On Learning

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Human beings learn.  It is one of our strengths.  Learning and education are not necessarily the same things, however, as learning happens through experience as well as through instruction. Some level of learning is innate and each of us has our own aptitudes.

I have been an educator for nearly three decades.  I have seen a lot of theory come and go, but in the end what makes for a good education is that learning happens.  For some this is formal or even by rote, for others it is didactic, or Socratic. Each needs to be engaged in a way that suits them.

My own education says a lot.  I have six degrees (yes, I know), but I am limited in my practical skills.  I have recently learned how to change a fuse wire, and I am fairly competent at Ikea type flat pack construction (though it took me more than one wonky bookcase to achieve any success).

So what is the point of this?  Simply that we all have our own competencies and strengths.  Don’t let anyone who has a superior air put you down!  It is a pet peeve of mine that anyone uses educational attainment to belittle another.  In fact, it is the one instance where I will play the one-upmanship game.  I remember being at a seminar, and a (what I thought to be) interesting theory was put forward by an undergraduate speaker.  The response of one audience member was, “Well that is all well and good, but when I was at University X, we concluded . . . .”  Okay, maybe I shouldn’t have, but I did come to her aid with, “That’s interesting [person from Uni X], but when I was a Cambridge  . . . .”  I guess you see my point.

In the end, and as I have noted, I am highly educated, but I can’t change a sink washer. Believe in yourself, for every contribution to the world you make is a valid one. Keep on learning,  but more importantly keep on contributing!

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Dealing with Critique

People love to be loved. We crave acceptance. So, when we are confronted with criticism our instinct is to run away or to rise to the attack.  But it doesn’t need to be so.  Winston Churchill observed,  “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary.  It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

In fact, being given constructive feedback helps us to grow.  Praise for positives is well and good.  It lets us know we are on track, allowing us to become secure in what we have already achieved.  However, the calling of our attention to weaknesses shows us where to improve.  It stops stagnation.

Bill Gates has said, “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” So, growth and improvement may not be comfortable, just think of puberty, but they are desirable.

When we receive critiques, therefore, take them not as attacks, but as nurture.  Analyse them for what is useful.  Apply the lessons, avoid the repeating of mistakes.  Think about it, if no one ever told you 6 x 5 wasn’t 28 we might have real problems with your architectural plans you give us.

Churchill’s observation (cited above) is enlightening.  This British wartime hero, and leader of his people once received a school report which read, “He is so regular in his irregularity that I really don’t know what to do. He had such good abilities but these would be made useless by habitual negligence. Constantly late for school, losing his books and papers and various other things.”  He took it to heart, he grew from it.  So can we.

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Be A Learner First, Then A Teacher

One of the most inspirational educators of the Twentieth Century was Janusz Korczak. He was a doctor, children’s author, and educator.  He believed in the inherent ability of children to learn and to contribute to learning.  He saw his students as fully fledged humans, not just as potential adults.  He even advocated what we now call “student voice” as early as the 1930s.

He became the director of an orphanage in Warsaw, and retained the post until the destruction of the Jewish community there in 1942.  Owing to his fame as a writer and educator he was offered an avenue of escape for himself, but declined it.  He went to his death at Treblinka comforting his young charges along the way.

He offers much for teachers, parents, and leaders to emulate. But, his instructions to teachers were ground-breaking and just as powerful today.  These guidelines have applications to anyone who seeks to instruct others.

He said, “Be yourself and seek your own path.
Know yourself before you attempt to know children [audience, or learners].
Become aware of what you yourself are capable of  before you attempt to outline the rights and responsibilities of children [others].
First and foremost you must realize that you too are a child [learner],
Whom you must first get to know, to bring up and to educate.” [Square brackets are mine, and offer applications of his words].

Know yourself.  Know your abilities [and weaknesses]. Be honest with yourself. Then speak, teach, and lead.

What wisdom, and humility!  I hope we can live up to the challenge.

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Korczak Memorial Warsaw

Only One Wish

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In the Aladdin tale, and in leprechaun stories, three wishes are the standard narrative device.  These usually are squandered with frivolous first wishes, and there is always the risk of losing them all.

In II Chronicles 1, however, we read, “That night God appeared to Solomon and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered God, “You have shown great kindness to David my father and have made me king in his place. Now, Lord God, let your promise to my father David be confirmed, for you have made me king over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth. 10 Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” 11 God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king,12 therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, possessions and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.”

Only one wish was on offer.  It was not wasted on wealth, possessions, or honour. Solomon instead asks that he be given the skills necessary to be a worthy leader.  His concern was not with self, but with his people.  In asking for wisdom, he ironically showed it.  God,  not only grants his insightful request, but adds the other (unrequested) blessings as well. This is the embodiment of Jesus’ charge to “seek first the kingdom of God . . . and all these things will be added to you (Matthew 6:33).”

In Farid ud-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds, the birds set out on their journey each bearing a unique human failing.  As they progress, it is only by leaving their follies or worldly attachments behind do they gain their goal.  This is not to say that wealth, possessions, and honour are not without their merits, but wisdom and the willingness to serve may lead to even greater rewards.

What would be your one wish today?

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More Than Something Between Slices of Bread

I am a fairly adept sandwich maker.  This should not be surprising as I once worked at a delicatessen.  My supervisor was a sandwich master and referred to himself as a “deli-man.” Today, the Subway chain calls their counter staff “Sandwich Artists,” but even “artist” pales in light of the skills and knowledge of a true deli-man.

