#16: A Few Scattered Drafts on Learning How to Learn

What should schools be good at? The quick answer: learning – and teaching students to learn. It is almost an educational truism that students in schools should “learn how to learn” and to sharpen the mindsets that would help them to do such. I’ve always assumed, pragmatically, that students just forget whatever they learn after they are tested for that knowledge, so unless they are particularly turned on with such information, then they should at least be able to graduate with something of value: ways to learn how to learn plus the mental acuity for such.

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In the Philippines, what is school’s function? There always goes the familiar chorus: “So that children will grow up and be able to get jobs.” That underscores most of serious schooling talk in the Philippines aside from grades, tests, and schedules. It’s a constant grind: parents remind children to study hard to get high scores in tests to get good grades, and there’s no letting down because the schedules are tight. At the base of all these is the hope that all graduates would somehow be able to get good jobs, mostly abroad, where plenty of money is to be earned. Diplomas, moreover, serve as social signals that someone is educated; just notice how they are conspicuously displayed at every home, along with some medals and certificates.

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I’m not saying that education should stray as far as it can from industrial demand. Of course, schools need to produce a mass of graduates able to take on high-level technical work. But we can’t just manufacture students who can “do” without building up their thinking. Many technical procedures today might become outdated later on, and many new ones will emerge. Graduates are in a better position to learn those new techniques if they know how to learn – thus saving themselves from becoming what Alvin Toffler called the “illiterates of the 21st century”. And, oh, many professionals today insist that most of the stuff they know came from the job itself.

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A strong proposal: Leave the expertise to the jobs; while at school, teach students to learn how to learn, with the subjects as vehicles to that end. Ideally, I want every last student in the Philippines to learn Math. It’s a highly rewarding discipline; it has the dual benefit of having lots of industry applications and its being hospitable to play. One can do Math with a definite purpose or without one. However, Math teachers know well that with a few exceptions, most of the Math (content) that students learn goes down the drain. So while teachers should still teach Math, they should do so in such a way that students will become curious with every discussion, not feel trapped with the knowledge they have (couldn’t it be possible that sometimes knowledge can be trap – we’d rather be inside it than confront the outside world where wolves sometimes thrive?)

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Curiosity is important in “learning how to learn”, and such a trait manifests in constant questioning. Schools should certainly encourage this attitude; when a teacher declares “Any questions?”, he or she better be sincere. Connected to this is the purpose of questioning; is its main (perhaps for some, only) purpose to assess what students already know? What if teachers began asking questions without needing students to answer, with just the remark that these questions are good questions but they need not be answered right away? After all, the best questions always stick in the minds of interested thinkers for hundreds or even thousands of years.

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Many of us still assume, naively, that doing is what happens when learning is finished. That is the notion behind the “study well so that you’ll get a good job”. Curiosity can eradicate that notion: when you do something, you learn from it; you constantly reflect; you find better ways to do it; you can find creative twists to it. Curiosity surely helps anyone explore all that is contained within an action, from participants to stakeholders to methods of improvement to “whether it deserves to be done at all”, and such exploration is learning, and it mostly involves asking the right questions and chasing down partial or total answers to them. With this, learning is already doing; the two are not any more distinct.

Do teachers think similarly? Is learning to them a part of doing, or something that should happen before doing? The teacher’s way of teaching will show her orientation toward both learning and doing, and students will absorb what they see.

***

One of my friends just remarked that he wanted to be freed from the pressure of books and he doesn’t want to hold any more books forever. I wonder what has happened exactly to him, but it could be this: Books are not something to be read, but “pressed” upon him. Reading, for him, has become a passive activity in which he becomes a receiver, not an active one in which he is deliberate. Reading can’t always be “You have to” from without if it is to be sustainable; it has to be often an “I will” from within.

There could be a Pyrrhic victory behind his situation – he got what he wanted from his education, but I wish he didn’t get an aversion to further learning, especially from books which give not only information but also ways on mobilizing and organizing them with due thoughtfulness.

