My 8-year-old daughter is going through a difficult period with her numbers. I had the same problem when I was her age. She is answer-driven. "Just give me the answer …" she pleads. I have to get her past her desire to get the answer and be done with the assignment. I have to get her involved in the process of figuring out how the numbers add up to something new, to discover the joy of working with numbers, and of finding an answer. It took me until I was in engineering school to finally discover the "joy of process." It is calculus that every engineer or scientist needs in order to understand the physical world, and before calculus, it's algebra. The Dean of my college taught freshman calculus, and he did it in a fashion that allowed all of us to "get it." The light bulb went on daily in his class. Back in my bedroom as I wrestled with the problems he gave us to solve, the process, the challenge, became fun. I learned in engineering school that process was more important than answers. Our engineering teachers would say, "You inventors come up with the solution and the mathematicians will crank the numbers for you." To that end our mid-term and final exams where open book and collaborative. We were given 90 percent of our grade for coming up with the concept by which a problem could be solved, and an additional 10 percent if we cranked the numbers and came up with an answer. I generally skipped the 10 percent part and spent my time on the conceptual part. I'm that way today; 90 percent of my work requires concept solutions, not the details of the actual answer. I have a staff to do that.
Now, as a teacher and mentor, I find one of the joys of teaching, one of the major reasons I teach, is to experience that moment of recognition my students experience when they "get it." Some explain this as "when the light goes on." There is a visual expression of joy on the face of the student when some difficult concept is finally understood, a technical problem overcome, a difficult skill mastered. This shared moment of "discovery" is what teaching is all about, is what learning is all about.
A greater joy for the teacher, apart from watching the student get it, is to experience that moment of discovery for one's self. And that joy need not stop after college or graduate school. What keeps us alive, what gives us purpose, are these recurring flashes of discovery, of learning and mastery. But they do not come without struggle, without hard work, and commitment.
I've watched 70-year-old housewives and retired CEOs experience that same youthful moment of discovery as they master their digital camera and make a photograph that is a photograph and not just a snapshot. I watch the kids in our summer youth workshops leap with joy when they finally understand what contrast in an image means and how they can control it. I've also watched people find the struggle too hard and give up, often just before making the breakthrough that is only moments away. This is the most difficult part of teaching, for I feel I've failed them. It's my responsibility to get them through those difficult times.
Once a breakthrough is experienced, there is the joy in having reached the summit of a difficulty climb. But there is more. Not only has the mountain been climbed, a skill mastered, a concept fully understood, but more importantly, the entire process of learning has been enhanced. Once on the other side, we have new knowledge, a new skill, but also more self-confidence. We know more about ourselves, and we know now what it will be like when we next come to this Transformational opportunity. We will enter into the adventure of learning, knowing we will face tough times, obstacles, and frustration, but we will also realize this comes with the territory of growing and enlightenment . . . and those moments of joy.
As I was learning to fly a plane, my flight instructor told me: "I can't teach you to fly this thing. You have to learn that by yourself. I'm here to make sure you don't crash the plane and kill us in the process." My daughter will have to learn her numbers and her words by herself. She will have to find out how her mind works and what it needs to grow. I can help. I can encourage and support her process and take delight when she "gets it."
Learning. Now in my late 60s, with two young children to raise, I am learning to learn all over again, but this time with the experience of having learned what it is to learn. As long as I can learn, grow intellectually, spiritually, and intuitively, I remain alive, aware and purposeful. Reasons enough to live.