My sandwich master was a force of nature.  He knew his meats and cheeses.  He taught me the order things had to go onto the sandwich to be the most appealing to the palate. He introduced me to complementary flavours, suitable condiments for various tastes, and what combinations “worked” or didn’t. Even the way the bread was sliced was important.

He was sure that there was a right way to construct a sandwich.  Variations were allowed, but deviations of key “rules” were not.  Even the maxim, “the customer is always right,” had no weight if the customer ordered a “bad sandwich.”  He had a loyal following, it is true, and many patrons came to trust “his ways.”  Other first timers, at times, were shocked by his candour (or outright rudeness) about their orders.  And as far as vendors and suppliers were concerned,  it was a case of  “let the seller beware!” I remember one occasion when a supplier brought in a sample of a new line of pastrami. Ted looked at it, smelled it, looked at the salesman, and then said, “Come with me.”  He then went to the cooler still carrying the offending item, and said, “You call that a pastrami?” He picked up one of our own stock, thrust it toward the man’s face and said, “Look, this is a pastrami!”

So why this discourse on sandwich making?  It is in a sense allegorical of life more generally.  Sometimes we just need to “get it right.”  The lives we live should be about what we hold to be true, what we value, and about how true we are to those truths and values.  Ted valued his art. He saw every sandwich that passed over our counter as a test of his reputation and integrity.  It was more than just something between slices of bread.

What will your life serve up today?

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Being an Example of Self-control

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In Titus 2: 6-8, Paul charges Titus,  “Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled.  In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.”

When I was a young parent, I remember a preacher stressing that we have about 18 years to teach our children to be self-controlled.  After that it is up to them.  While his stress was on disciple, and setting boundaries, there is also the equally (if not more important) duty of setting a good example.  This applies to parents, teachers, church leaders, and leaders more generally.  “Do as I say, not as I do,” is not a valid approach to teaching self-control.   James Baldwin put it well when he said,  “I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

Paul in his letter to Titus is stressing this vary point.  Use your words to encourage the young to be self-disciplined.  But, use the “louder” voice of your own self-control to show them the way.

It is easy today to be a “grumpy old man/woman,” expounding on all of the ills within society, and in our education system.  But, the “cure” is not in our complaints, but in our integrity, and in our honesty remembering we were not perfect in our youths.   We should, therefore encourage and guide in word and deed the “proper course.”

Let us be the examples Paul admonished.  “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).”

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A House Built on Stone

Jesus told a parable of two men, in Matthew chapter 7: 24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

Such wisdom as was shown by the builder with deep foundations is also reflected in Proverbs 24:3-4, “By wisdom a house is built, and through understanding it is established;through knowledge its rooms are filled with rare and beautiful treasures.”

We often put our trust in things that can’t deliver.  The lottery, get rich schemes, or even our own efforts.  These are all figurative sand to build on.  Face it, the chance of a substantial lottery win is over 13 million to one, and your effort will only go so far, there is one of you and only 24 hours in a day.  Jesus pointed out that real security comes from a different place.

In the last few years I have faced the loss of a child, a heart attack, and my wife’s cancer. No lottery, or entrepreneurial triumph will impact these.  It is a matter of getting priorities straight.  Is our temporal, immediate “good” really that important?  I recall a homily I heard decades ago given by a priest who had been a fairly accomplished football player while at a Catholic university.  In a “big” game, he dropped a pass just outside the end zone. While many of his team-mates were very unimpressed, one of his coaches (a priest) remarked to him in his dejected state, “What does it matter in eternity?”  Enough said.

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When the Wind Blows

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In Proverbs 26:20 we read “Without wood a fire goes out; without a gossip a quarrel dies down (NIV).”  Gossip, whether true or false, is still harmful.  It stirs up disagreement, and breaks relationship.  Even if someone has done wrong, it is better to go quietly to them over it, than to advertise the misdeed, or more generally the perceived misdeed, publicly. Remember as it says in Proverbs 15:1a “A gentle answer turns away wrath.”

Yet many like a good story, we feel we are in control when we “share all.”  But do we count the costs?  There is a rabbinic story about a man who was one such tale-teller.  His gossip was beginning to cause not only discord in the synagogue, but feuds within the village.  So the rabbi called the man to his study.

“You seem a popular man,” the rabbi said, “there seems always to be people in your shop.”

“Yes, business is good,” said the man.

“And, why is this?” inquired the rabbi.

“Oh, people come and chat, browse, and catch up on the news,” the man said.

Then the rabbi asked, “Do you have a feather pillow at home?”

“Why yes,” said the man, “I am far from poor. In fact I have several.”

The rabbi then asked the man to bring one by the study.  The man was confused, but the following day complied.

“Thank you for bringing the pillow,” the rabbi began.  “Now please stand by the window and tear the pillow apart.”

The man was puzzled. “Here?  In the study? Now?”

“Yes,” replied the sage man.

So the man tore the pillow, and feathers spread across the room, covering the furniture, and floor, and several feathers floated out the window as well.

After a few minutes the rabbi instructed the man “Now gather all the feathers and put them back into the pillow.  Don’t miss a single one.”

The man struggled to gather the down from the rug, and to pick each feather from the curtains, and shelves.  But those that had drifted out the window, had been seized by a gust of wind and were nowhere to be found.

The man, in frustration and exhaustion said “Rabbi, it is impossible, there are too many to collect them all, and some are beyond my ability to even find.”

“So it is with your stories,” the rabbi responded.  “They are like the feathers, once loose they cannot be retrieved, and our little community like the pillow has been damaged and is now in need of repair.”

The man saw the folly of his ways, and spent years trying to make amends. How about us? Do we scatter our feathers? (See James 3:4-5)

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