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#15: Something is Better than Nothing

Even in the darkest of times, I still commit myself to maintaining the two-post-a-week rule for this blog. If any bloggers’ muse won’t come to me, then I’ll always have to make one, especially during midnight. I support this dogged persistence by a pet theory of writing. A truism, but worth posting in one’s bedside in my opinion:

It’s always better to write something than to write nothing.

Bad writers are still called writers even if they write badly. Those who fail to write, however, can be called anything else, but they’re not writers. Writing is a verb before it becomes a noun. The action of writing precedes the title, in contrast to many job-holders today who get the title first before they partake in the action.

Established writers always suggest that we carry a journal where we can record scattered thoughts. (The practice has trickled down on English class, but I don’t believe students take it seriously unless they can get away with a decent grade by doing it.) They need not be organized or grammatical; the main purpose of the journal is to record observations and thoughts in a flash. Although writers who do this do not necessarily improve the way they construct sentences, pen down figurative expressions, and organize paragraphs, they sharpen their perceptive powers. They improve the way they see the essences of commonplace things. They learn how to classify, analyze, and compare stimuli more quickly. Best of all, they learn how to treat no situation as mundane, no action as arid.

Even bits of writing that are hardly publishable for now can still have value. They can serve as inspiration for future writing, especially at the unfortunate day when Nature seems to have run out of gifts. (Don’t worry, Nature never does, but we sometimes feel a sort of respite for claiming that we can’t write because Nature has dried up.) With some tweaking, they can serve as the beginning, middle, or end of a written work. You need not start from nothing every time you do your main-course writing – think of the journal or blog as one of your take-off points.

Journal writing or blog writing solely for the sake of writing something than nothing is analogous to running. Think of a journal or blog entry as a practice race for a big race. When you are in an actual race already, you need not cherish the memory of any particular practice session, but you’ll look back to the practice as a whole and figure that they’ve strengthened your muscles, improved your stamina, and raised your normal confidence level. The same goes for writing. There are some practice effects going on.

Upon reading the biographies of many writers, it is easy to notice that their works we remember today may be a small fraction of their total published output. The total published output, again, may be a small fraction of all the words they have written. Certainly it is possible to improve the odds of becoming a published writer by writing more words than anyone else out there. Somewhere on the mass of your accumulated writings, there will be something that can garner an audience who will get wildly interested, and you will get readers.

That recalls the Garbage Can theory of organizations, a theory involving “choices looking for problems” instead of the conventional problem-identifying and solution-posing. Here, it is the writing seeking out an audience, although as a writer you always need a feel for your ideal reader. At the times when you know your audience in advance, you can churn out written work smoothly, and you will be thankful for your continuous practice that somehow strengthened your mind and prevented the rusting of your writing prowess.

What do all these boil down into? As Henry Miller wrote: “I am a writing machine.” It’s good that writing machines can self-oil themselves – by writing more.

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#14: Post About a Post About a University

Somewhere on the Netwaves, there is a blog post whose title is “The Perks of Being a/an X Graduate” where X is the name of a university. You may want to read the original post to find out what X is, but I’ll request that you skip that until the end. For now, treat X as a generic school – it may very well be your own school, or a school of someone you know – and you will lay bare your assumptions regarding higher education in this country.

I’m going to swing my bat right off the bat with an analysis of the opening lines:

These are just based on what I heard from people so puh-lease DO NOT CRITICIZE mehhhh! K here we go:

I’m going to criticize these “people” instead along with their faulty notions, and here I go too:

There is often a “Wow Factor” when people find out that you’re a graduate from the said university which makes you feel like you’re superior to any other universities. Well, admit it. You do feel this, don’t you?

Setting aside the faulty grammar involving the comparison of a person to “other universities”, this misses the question: superior at what qualities? And are these qualities obtainable only from university X? Also, I feel that a “Wow” often ends any discussion, and when it doesn’t, only more “Wow’s” and similar-sounding cheering squad jargon (“ooooh”, “aaaaah”, “oolala”) follow.

