“How much do we owe the teachers who care that we learn? Our educational system is not without its challenges, but the playwright encourages us to root for those engaged in the struggle and who teach us that the most important thing is learning itself.” –Next Act season brochure, 2020-21.
Since the writing of my season brochure comments about PRINCIPAL PRINCIPLE by Joe Zarrow, we know that the challenges in education have only become deeper. Remote learning, hybrid classes, safety protocol, internet access or lack thereof, and so many other hurdles have truly put our teachers through a battery of tests as they attempt to maintain connection with students and administer tests of their own. It is a wonder and a testament to the determination and resilience of educators that our kids are still engaged in school.
My daughter Miranda was tuning into her Advanced Physics class the other morning, taught by “Mr. G.” He was taking his students through calculations to determine terminal velocity, that is, the speed at which a moving (usually falling) object will no longer accelerate – no easy task. I asked Miranda, “Do you like the class?”
M “Yeah, I do.”
M “I like Mr. G. He makes it interesting.”
DC “How so?”
M “He’s enthusiastic about the subject. You can tell he likes it and wants to share that enthusiasm.”
DC “Apparently it works.”
My mind flashed on Mr. Polley, my high school Physics teacher. He was like Miranda’s Mr. G, truly embodying that oft-used textbook title, Physics Is Phun. Then there was Diana Doerfler, whom I’ve credited more than once with stimulating, or more accurately, challenging my writing skills. Same with a Creative Writing prof at Purdue in 1972 (I can’t believe I attended class at 7:30am!), or a real interesting, offbeat guy who taught Persuasion in second semester. He opened my eyes to an entirely hidden world of influence peddling, propaganda and advertising, constantly churning beneath the threshold of cognition. Finally, there was Professor Kaufmanis, my Latvian Astronomy professor at the U of Minnesota. Besides his tremendous command of the subject matter, he was a delightful story teller. And if you want to get someone’s attention, tell a good story. After all, that’s our game in the theatre profession:
To engage. To challenge. To create interest.
Coincidentally, I happened to catch a radio interview with MIT Professor of Education, Dr. Sanjay Sarma, just before tucking into this assignment. He was talking about what’s essential for learning, and his answer resonates with my daughter’s perspective.
Sarma says, “Curiosity is essential for learning. Human beings are, by nature, a curious species.”
Well, yeah, people are a pretty curious bunch, that’s for sure; as the saying goes, “It takes all kinds.” But to the Doc’s point, he says that curiosity is a form of hunger — intellectual hunger.
And while bodily hunger generates saliva, curiosity releases dopamine, a natural hormone that can stimulate executive brain function and motivation. In our case, then, curiosity does not kill the cat, but inspires us to take interest, to inquire, to wonder – to learn.
Another thought of Dr. Sarma’s which caught my attention was the contrast of learning for exams versus learning for life. Clearly, when we understand why the knowledge is relevant, how it manifests in daily life, the context, the use, or even better, the joy of knowing something not known before, we are learning for life. The act of learning is released from its perceived bonds of drudgery and compulsion to be its original, natural, built-in-as-original equipment human impulse.
Now granted, there is a lot of basic knowledge that’s necessary for students to learn so as to be successful at navigating our current civilization. Speaking, writing, numbers, history, civics and science — by all means science: procuring a foundation in this broad knowledge base is essential. And, unlike the Phun of Physics, Fundamentals often don’t seem like Fun. Yet, most teachers are committed to finding their way into a student’s mind in hopes of tickling awake that innate curiosity in us all. They strive to pass on the knowledge.
But even more: I count myself fortunate that I have been touched by so many hard working, dedicated, professional educators who have persisted in showing me that their passionate belief in learning was, and will ever be, their supreme gift to share.
PRINCIPAL PRINCIPLE is a brief but insightful glimpse of the many considerations, aspirations, machinations, successes, failures and challenges faced by educators on a daily basis. Joe Zarrow’s play invites us in as a guest of that world, to monitor, to appreciate, to learn something that perhaps we didn’t know before. I hope that you’ll find the learning fun.
See you at the virtual theatre.
PRINCIPAL PRINCIPLE will run online February 15 – March 7. For tickets, click here or call our ticket office at (414) 278-0765.