Think about the adjectives that describe a great teacher: passionate, energetic, wise, enthusiastic, and above all, fun. When most of us think back on teachers that really impacted us we think about people that made learning fun and helped us to enjoy or appreciate the things they taught. Of course none of this is bad, and yet, to truly and deeply learn something, one must go through a stage wherein learning will be boring. Obviously I am being purposefully provocative in an attempt to get your attention; now that I have it, let me explain what I mean.
Whenever we learn we go through four different stages (and people call these by different names and divide them differently, but the key ideas are essentially the same).
1) We all begin in a place of ignorance. In this place we not only know nothing, but we don’t even know what we don’t know. For example, I am completely ignorant of the Mandarin tongue. Not only do I not know a single word of Mandarin, if I were to hear Mandarin spoken, I would not even be able to identify it as such. Likewise, a two-year-old not only does not know his letters, he is not even able to distinguish a letter from a shape.
2) From ignorance we move to a place of familiarity. In this stage we recognize something when we see it, but we cannot produce it on our own. Think about rereading a passage from the Bible—you may not have thought of it in a long time, but when you read it you think, “oh yeah, I remember that.” Or think about being in a conversation and hearing a story. It often happens that while you can’t finish the story, you remember that you heard it once before.
3) In the next stage you become familiar enough to reproduce something with a prompt. In this stage you are able, for example, to paraphrase the main point of a story or sum up the point of a Bible verse even if you cannot quote it. In this stage you might be able to recognize when someone is wrong about something, even though you are not able to say what the correct answer is or where or why they are wrong.
4) The fourth stage of learning is mastery. In this stage one can reproduce something without a prompt and synthesize it with other things one has already learned. In this stage one can recount all the important details of a story, recite a verse without hesitation, and make sound analogies (e.g. just as Caesar did not hesitate to cross the Rubicon, in the same way…).
Moving from stage one to stage two is exciting—think about being introduced to karate via The Karate Kid and going to your first karate lesson or the first day of the semester in a college class. Being introduced to something novel and new is exhilarating!
Moving from stage two to stage three is likewise exciting—think about getting your white belt after completing your first few weeks of class or think of an interesting discussion the third week into a course.
But moving from stage three to stage four is boring! In order to know something backwards and forwards, in order to be able to recite something in your sleep or perform a physical activity with ease (whether it is strumming a guitar or shooting a free throw) you will need a lot of repetition; you will need to complete a lot of not so exciting work.
Think about yourself or people you know. How many people get excited about something: for example, they decide to learn Spanish, read War and Peace, or they really get into cycling or kayaking or hiking, buy all of the equipment and do it for a few months and then stop and move on to something else? We see this with our children too—how many of them start out excited about playing piano? How many of them stick with it?
There is nothing wrong with trying new things! And it isn’t necessarily good to stick with a hobby that one hates. But there is a part of our flesh that craves novelty and hates discipline and yet we need discipline for a full education, we need to stick with something through the boring stage and really master things if we are going to receive a true education. What is more, we need to get through the boring stage if we are ever going to truly enjoy something! It is the black belt, not the white belt that truly enjoys karate; it is the accomplished pianist, not the casual chopstick player that truly loves and enjoys the piano; it is the fluent speaker of Spanish, not the speaker of “Spanglish”, that truly enjoys Spanish.
I hope it goes without saying that we don’t want your children to be bored here!!! But there will be times when they will be bored. It is important to remember that if we simply move from one novelty to another we may enjoy things more in the short-term, but our enjoyment will be shallow and will ultimately impede our learning and keep us from true, deep, and lasting enjoyment.