Like what I heard, you can easily apply for a job even if you’re not experienced. The name of your school affects your employment these days. And again, just like what they told me, you don’t have to go looking for job because the job will find you.

Setting aside the utter impossibility of a person being “not experienced”, the proposition may be true, but only to a point. Beyond a certain amount of time, experience (whatever it means) will matter more than education. Also, this reflects what people may want more than any other from a university: the name. What about the learning? As the great German Goethe said, “a name is but noise and smoke”.

People would be impressed and think you’re a smart ass and all but some people might get intimidated.

Just because someone came from university X doesn’t mean that the person is already a “smart ass”. While the entire population of X can be justly described as intelligent, there are the “smarts”, the “smart asses”, and the “asses”.

They would think you’re an activist (This is actually a wrong connotation for [X] students. This can’t be called a benefit. Why did I even include this in the first place? K sorreehh..)

I don’t think it’s a bad connotation, unless you want a world full of yes-sayers, trained during childhood to say “Yes” to every teacher’s request so in the future a “Yes” will more easily come than a “No”. To paraphrase educator John Holt, the more you obey, the more likely you will spread evil.

Lastly, you would gain confidence.

Does the confidence gained come with carrying the name of X or is it ingrained?

These do not always happen though but in some circumstances, they do.

Why do they happen, anyway? Whose mind has lingering questions about why they happen?

Forgive me for posting this. I’m so sabaw tonight

Me too, though on a cooler day this would be thrice as long. This post is just to meet my quota of two blog posts per week.

The post I referred to is this: The post

P.S. At least I got some good practice in conciseness and post-cutting.

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#13: Loose Analysis of Questioning in Philippine Education with Geert Hofstede’s 5-D Cultural Model

Most schools in the Philippines, I intuit, have the habit of giving us answers while leaving us in the dark about the right questions. At once it is easy to find out some contributing factors to this. When we recall our childhoods, it’s more likely that our elders suppressed our impulse to ask questions – an honorable impulse brought about by curiosity. We also have a derisive term for a constant questioner: the pilosopo.

It is said that education (especially the public sort) can affect all the citizens of any nation. Therefore the culture of any country is a good enough indicator of the education taking place there. To analyze culture we use Geert Hofstede’s 5-D model, with the 5-D standing for five cultural dimensions: (1) power distance, (2) individualism, (3) masculinity and femininity, (4) uncertainty avoidance, and (5) long-term orientation. Here is a summary of how the Philippines fared:

(1) Power distance – 94. A very high score (the highest is 100); Filipinos generally accept the existence of unequal distribution of power in the society.

(2) Individualism – 32. A low score; Filipinos prefer to commit themselves to a group in various settings, especially school and work, instead of fending off for themselves

(3) Masculinity/Femininity – 64. This score is skewed in favor of masculinity; Filipinos, therefore, are highly achievement-oriented, have an assertive stance to daily living and conflict resolution. Femininity, on the other hand, indicates greater emphasis on “quality of life” rather than trophies.

(4) Uncertainty avoidance – 44. This score is somewhat skewed in favor of less uncertainty avoidance. Filipinos are more welcome to deviations from established norms; the manana habit and the breaking off from company protocols are some instances.

(5) Long-term orientation – 19. This score is very low; Filipinos prefer the quick “jackpot” instead of being like the ant that, during the summer, saves for the winter bit by bit.

Now what does all of these have to do with the culture of questioning in Philippine schools? Using these results can make us form a coherent picture:

(1) High power distance places teachers on a virtually unquestionable position. More often than not, students ask questions to clarify what teachers said, not to offer a challenge or to add to the lesson. Offering a challenge threatens the teacher’s sense of position in the school hierarchy. Adding something to the lesson displaces a teacher’s lesson plan and thus shakes her sense of authority. And too often we forget to ask or demand the value of the lessons we’re learning in schools. What did we learn the Binomial Theorem or the different types of algae for? Such innocuous questions, which permit gentle responses, are surprisingly unasked.

