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Head's Blog

Did you know Synapse Head of School, Jim Eagen, used to be an English teacher? To this day, he still loves to write! These blog posts come from his own pen and often start as emails or speeches to the Synapse Community.

Read on! 

Latest from Jim

Persistence Pays Off at Synapse When Kids Engage in Productive Struggle
Jim Eagen

Tomorrow is Easter, which means to many cycling fans it’s time for Belgium's biggest, and one of the hardest, pro bike races: the Tour of Flanders, or as the locals call it, the Ronde van Vlaanderen. First organized in 1913 to promote a sports newspaper and encourage regional pride in the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium, the Tour of Flanders is considered the “most beautiful” race in the region (if you consider cobblestones, narrow roads, bad weather, and lots of climbs to be things of beauty). I’m so excited about this race, that I’m even thinking of making a geraardsbergse mattentaart in honor of the Tour. Well considering I bake about as well as I speak Flemish, maybe I should just go for a bike ride…

I once read somewhere, that the most amazing feature of the bike is that, like the very greatest teacher, it encourages you to find the answers from somewhere deep down inside yourself and not merely take them from someone else. I have also found this to be true as an educator working with students. And as many students know, and any successful bike racer understands viscerally, often finding the right answer takes a massive effort. It’s almost always anything but easy. 

Cyclists understand this process as “learning how to suffer.” This phrase refers to a person’s behavioral, emotional, and cognitive responses to discomfort and stress. Like or not, endurance sports are in essence about discomfort and stress. Therefore, they are largely about “learning how to suffer.” 

Author Matt Fitzgerald explores this idea in How Bad Do You Want It? Mastering the Psychology of Mind over Muscle. When looking to do your best in an endurance race, he writes “the job of the muscles is to perform. The job of the mind is to cope” but “our muscles can only perform to the degree that the mind is able to cope.” Endurance athletes who set a stretch goal need to know that it isn’t only about getting in physical training day after day, week after week. It’s about emotional training, too. In other words it’s about “mind over muscle.”

Now no Synapse teacher wants a student to suffer, don’t worry. But all of our teachers expect kids to engage in productive struggle. Yes, making learning feel more difficult is tough on kids at times, but it’s the difficulty that pays off in the end. Our Stanford/BLC team has made this abundantly clear to our staff and the research backs it up. Therefore, Synapse teachers are in an ideal situation to set stretch goals with students, those just out of reach, where the idea of “mind over muscle” can be applied to learning, too. 

From my experience, students who persist meet their learning goals and often failure is part of the process. This is essential for learning to occur. But kids who experience failure need a safety net, and this is where Synapse’s immersive SEL comes into play. Our kids thrive because Synapse teachers create a one-of-kind supportive environment where self-esteem flourishes. Individual student profiles are well understood within a culture that embraces emotions as much as it advocates risk taking. If a student is able to work through a difficult concept or problem knowing they won’t be penalized for trying and that they can iterate and keep going, they learn to deal with adversity, and achieve the goals they have set. It’s that simple.

I think parents, teachers and students can all learn a thing or two from cyclists: 

  1. Learners can’t persist if they haven’t learned and experienced “how.” Therefore, teaching persistence depends on first developing student stamina as a way of conditioning learners to handle sustained effort. Just like a bike racer.

  2. Just as a cycling coach (also known as a directeur sportif) teaches his riders to connect effort to results, teachers and parents can push students to do a little more than they think they can. And then do it again. And again. And again. When repeated over time, the cumulative effect will likely be increased stamina, improved persistence, and intrinsic motivation for ever greater learning.

Remember, most learners love to hear personal stories from their teachers, and parents. Telling your kids about your weekend house project that didn’t go as planned or just about anything that you made a mess of, and how you got through it and completed it, is a great way to entertain children and help them see that everyone feels like giving up sometimes. Even cyclists

For those celebrating Easter tomorrow, Happy Easter!