  As I was writing that, a small bit really struck me as a teacher.  In letter 2, Screwtape, a senior devil, writes the following to Wormwood, a junior tempter whose patient has just horribly become religous.  The book is brilliant, and fascinating for putting the whole life of faith thing on its head.

"Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman. The Enemy allows this disappointment to occur on the threshold of every human endeavour. It occurs when the boy who has been enchanted in the nursery by Stories from the Odyssey buckles down to really learning Greek. It occurs when lovers have got married and begin the real task of learning to live together. In every department of life it marks the transition from dreaming aspiration to laborious doing. The Enemy takes this risk because He has a curious fantasy of making all these disgusting little human vermin into what He calls His "free" lovers and servants—"sons" is the word He uses, with His inveterate love of degrading the whole spiritual world by unnatural liaisons with the two-legged animals. Desiring their freedom, He therefore refuses to carry them, by their mere affections and habits, to any of the goals which He sets before them: He leaves them to "do it on their own". And there lies our opportunity. But also, remember, there lies our danger. If once they get through this initial dryness successfully, they become much less dependent on emotion and therefore much harder to tempt."
-CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

I know that's pretty religious language, but it reminded me so strongly of what I want for my students.  I want their freedom, and for them to be able to learn to do the mathematics on their own.  But I'm afraid that it is so easy to try to tempt them into this life.  "Hey, look - this stuff is fun!"  When that's truthful, I'm okay with it.  But it has led me sometimes to cutting out something because it's not fun, or describing something that is not fun as fun.  When I am willing to carry my students, I am not teaching well.

The other aspect of this quote that connected for me to teaching is the anticlimax, the laborious doing.  There is dryness to picking up math as a discipline.  We have a lot of rules, and some skills to practice.  My son is taking a Tae Kwon Do belt test tomorrow, and we had quite a talk today about the nature of work.  It is most often NOT fun.  It's a blessing when it's satisfying.  But when his jumping back kick got working, he was proud of his accomplishment.  And it was his accomplishment.  And if he passes the test tomorrow (which they are only cleared for if the teacher thinks they are ready; TKD-as-math post later?) that will be his accomplishment, too.  When he got through the dryness, he was engaged in the task; the work resulted in increased ability.  I also think he learned something about if he works, then he improves.  I'm not naive enough to think that once is all that takes, but it's a step.

I also had an experience recently of trying to have a discussion on an anti-reform blog comment thread, and that feels like the mystified devils here.  (Not to equate devils and anti-reform people.)  When I wrote about understanding and process as a goal, it felt like they just didn't get it.  They want the students to get the right answer as quickly as possible.  How can we hope to get them to that point if we are not willing to reward and cajole them to the end result?

PS. The bible study that inspired this post is here.  Not very bible-ey this time, as I'm hoping the participants can provide the scripture.

PPS.  "Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!" - Screwtape in Letter 1.  The most explicit teaching reference in the book.

PPPS.  I tweeted this quote earlier: "Experience is the mother of illusion" - Screwtape paraphrasing Kant. Our students experience of math (and learning) has created a powerful illusion that they know what it is because of what it has been.  I think we need to shatter that illusion by sharing the truth of our vision of mathematics with them.  Can I get an Amen?

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