(2) Loosely, low individualism can be disabling in asking questions. Suppose you are a naturally inquisitive student surrounded by mostly “contented” classmates. If you’ll be the only one asking questions, then others will perceive you as a nonconformist and sooner you will be contented like them. It is also low individualism that causes students to do in groups what they would be willing to do as individuals, such as collective cheating and frat wars, and there is little questioning going on regarding these phenomena involving the “madness of crowds”.

(3) The masculine orientation allows Filipinos to accept scores, grades, trophies, certificates and the like as untainted marks of education. The fetish for college degrees also falls on this orientation. Unless they get lucky and someone teaches them the fine art of iconoclasm, they won’t ever ask questions like “What do grades really measure?” “What does having a diploma really imply, and what should it imply?” “Is there a correlation between grades and real-life success?” Hardly anyone of us wonders about the “quality of learning” even if we’re left in the dark as to its “quantity”.

(4) Less uncertainty avoidance should be welcome. Asking questions makes us throw off our cloak of “certain” learning invincibility and allows others to know that there are still incomplete aspects to our learning. However, by my experience, less uncertainty avoidance manifests itself by rule-breaking of sorts. In schools in the Philippines, it is a titanic struggle to be certain about one’s values (while refining them daily), especially honesty. “If you see others cheating at exams, then why shouldn’t I”? And we justify similar practices in the name of survival as we grow older.

(5) Our short-term orientation reflects our attitude towards exams and grades. Should you study for the test? Of course you should, because doing so makes you respect “practice effects”, but you should not let your studying get in the way of your learning. Short-term orientation allows students to ask “What will come out in the test?” and thus fixate them to getting good test scores. And then the students forget their learning right after the exams, after the grades, and after school. I also think that many teachers are to blame for this – instead of giving facts for the sake of rattling them again during exams, they should give facts while sharpening the minds of students (using their subject matter) so the pupils can get training on how to make sense of the facts. That training can very well persist throughout life.

Be reminded that Hofstede’s 5-D framework, when applied to education, is in no way limited to analyzing the questioning habits of students. 5-D can lend coherence to many other educational facets in the Philippines.

However, I chose questioning because it’s a valuable skill useful not only in intellectual and artistic work, but increasingly at all sorts of work. We can attribute the dearth of scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, and book writers to the failure of graduates to learn the right questions to ask, but we’ve lived with that for long already. But we can’t live with that any longer once we find out that questioning is a valuable work skill and many employers around the globe are asking for their employees to have it (and I’s daresay too that employers who do otherwise are becoming extinct).

Here is education innovator and consultant Tony Wagner’s take on the issue. In his book The Global Achievement Gap, he recalls the answer to his question on “what qualities he most wants in a potential new employee”:

First and foremost, I look for someone who asks good questions… Our business is changing, and so the skills our engineers need change rapidly, as well. We can teach them the technical stuff. But for employees to solve problems or to learn new things, they have to know what questions to ask. And we can’t teach them how to ask good questions—how to think. The ability to ask the right questions is the single most important skill.

Education in the Philippines has plenty of catching up to do when it comes to improving the questioning skills of the students. To accomplish that, however, requires a massive shift in cultural priorities. We can start asking a few questions, and you can add more of yours (now here is a chance to practice those questioning skills): Would teachers be willing to give up some of their authoritarianism in a possibly risky exchange for more discussion in class? Will students get used to that setup? In a culture used to having parents who reward children getting grades over the roof, how can we explain the real significance of those grades? How can we ensure that students don’t leave our classrooms with stuff they may have forgotten before exiting the door? Does God exist, and how do we treat those who believe otherwise?

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#12: A Review of Recent Cases of Philippine School Violence

Have you just intuited that our schools are becoming the breeding grounds of strife nowadays?

