Nice to Know

I’m here at the National Association for the Gifted Child’s national conference. I’m here as a teacher, a program coordinator, a parent, and a product of the system. I’m listening on so many levels that sometimes things get a bit deep.

Today was the opening address, given by Josh Waitzkin. He’s the grown-up chess prodigy featured in Searching for Bobby Fischer. He took up chess at age 6 and won his first of eight national championships at age 9. At 18, he decided to switch to the martial arts and has had two international titles since.

Three words: Ho. Ly. Cow.

What an impressive set of credentials! But even more impressive was the wisdom he imparted.

How about this? He spoke of losing in the national finals at age 8. The experience for him, he said, was “shattering.” And then he said, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Yes, you read right. it’s about finding resilience in the face of struggle. All through his conversation, he spoke again and again, not of the wins that strengthened his love for the game, but the losses. His learning was always through struggle. He spoke of playing against kids who learned the game just to win the game. They were the same kids who took fewer and fewer risks the better they got. The same kids who wound up challenging themselves less because it was easier to stay in a safe, successful zone.

(Yes! I knew there was a reason why I was committed to making sure each child has the opportunity to struggle in my classroom. And I knew there was a reason why I call mistakes “opportunities.” Yes!)

When a high schooler asked him about teaching chess at school, he discussed that whatever outlet kids had, they needed something to pour themselves into. He said “It’s not about the discipline but the plunge into quality.” Whether you get into music, visual arts, mathematics, martial arts or whatever, the important thing is to find something you enjoy for the pure love of learning. Something you want to learn on a deeper level, even though (and maybe perhaps!) it involves struggle and challenge.

(Yes! Love of learning! And that challenge thing again! Yes!)

He went on to lament the compartmentalization of learning, the way we too often do things in school. That we treat different subjects as if they’re separate. Through his life experience, he realized that what he was learning in chess was actually about life. And that the things he learned applied everywhere in life. The same was true for the martial arts. He hopes that kids can also realize that what they learn connects across all areas of their lives.

(Yes! Just like reading is thinking. And math is thinking. And so is everything else we do. I knew I was on to something!)

I’ll be going to bed this evening knowing that there is lots of learning in store for me tomorrow. It’s always great to know what’s on the cutting edge of educational research and practice. And it’s always nice to know that at the heart of things, I’m getting a few things right.

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