The Elephant Challenge

karenI don’t have a lot of talents or special skills, but I will cop to having one super power: dogged persistence.  I don’t think I would trade that attribute for many of the flashier abilities that I admire in others. Perhaps the greatest of our pleasures in learning is owning something of value, a pleasure enhanced when we reach goals by meeting an achievable challenge.

In fact, some elegant research contends that making progress is the number one motivator for high achievers, including subjects who did not feel that making progress was a significant contributor to their satisfaction. (Groundbreaking work on this topic is described in Teresa Amabile’s The Progress Principle. You can view her TEDx talk by clicking here. It’s based on the business world, but I think it applies to education as well…perhaps more so.)

So just what is it that makes a challenge achievable?  Why does one student give up while another student of the same or lesser scholastic ability persists and achieves?  Is it possible to offer real-life, practical stragegies that can tip the balance toward success and achievment in a community college environment?

I certainly hope so.  We can begin by offering strategies that we have road-tested ourselves.  If it worked for us, it might work for them.  If it doesn’t work for them,  we can try something else. My first and best tip for hangin’ in there until the job is done comes from the late General Creighton Abrams:

“When eating an elephant, take one bite at a time.”

elephant1So often our students just “fold up” when faced with a big task like a writing a research paper or mastering a complex topic in physiology. One peek at a scary diagram sends them into a tailspin. If I can just coax them into settling down and tackling the process one step at a time,  we can usually get the job done.  For students who have a long history of poor academic performance, I may need to model the process, sometimes sitting with them and literally designing a plan to reach their goal. After all, this is what we do during advising sessions as we help  students make  academic plans of courses leading to graduation…we help them envision taking one step at a time.

ladderWhen a student is struggling, I try to picture making an actual ladder composed of steps that lead to the desired learning outcome.  To be honest, sometimes that ladder turns out to be a bridge too far.  Sometimes the ladder is sound, but the student can’t muster the time or energy needed to climb. We cannot, sadly, find a solution for every problem.

Yet, time and again, I’ve been surprised by how much of an elephant both student and teacher can eat if we just grab a fork and start chewing. Next week, I’ll discuss some specific situations that illustrate a few of these ideas.

In the meantime, I’ll agree with my page-a-day desk calendar. Yesterday’s words:

“I may not be there yet, but I’m closer than I was yesterday.”


One comment on “The Elephant Challenge

  1. Great line: “I’ve been surprised by how much of an elephant both student and teacher can eat if we just grab a fork and start chewing.” B

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