A Story For My Students -- Learning to Deal with the Unexpected

There are many times in teaching that a teacher needs to explain things to students. In many college classes, they are young people with limited experience. Occasionally, they simply don’t understand, especially when things are not as they have experienced them in the past. Part of my job as a teacher is to explain things beyond my subject matter.

There are stories that can sometimes help them come to a better understanding. I often have students come to my office after I return a test. They are upset that they didn’t make the grade they had wanted or expected. It is common for me to hear something like “I cannot tell you how hard I studied. In fact, I studied with Mr. A and Ms. B and I knew just as much as they did. We worked every question from class 8 times apiece. Yet, they made a 95 and I made an 83. What am I supposed to do?”

I guess this is on my mind because one of my students told me this afternoon that the 83 he got on a recent test was the first grade he had received in college under 98.

To the student, the facts are clear. He or she did the same work as Mr. A and Ms. B and they made significantly higher scores on the test. At this point, the world doesn’t make sense.

Here’s one story that I sometimes use in cases like this. “Assume you have two tightrope walkers. They both can walk a tightrope. It is a mechanical skill and they both can do it. But, for whatever reason, the first person is just more comfortable. Maybe, the first one practices more carefully. Maybe, the first one thinks more about the mechanics of tightrope walking. Maybe, the first one sits in his room at night and thinks of what odd things can happen and then dreams up a proper response. Or, maybe, tightrope walking just comes more naturally to the first person. Everyone has different abilities in life.

“So, both people are high up on the tightrope one afternoon and they both look great. Suddenly, a very unexpected and very harsh wind blows up. What happens?”

The student realizes the expected answer. “The first person hangs on and the second person falls off.”

And, my response is: “Yeah, exactly. As long as things go as expected, they both do fine. It is the ability to react to the unexpected that usually makes a difference in life between great and adequate and the same is true on tests.

“My guess is that if I had asked exactly the questions on that test that you expected, then Mr. A, Ms. B, and you would have all done great. Doing great when you are faced with the expected is not a big challenge.

“However, I want you to learn how to react to the unexpected. To me, that’s what will make you different out there in the real world. I suspect that you were not as well prepared for the unexpected as I wanted you to be. That is where you probably need to get better in the future. First, of course, you have to be able to do the expected. That goes without saying. Everyone knows that. But, then, if you really want to be great, you need to move on to the unexpected. You need to sit in a dark room (or you need to converse with Mr. A and Ms. B) and think about what unexpected things could happen on the test. If you never grow to the point where you can start dealing with the unexpected, then you are never going to flourish the way I want you to. And, you are capable of doing this. I’m not asking for the impossible. You can’t just be satisfied with being able to do the expected. It takes growth; it takes time. But you are capable.”

Does the story help the student? Sometimes, it does. Not always but certainly for some it makes sense and it pushes them to break through to a more in-depth understanding. I think too much of our school system (from kindergarten on) is geared toward teaching students how to face the expected. That’s fine and certainly necessary. But I don’t think any of our students are going to cure the ills of our world by limiting themselves to figuring out how to face the expected.

If they don’t catch on by themselves, sometimes a story can help.

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