First, we review the case of the Colegio de San Agustin student Jaime Garcia. His name became famous because some CSA students bullied him, then he retaliated by stabbing one of the bullies with a ballpoint pen. Then the father of the stabbed bully, Allan Bantiles, allegedly slapped Jaime and even allegedly pointed a gun at him:

http://www.interaksyon.com/article/43937/csa-teen-on-bullys-gun-toting-dad-i-really-thought-hed-shoot-my-brains-out

We remember the Math teacher who forced her students to eat paper and also threw a chair toward someone who had the sense to defy her order:

http://www.philstar.com/Article.aspx?articleId=851790&publicationSubCategoryId=49

There are even instances of students getting the upper hand against teachers. Here is one such case of students robbing their teacher:

http://www.journal.com.ph/index.php/news/provincial/38136-guro-ninakawan-tinangkang-patayin-ng-3-estudyante

We also recall the alleged child molestation by a PE teacher:

http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/video/136696/24oras/pe-teacher-inireklamo-ng-pangmomolestya-ng-16-na-estudyante-sa-elementarya

Even a school paper of a renowned university has suddenly grown fangs on this attack against other two prestigious universities:

http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/277346/news/nation/ust-student-paper-attacks-ateneo-la-salle-on-rh-stands

There are also two school bomb scares just this last week:

http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/video/nation/metro-manila/10/10/12/lyceum-suspends-classes-after-bomb-scare

http://www.philstar.com/nation/article.aspx?publicationsubcategoryid=63&articleid=858735

And just hours ago, a stabbing took place at Adamson University.

http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/nation/metro-manila/10/13/12/adamson-university-student-stabbed-inside-campus

Men, women, children, elderly, rich, poor, even school buildings – no one is safe.

At least credit me for having a curious memory for oddities. George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I know you may have heard this for a hundred times already in your lifetime. (But you don’t remember hearing it, so you’ll just repeat hearing it, thus proving the truth of Santayana’s proposition. A more orderly world would have no need for a quote like this.)

Let me emphasize, however, that I am in no way generalizing about the rampant violence that has happened in our school campuses nowadays. After all, there are tens of thousands of schools all over the country. There is no way we can cover all the violence that’s happening in the schools. The increased coverage of violent acts taking place inside campus can be attributed to just that – increased coverage. But it’s tempting to wonder: Couldn’t it be that it has always been this way inside the majority of educational institutions in the Philippines, and we’re starting to get vigilant only recently, when deaths and bizarre activities began emerging in rapid-fire pace?

However, I am quite generous in examining the succession of violent in-campus activities. Perhaps they just clustered together by chance, or as I mentioned, perhaps it’s just increased media coverage of the usual stuff.

Copycats Galore

Or perhaps this explanation can also apply. Robert Cialdini, a psychology professor from the Arizona State University, describes a probable explanation for the one-after-another occurrence of detestable acts inside our schools. In his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he explains the occurrence of copycat events, or events that follow the publicizing of a similar event. He cites David Phillips’ research on copycat suicides:

(1) Copycat events take place only on places where the events are publicized: “He found that within two months after every front-page suicide story, an average of fifty-eight more people than usual killed themselves. In a sense, each suicide story killed fifty-eight people who otherwise would have gone on living.”

(2) Copycat events are done in a similar manner as the publicized events: “Thus when the newspaper detailed the suicide of a young person, it was young drivers who then piled their cars into trees, poles, and embankments with fatal results; but when the news story concerned an older person’s suicide, older drivers died in such crashes”

According to Cialdini, these two insights add up: “Upon learning of another’s suicide, an uncomfortably large number of people decide that suicide is an appropriate action for themselves as well.”

That insight may apply to acts of school violence. Although we can’t ascertain how many such acts took place during the whole of September and the first two weeks of October, imitation of prior publicized acts of school violence can be a trigger, if we are to follow Cialdini’s logic.

It’s like this: more trouble begets more coverage, and more coverage may beget more trouble. It’s a vicious circle that may engulf the educational establishment if left unchecked. At least the increased exposure should make us aware of what’s really happening in our schools, given that inside schools, pupils are away from their families and are practically left to fend off for themselves.

