For the past three years I’ve been working in Chinese education, and I’ve constantly mulled over two questions. First, what are the characteristics that make a successful student and person? Second, can the qualities of a successful student be taught?
Based on extensive reading and personal experience and observation, I’m confident that it’s the three related characteristics of patience, focus, and discipline that separate the best students from everyone else. The second question is much more confounding.
Over the past two years, we’ve tried a variety of experiments to instill patience, focus, and discipline in all our students. We’ve tried meditation and yoga (the students fall asleep in class). We’ve tried teaching them Texas Hold’em poker (the students don’t mind losing their parents’ money, and I don’t mind winning it from them). We’ve hired professional personal trainers to work with our students (the girls fake injuries to cut class), and built a kitchen to prepare healthy meals for our students (that still doesn’t stop them from gorging on ramen noodles).
There’s always the real and disturbing possibility that patience, focus, and discipline are genetic traits, and just can’t be taught. But if that’s the case, then schools are nothing more than, at best, glorified daycare centres and, at worst, juvenile detention centers.
I obviously don’t believe that these three traits are genetic because otherwise I wouldn’t be working in education today. But I am starting to grow frustrated.
For the past month, we’ve been pestering our students to meticulously read and re-read English essays, underlining words they don’t know and looking them up in the dictionary. We teach them that by focusing on every word while reading they will better comprehend the text as well as increase their overall English ability. Again, only our best students have the patience, focus, and discipline to complete the homework, and thus their English improvement has been by far the fastest.
In class, after again haranguing my students for failing to do their homework properly, I often wonder aloud why they have problems with patience, focus, and discipline. Is it because they’ve been educated in a test-oriented system that favours speed and memorization and regurgitation above everything else? Is it because they spend so much time indoors playing videogames and surfing the Internet? Is it because we live in an age of ‘multi-tasking,’ a myth that the brain can simultaneously focus on two or more activities when it just can’t?
Yes, it’s true that most teenagers are impatient, unfocused, and undisciplined, and it certainly doesn’t help matters that video games, the Internet, and fast food industries now profit from encouraging teenagers’ base instinct of instant gratification.
So if it’s the world the teenagers live in that’s the problem, then the world around them must be changed. Or at least for two weeks. That’s why we’re now promoting outdoor education activities. This July our students will hike for one week in Massachusetts, and canoe for another in Maine. Both of these activities are mandatory for graduation, and they will mark the start of a long-term project to use nature and outdoor activities to instill patience, focus, and discipline in our students.
Last week, I traveled to Yangshuo, Guangxi Province to learn to rock climb. Rock climbers are, if anything, patient, focused, and disciplined because they can die if they’re not. (Rock climbing is actually very safe – safer than drinking Chinese milk, anyway.)
The entire process of rock climbing – from checking the ropes and equipment to maneuvering up the rock to floating down from the top – is one slow graceful continuous movement that some have compared to ballet. The fear provoked by rock climbing focuses the mind on the moment. Discipline is the key to unlocking the intricate physical puzzle that is the rock: you must control your fear, and understand and work with your body. I’ve always admired rock climbers’ confidence, serenity, and grace, and it’s my theory that it’s developing good rock climbing habits that instills these qualities in them.
What I like best about rock climbing, from an education perspective, is that it’s a contained, defined goal where students just can’t cheat or slack off: they have to be patient, focused, and disciplined in order to get to the top. And learning to conquer their immediate, pounding fears will be a great achievement, awakening them to the full potential of their mind and empowering them with the confidence to undertake greater challenges (like read Anna Karenina).
Or at least that’s the theory. We just won’t know until we’ve tried it. That’s why we’re currently planning a one-week rock climbing course in Yangshuo, Guangxi – a mandatory course required for graduation.
I’ll keep you posted as to what happens.