Miracles through empathy and persistence

For me the first principle of teaching, using John Holt’s metaphor from How Children Fail: “To rescue a man lost in the woods, you must get to where he is.”

I’ve been hearing many stories about very nontraditional “students” who seem lost beyond hope. The Radiolab episode “Juicervose” (covering a story I first heard about from NYT), tells about how an autistic boy used Disney movies to start communicating with his family. After endless watching of movie after movie, repeated time after time, the boy finds the first phrase to reach out. Once his father figures out what’s going on, he takes the role of a Disney character to start really speaking with his son for the first time in years.

Some other examples (for some reason all podcasts): from the same episode, parents spend 900 hours imitating the self-stimulating behaviors of their autistic child before achieving eye contact. In Radiolab’s “Hello”, a woman lives with a dolphin in order to teach it to talk. In This American Life’s “Magic Words”, a couple use improv to speak to their mother who suffers from dementia. In Invisibilia’s “The Secret History of Thoughts”, a boy in a vegetative state is cared for everyday by his father until things start to turn around (this one is a must listen).

In all these case, the lost man is very deep in the woods indeed. For a while, it looks to the searchers like all of the walking in the woods is getting nowhere. They call out his name for the hundredth or the thousandth time, and this time, finally, there’s a response.

I think the principle applies not just to teaching but to self-learning as well. As learners, we must be mindful of where resources assume we are currently in the process. When we practice skills, we must have enormous patience and allow ourselves to slowly work our way forward from wherever we happen to start (instead of comparing ourselves to others).