Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Value of Doing Nothing

When I overheard a teacher say to a student the other day, “Get busy. You can’t just do nothing,” I recall thinking to myself, “Why not?” It has often occurred to me that one of my students’ biggest problems might actually be the fact that they’re always doing something. In my class, I expect them to either be taking notes painstakingly, listening carefully, speaking clearly, or thinking deeply. I was raised to believe that the successful life consists, for the most part, in nonstop doing, and I guess that’s generally the way I’ve run my classes. Like most teachers, I don’t offer “doing nothing” as an option. However, I must confess to sometimes asking myself, “Why not?” Why can’t students occasionally neither take notes, nor speak, nor even listen, nor even – shocking as it sounds – think? Why can’t they, at least for a few moments, simply be alive, without doing anything at all? Surprisingly, this kind of silent and stationary liveliness might actually help my students “get more done” in class. If they could, at least occasionally, drop out of their accustomed academic lifestyle of just routinely doing one school task after another after another, they might actually be able to see and hear more clearly what’s happening in class. If they could, for even just one minute, simply notice (just notice, not busily think about) what’s going on – notice the color of a classmate’s shirt, notice the way the teacher’s eyes move when he talks, even notice the special movements of trees outside as breezes blow along – maybe they would be better able to then notice the main points of my lesson. It sounds strange, I know – a bunch of kids doing absolutely nothing in class for 6o seconds – but there might be some magic in making life grow slow and silent now and then. Suddenly, my words might make a little music instead of just the usual forgettable noise.

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