524: Not What I Do

What has worked out in your life that you would still not recommend someone else do — your “do what I say, not what I do”?

Full episode script

It’s a phrase that, conservatively, has been around since the time of the New Testament Bible — which means it was probably in use long before then. What started in the book of St. Matthew as “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not.”” became in 12 century Anglo-Saxon : “Although I do worse than I teach you, do not do as I do, but do as I teach you if I teach you well.” A book in 1546 put it as “It is as folke dooe, and not as folke say.” It wasn’t until 1689’s John Selden book Table Talk that the more familiar phrase was put to paper: “Preachers say, “Do as I say, not as I do.‘“

You could write off those that use this phrase as quote-unquote mere hypocrites — after all, they’re saying one thing and doing another. But there may be more to it than that. As one paper in the Journal of Family issues, entitled “Do as I Say, Not as I Did: How Parents Talk With Early Adolescents About Sex” pointed out, when a parent has children very young and then tries to convince those children that doing the same  themselves is a bad idea, it’s a much deeper desire. Specifically, to help protect their children from the difficulties and challenges that they themselves encountered. In other words — I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I know that I don’t want you to experience it to.

And when you’re talking about something as long-term as having and raising children — it’s a drum probably worth beating. When you’re talking about other difficult-to-learn or learned-the-hard-way lessons, though, that drive to protect others from challenges may just be counterproductive.

As Marianne Streger put it on the Open Colleges InformED blog:

research suggests that “the hard way” can at times be a more efficient teacher, and letting students struggle before offering guidance may lead to deeper conceptual understanding and the ability to transfer what was learned to new problems.

This phenomenon has been dubbed “productive failure” by instructional technology specialist and researcher Manu Kapur from the Learning Sciences Lab (LSL) at the National Institute of Education in Singapore.

Kapur explains that although it’s unlikely that students will be able to solve problems that require an understanding of concepts they haven’t learned yet, the process of generating sub-optimal or even incorrect solutions can be productive in preparing students to learn better from the teaching that follows.

I love this idea of productive failure. The idea that just because something was hard, or difficult, or challenging doesn’t mean that you should protect someone from it. Provide them the resources to work through it, yes — but not avoid it altogether.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.