A Note to Teachers

Teachers, meanwhile should ask themselves these questions:

Isn’t it violence – to the mind, if not to the body – if they let their students out to the world without sufficient life skills? Have our schools taught us literacy, numeracy, critical thinking,and rapid adaptation to speedily changing circumstances? Have our schools strengthened our willpower to stand alone in the midst of tempting opportunities to follow the crowd’s blatant wrongs and innocent imbecilities, a steel heart that never worships power for its own sake, and a zest for lifelong learning and not learning that ends when school ends?

Isn’t it violence to make schools function like businesses while posing perils to their educational functions?

Isn’t it violence to scream at students when reasoned discussion is a better tack? Isn’t it violence to force-feed students with facts that they’re likely to forget after a long time, and to stress students over them?

Isn’t it violence to judge students, with no regard to the future, when their potentials haven’t fully blossomed yet? This year’s Nobel laureate for Medicine and Physiology, Sir John Gurdon (who shared the prize with Shinya Yamanaka for seminal work on stem cells) recalled what his Biology teacher told him before: “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

And I’d consider it violence too when students have to say “Good morning” every day, like busted records, when the mornings out there are mostly no good.

Shakespeare once said, “‘Tis the mind that makes the body rich”. It’s just reasonable to assume that turbulence in mind and viciousness of the body go hand-in-hand. If you corrupt the mind, you corrupt the body, and pandemonium’s going to result if you do that to participants in a crowded classroom.

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#11: In Defense of Surprise Quizzes

This post hardly contains any advice on taking surprise quizzes. This post intends to make students realize the value of these tests as well as defend teachers who give them. We will also examine some conditions that are best satisfied before dishing out these types of quizzes.

Despite how much we may dislike teachers armed with surprise quizzes all throughout the school year, these types of quizzes may provide us with the best opportunities to think. The usual test setup proceeds this way: the teacher gives out the lesson, the students study it, then the teacher gives a quiz about it, and then a new lesson. This process goes on ad nauseam, until both teachers and students are numbed by it.

Surprise quizzes can break this treadmill. With this type of quiz, students can’t resort to their usual test-taking routine. They won’t be able to regurgitate answers because they wouldn’t have been told what to swallow beforehand. They won’t be able to practice only during a convenient time – they have to keep themselves sharp at all times. Their reflex question “So what will come out in the test?” (an absolutely absurd question that should have never been asked at all) will become invalid, for a surprise test should be surprise. Eventually that question, a cause of anxiety for many students, will be weaned out.

From these surprise test benefits, it follows that some test forms are more suited to surprise tests than others. Except for the most basic facts, identification and enumeration of rote facts would be awkward, unless the testing is to ensure mastery of only the most essential facts that students are liable to forget.

The best test types for surprise tests are essay tests, multiple-choice tests that contain no identification, and problem-solving tests. Rather than test specific content knowledge, these test types test the thought processes of students. Giving surprise tests signals the need for students to think sharp all the time, not just during exam time.

If students don’t have the rote knowledge or procedural knowledge needed to deal with a surprise test, then they have to think. As Jean Piaget, a child psychologist whose areas of study are staples in Education classes, said: “Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.” A surprise test puts students in a position where by default they don’t know what to do, so they have to think, explore, innovate, make wild conjectures, test these conjectures, and look for relevant evidence. It can make students go beyond the usual “Who?” “What?”, “Where?” and “When?” to the realm of “Why?” and “How?”.

For teachers to give effective surprise tests, they should have a respect for sharp thinking at all times. They have to be creative in cooking up questions. A teacher who wants to pass on the “think-all-throughout” frame of mind to pupils should have that same mindset too. Also, when students hand over their answers to surprise tests where answers are long, teachers should be keen in reconstructing the logical processes of the answers they get. They ought to focus on the process more than the product (provided that the questions are focused on the process more than the product).

