The other day, my husband came across an article about a guy called David Goggins. He’s an ex-Navy SEAL (David Goggins, not my husband) and has completed two ‘Hell Weeks’. He is a multiple ultra-marathon runner and generally considered as one of the greatest endurance athletes in the world. But David grew up in an abusive household – he struggled at school and has had to overcome mental-health issues as well as other personal challenges. The message that stuck with me though, was his belief that all you have to do these days, to stand out, is be tough:
“It’s so easy to be great nowadays, because everyone else is weak. If you have ANY mental toughness, if you have any fraction of self-discipline; The ability to not want to do it, but still do it; If you can get through to doing things that you hate to do: on the other side is GREATNESS ”
There’s something that resonates with me here; in our world of education, many advocate curiosity as the main driving-force for learning – I advocate it, too, to an extent – it’s helpful if kids are curious. At the same time, though, we’ve been encouraged to shy away from words like ‘compliance’, ‘practice’ and ‘discipline’ – yet according to Goggins, the ability to push through the stuff we don’t want to do is what will stand us apart from every one else. And I agree.
The first school I taught at was in Zimbabwe – a boys’ school. Sport was a focus. Discipline was important, expectations of behaviour were high, the boys complied; they were polite and respectful, and went into their classrooms to learn – it probably wasn’t quite ‘child-led’, but they learned none the less. They developed good learning-habits – they worked hard and played hard.
I remember one thing the Head would often say in assemblies; ‘Dig deep, Gentlemen.’ – and I guess that that quality is what I’m trying to get at – how do I grow academically resilliant children? How do I teach them that the feeling of pushing through the stuff that they’d prefer not to do, if given the choice, is actually, a pretty cool feeling? Is it good enough to accept work that isn’t good enough? If I don’t send them back to ‘do it again’ because ‘that’s not good enough’ – if I settle for less than what I know they can do, I’m denying them the opportunity to learn something hugely valuable about themselves. And I’m teaching them that I don’t have high(er) expectations of them. I’m not teaching them how to dig deep – they’re not being challenged to do better, to try harder, to get through that frustration.
I had a moment in my Maths class the other day – we’ve been designing mosque window-panes; we’ve been practising measuring accurately over and over (and over and over…), thinking about angles, parallel lines, shapes and fractions. We were at the stage of having completed several drafts – and it was time to do a ‘technical drawing’ – a final draft. I became the official Quality Controller. We considered an exemplar. They all knew what they had to do ‘to be successful’. I called them up, one at a time and I checked their measurements, checked their labeling, checked their presentation.
Well – it was one of those moments (I’m sure we all get them) in which I seriously doubted my teaching ability. There seemed to be very little evidence of any of the previous two week’s learning at all in what I was seeing – crooked drawings, haphazard measuring, messy labeling, careless presentation; they weren’t demonstrating what they’d learned – it all seemed to have gone out the window; and a once enthusiastic project had become hard work for all of us – and it was very frustrating!
So, I sent them back, ‘That’s not accurate,’ and ‘You haven’t measured carefully,’ and lots of ‘Do it again, please’. There were sighs, and apprehension – and I absolutely knew that most of them didn’t like me very much at that moment. But as I looked at them all, most of them began to try. Really try. They slowed down and they took care. They were digging a little deeper.
Goggins likens building calluses on your feet in order to run a marathon, to growing calluses in your mind, in order to get ahead in life.
Our next Maths lesson was much more successful – they’d tried harder; they’d challenged themselves a little bit (and it was kinda exciting to see). When they brought their work up now, for me to check, their expression showed the beginnings of pride and a sense of achievement. One boy skipped back to his chair, with a grin on his face, and said, ‘I’ve measured accurately!’
We’re still working on our windows. A few have finished their technical drawing and they are beautiful. Some are still digging. One or two haven’t picked up their shovels…yet.
I think my point is that curiosity, can only carry you so far; of course, it needs to be, if at all possible, one of the many ingredients in that often murky pot we call ‘learning’. But it is, only one of many – I don’t think we can rely on it; it’s the spark but not always the fuel.
Ultimately, the ability to push through, to keep going when you’d rather not, is something I think we can teach. Something that can be learned. We can, at least, provide opportunities to experience what that feels like. It might not always look pretty – digging deep takes effort – you get dirty and sweaty – it’s frustrating when you hit a stone – sore hands – tired arms – calluses – but – if we don’t provide these experiences – what it’s like to really try – the message they hear is, ‘I know you can do better but I’m not inclined to help you get there…’ or worse, ‘I actually don’t really expect any better,’ – that’s not good enough, is it?
To quote David Goggins; ‘Work harder. Get better. Period.’