Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Two Kinds of Work

Sometimes students think they are painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, when they are really inventing the light bulb.

Michelangelo famously worked from 1508 to 1512 to decorate the ceiling of the Chapel with biblical scenes comprising more than 300 figures.  Contrary to popular belief, he did not do the work lying on his back; the scaffolding he designed and put in place left him room to stand.  Try this right now: for one minute, stand up, look up at the ceiling above you, and hold your hand high over your head, grasping a pen, or a paintbrush if you have one handy.  Now imagine doing that for four years, and creating an historical masterpiece.  Amazing.  If I had painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling under those conditions, it would have ended up taped to my parents’ refrigerator for a month, then discreetly recycled.

Still, the process did have one advantage: every evening, while Michelangelo was washing the paint off his brushes, he could look up and see a few more square feet of masterpiece.  If his boss, Pope Julius II, swung by just to see how things were going, he would notice some prophet or angel that hadn’t been there the week before, and say something like, “Good work, Micky.  I like the wrath there – very Old Testament.  Keep it up.”

In contrast we have Thomas Edison and his invention of the light bulb.  To be fair, it wasn't just the light bulb that made his electrical system so successful.  He had a much broader vision, encompassing power generation and transmission facilities as well, so that once he had created a working light bulb, he had also designed an entire system capable of lighting it practically in every citizen’s home.  But still, success did depend on finding that reliable, long-lasting bulb, and to do this, Edison tested thousands of different materials – varieties of animal hair, plant fiber, metal wire, etc. – to find a filament that would work.

But Edison’s work was not incremental the way Michelangelo’s work was.  Over time, his experiments did provide some clues that guided him to the material (carbonized bamboo) that eventually worked, so his progress was not entirely random.  Still, it was unpredictable.  Edison could go through periods in which he’d test 100 filaments and not one of them would work any better than what he’d had at the start. While Michelangelo could work for a month and at least complete 2% of a ceiling -- and 100% of, say, Adam and Eve -- a month of work for Edison would not leave him with 2% of a working light bulb.  He had no light bulb, until the day he found the right material; then he had the light bulb.

A lot of what our students do is Michelangelo work.  They do a chunk of reading, or memorize a set of rules, or practice a certain writing format, and it may take them a while to reach their ultimate goal, but at least they can see measurable progress along the way: this many pages covered, or that many rules learned by heart, or some incrementally improved conformity with a norm.  It can still be a grind, especially with a heavy workload and weighty syllabus, but at least the students can be sure of improvement and can project a likely date of completion.

It’s inevitable, though, that some of our students' work will be Edison work.  They put in the time and the effort, but there’s not necessarily any obvious correlation to results.  They could be working on a legal research project, looking for a needle and ending each day with a notebook full of hay.  Or they might be practicing some skill that, for them, seems to resist improvement, at least until a certain critical mass of practice has been reached.  (Performance on multiple-choice tests, for example, can sometimes plateau for weeks for soem students.)  If the students don't realize that they are not doing Michelangelo work here -- if they are expecting incremental success and not seeing it -- then they can grow discouraged and self-doubtful, and may even abandon the effort, believing it is not doing any good.

It is crucial. before that happens, to explain to students (and to remind them, sometimes frequently) that there are two kinds of progress in work, and to get them to focus not on results but on well-directed effort.  Help them to recognize, as Edison did, that some jobs simply require effort that won’t be directly rewarded, but that “every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”  As long as students are actually doing the right work -- and for that, too, they may need your guidance -- then, even if they are not seeing daily results, they are doing something useful -- ruling out fruitless lines of inquiry, or gradually building context and understanding to reach the critical mass needed.  In the moment, such progress may not feel as satisfying as a tangible result, but with support, they can keep going, even in the face of doubt.  And once they have completed the task successfully, they can look back and realize not just how the effort they made led to the result, but also that they are capable of making similar efforts -- and hopefully with a little more faith -- in the future.

[Bill MacDonald]


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