One of the books on teaching that I’m reading this summer suggests that “a focus on the immediate” is one of the keys to good English teaching. Students want to get immersed in an exciting present-moment experience and receive immediate feedback, and this is what good English teachers provide. English class, the authors suggest, should focus on “the now”, making sure that each experience is thoroughly absorbing and immediately fulfilling.
I find this approach to teaching quite troubling. It seems to me that one of the biggest problems we’ve created for adolescents is precisely this need for every activity to be thoroughly absorbing and immediately fulfilling. We’ve produced a generation of kids who want everything today, right now, this minute, and who consequently are missing out on the great pleasure of doing something carefully and thoughtfully and receiving the reward only after a significant period of hard work. For example, many students these days expect a book to be immediately understandable and enjoyable, with no hard thinking and re-reading required. They want to “get it” instantaneously, and this is the kind of book the authors seem to suggest for English classes. Give the students books that don’t require serious effort – books they can get “lost” in and can get immediate gratification from.
I have a different idea. I want my students to work very hard in their reading. I want them to exercise their brains in English class just as vigorously as they exercise their bodies on the athletic field. I want them to have to re-read certain sections of their books many times, because in this way they will develop the ability to overcome verbal obstacles and go further into a text than they ever thought they could. I want my students to realize that getting “immediate” results is often the path to disappointment and dissatisfaction. By delaying gratification until some hard work has been done and difficult obstacles have been overcome, my students may discover a kind of fulfillment that far exceeds the superficial pleasure that comes from the engrossing “now”.