The world is a surprising world. It’s fast-changing. There’s no stepping in the same world twice, to adapt Heraclitus’ aphorism. All the tomes of information you have mastered at school may be of little use to you later on, as many graduates insist realistically.  According to Tony Wagner, author of several education reform books, during 1990, “the half-life of knowledge in the humanities is ten years, and in math and science, it’s only two to three years”. Half-life of a certain field of knowledge is the time taken for half of the knowledge in a certain field to become obsolete. Today, given the rush of technologies and the enormous speed of spreading information, these half-lives may have become shorter already. Surprise! Has our school system taught us to resist or respect these surprises?

Thus it is imperative that schools give them something else – the art of thinking well. Schools should get their students ready for surprises, not get them used to boredom. As an afterthought, schools should equip students the mental agility and fortitude to counteract routinized responses to boredom, such as watching noontime shows or drenching oneself on telenovelas.

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#10: Book Fair Seminar Blues; Commitment in Writing; The “Pilosopo”

At the last day of the 2012 Manila International Book Fair, Dr. Isagani Cruz held a seminar Write Your Own Book. There were two questions that stood out in the discussion and that stuck in my mind the most: “Where will I write?” and “When will I write?” Space and time, in other words. The answers to the two questions are stunningly similar:

“Anywhere, as long as it is the same place.”

“Anytime, as long as it is the same time.”

The two answers are unthinkable. Why should I write at a definite time, say 9pm – 12mn, rather than write at any convenient time, when all the mundane responsibilities are dealt with? Why should I write atop the plastic table at the second floor rather than anywhere I can conveniently put my laptop on?

It is obvious that these answers will not make you become more creative, or generate more words, or recombine ideas. Rather, they are meant to keep you committed. Treat of them as your principles. Writing a book is a demanding task – Butch Dalisay describes it this way (for novels, but the same goes for all books written in the Philippines): “We sleep, eat, defecate, and fornicate with our novels perched on our shoulders.”

Writing books eats up chunks of our lives, with the confounding worry that whatever we turn out may not be so good, after all. For every book you see on the bestseller list, there are hundreds or thousands whose presence is fleeting.

So in completing a book, surviving all the countercurrents in this country that can prevent you from writing is a must. Writing should be on top of all priorities when writing – not daydreaming, doing household chores, or tending to domestic disturbances. Stick to your goal when writing a book – completing it – and dodge everything else in the way. That is easier when you are in a “safe zone” in a “safe time”, not when you are in a place where the earnest distractions of the outside world can pile up upon you. Even if you have to go into a cheap motel to finish your writing at peace. Even if you have to sneak into an attic for a few hours of near-perfect serenity allowing you to concentrate.

Also, writing at a definite place and time – and upholding your schedule with the precision of clockwork – is also sound practice in focusing. If you can’t remember the writing practices you promised you’ll do, how can you expect to remember the main point of your book? You may change your writing habits when you think they’re ineffective or when pressing circumstances require you to, or you may change the thesis of your book, but when you commit to something, hang on to it tightly.

After the seminar, I asked Dr. Cruz a single question, which I hope the right one. “If you can summarize a writer’s best practices into two bits of advice, what would they be?”

I received these answers: “The first one is to read a lot.“ “The second one is to write everyday.”

Reading a lot is easy to do everyday, for Dr. Cruz didn’t mention any specific book to read. Perhaps it’s just a fine way to reinforce a vision of the future result of your writing. Reading a lot, while planning your own book, can also pound this reminder: if you’re benefiting from the hard labor and mental struggles of writers, why not do the same?

Writing everyday is an exercise in commitment; do not think yourself as a part-time writer, but a full-time one. At least one word a day would be good, according to Dr. Cruz – the late writer Francisco Arcellana did just that. A minimum of one word a day en route to a carefully crafted short story may appear like grinding stones, but that’s commitment to the bones.

The two given answers are also keyhole insights to why Filipino writers are rare. First, Filipinos do not read a lot, to put it bluntly but accurately. As a mass, we read because required to do so in school, not really for the aesthetic and cognitive pleasures that it can bring. Second, in a poor country with more pressing needs than the urge to put thoughts on paper (and whose habitual logicians and theoreticians are derided as pilosopo; I think this is one of the few countries in which contemplators are socially derided), writing can get relegated to last place.

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