Schoolchildren in India

Silverine’s story on Teresa reminded me of Melissa, the lady I tutor at my local community center. As a tutor, I help adults prepare for their high school equivalency examination. Most of the people who approach our community center have never completed high school, for a variety of reasons. And many of them are seeking to pass the GED exam to get a better job. But not Melissa.

When Melissa approached us with her desire to pass the GED math test, we were impressed. Here is a retired lady past her prime years but thinks highly enough of getting a high school education. And that too, in a discipline that many folks struggle with – math. Fortunately, math has always been my favourite subject.

During my first tutoring session with Melissa, I found that raising her math skills would be no easy task. One of her weaknesses is rounding numbers. In her preliminary test, when asked to round 6,360 to the nearest hundred, she answered 300. At first glance, one would think Melissa is starting from square one. But I deconstructed her thought process to identify that her problem was two-fold: attention (she left out the 6 in the thousands place) and perception (she had trouble grasping large numbers). I pointed out these issues with her constructively by encouraging her to use money as an example, a method she quickly grasped. Two sessions later, Melissa breezed through a quiz I prepared for her. As I watched her check her answers, I could scarcely imagine this was the same lady who believed her greatest weakness to be her failing memory.

Today, Melissa is rapidly mastering fractions and plugging holes in her math skills. In the two months as student and teacher and vice versa, she and I have learnt a lot about teaching and learning, much of it relevant to senior citizens. We have discovered that she has an optimal learning time and its much before the only time of the day we meet. We have also learnt that a two hour stretch is too long for her. So we keep our sessions to one and a half hours now. And we focus the first half of the stretch on new materials and the second stretch on homework. Also, practise makes perfect. So I give her plenty of exercises to take home. And all through this, I am pleasantly reminded of the human spirit to overcome.

Because of all the things I appreciate about Melissa, her ability to admit mistakes, to be patient, it’s her perseverance that strikes me the most. And there is research to point that this skill is an important, if not the most significant, trait of a student – Scientific American recently ran an article , The Secret to Raising Smart Kids, which highlighted the results of several studies on how people learn. As the article notes,

“Teaching people to have a “growth mind-set,” which encourages a focus on effort rather than on intelligence or talent, produces high achievers in school and in life.”

The writer elaborates on this difference in attitudes:

“Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so…The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and hard work. They want to learn above all else.”

My theory of prosperity is tied to information and how it flows. One of my strongest beliefs about the way the world works, is that our life improves commensurately with our knowledge about ourselves and other forces in this world. More pithily put, “Knowledge is power”. But less well understood is how we interpret the information comes our way, how we strive to open new avenues of information and how we act on that information. And as my experiences with Melissa show, the way we perceive information has possibly more power to shape our happiness than information itself.

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3 thoughts on “Overcoming

  1. I guess life is a series of small challenges…that you overcome one by one. There are some battles that we bypass making life a little less incomplete. I am glad Melissa revisited her battles. I have always dreamt of giving Maths another try, because somehow I always felt that I was perhaps not taught the right way. Congrats to Mellisa and congrats to you. This just inspired me to get back to Piano classes.

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