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Want to learn? Get outside of your comfort zone

Publication Date: 2006-06-12

This is worth reading for what Sam had for breakfast (and who gave it to him), and there's more. When you think about it, too many people making the rules in education and determined that nobody move outside the official comfort zones.

By: Jerry McGovern
Press Republican
June 11, 2006

On the radio, Lyle Lovett was singing a lyric I've used when I refuse to stop the car and ask for directions: "And if I were the man you wanted, I would not be the man that I am."

It was early on a Saturday morning, and while everyone else was sleeping, Sam and I were having breakfast. I had coffee and an English muffin. Sam had a hard-boiled egg, macaroni with cheese, and a cup of Kool-Aid. Later, his mother told me that this was the first time he had macaroni with cheese and Kool-Aid for breakfast. That might be why he raised an eyebrow and gave me a quizzical look.

"Take a chance," I told him. Which he did ? he scooped the food into his mouth, drank some blue stuff, and was very happy.

Sam is 19 months old, but he has already learned a basic rule of education: macaroni with cheese is not just for lunch and dinner. Or, if you want to learn, you have to go outside your comfort zone.

Sam is a learner, ready to go where knowledge takes him. One of his sisters told me when he had just mastered crawling, "He doesn't care where he's going, as long as he gets somewhere."

We tell college kids to take a risk, and it's one of the reasons we want diversity on the campus. If you're Irish, we tell them, go to a Caribbean Club banquet. Listen to some music you've never heard before. Go fishing in Champlain and hiking in the Adirondacks. Do here what you can't do at home. Visit with people you wouldn't find in your neighborhood. When experts come to the campus, listen to what they say and how they say it.

This is the place to take a chance.

But the idea is not just for college students. Learning works best when everyone risks their comfort.

Children arrive at school in a hundred different psychological shapes, from the well-adjusted to the totally dysfunctional. Good teachers treat them all the same, but differently. They convince them of a paradoxical truth: "You're wonderful the way you are; now change."

Over the years, the change is the learning of facts, the development of a skill, the growth in appreciation, a greater capacity to keep on learning. And kids resist. They don't see the point of Spanish or geometry or geography or English. Many of them are comfortable right where they are. But we'll keep pushing them, changing them, because that's what education is about.

What the kids learn and how they learn it might make us parents uncomfortable, too. Sometimes it has to do with that SAD trinity (sex, alcohol, and drugs) and how the school is dealing with those issues. Or what we call the cultural wars irritate us: "What did your social studies teacher say about civil unions?"

"Did you study creationism in biology class?"

And should kids study French because we live near Quebec, or Spanish because America is becoming more Hispanic? Both? Neither?

How much should we teach about Islam?

We get uncomfortable because we know what happens when kids get educated: they change. And they might become very different from us.

Finally, lots of teachers try to stay comfortable. Getting through a day, a week, a semester and a year is about organization of material and management of kids. And once you get a system that works, well ... don't fix what isn't broken.

We don't need any new solutions if we don't have a problem.

So we stay with what is comfortable ? the same books, the same tests, the same lesson plans, the same schedule.

We're kidding ourselves. We don't want to see mistakes in our approach because fixing them will take time and work.

Of course, when kids tell us ? often in impolite ways ? that we need some new ideas, we blame them for rejecting our wisdom.

When students, parents, and teachers take risks, good things happen and education occurs. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees ? sometimes the risk was a big mistake. It's not all macaroni and cheese in the morning.

But as uncomfortable as learning can be, staying ignorant is much more dangerous. No matter what the country song says, sometimes we better ask for directions.

Jerry McGovern, the Press-Republican's coordinator of Newspapers-in-Education, taught for many years in New York state's public schools. He writes about his various experiences in education, as well as about current educational issues. He can be reached at gmcgovern@pressrepublican.com or 565-4126. This column is the opinion of the writer and not necessarily of this newspaper.

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