Over the walls


There’s that great story about the patient who says to his doctor “My arm hurts when I do this,” hoping of course for a diagnosis or prescription related to his ailment. But the doctor only says “Then don’t do that.”

It’s a joke, sort of, about human behavior, pathology, and medicine in general.  It has some potentially interesting implications for learning, too, and what we do when kids don’t perform the way we want them to, or the way we think they should, when we think they should. I’ve been imagining an expanded version of this doctor/patient joke.  Of course in a real situation we would hope that the doctor would have more than simple functionality in mind, but here’s my alternate idea of how it might go:

Patient: “My arm hurts when I do this.”

Doctor: “Interesting.  What were you doing when you discovered that?”

Patient: “I was ______ [some activity or task].”

Doctor: “I see. Is that something you will need or want to do again? Would it be a problem if you couldn’t do it?

From here, the conversation proceeds differently depending on how the patient responds.  If this thing that he can’t do with his arm is something he doesn’t have much use for, then the advice from the original story might be sufficiently sound:

Patient: “Actually, no. It won’t really get in the way if I can’t do it.”

Doctor: “OK.  Then stop doing that with your arm.”

If, on the other hand (pun partially intended), the task in question is something the patient does need or want to be able to do, then more of a problem-solving approach would be called for:

Patient: “Yes. I need to be able to ______.  If I can’t then it’ll mean _____.”

Doctor: “OK.  Then let’s see if we can figure out a way for you to do it.”

The doctor is of course ready to offer her expertise, to do the diagnostic work it will take to get to the bottom of the arm’s limitation.  She’s ready to intervene to restore or create the functionality the patient is looking for. But she waits to find out whether or not the patient actually wants and needs that intervention before she embarks upon it.


We often skip over this kind of inquiry with kids. When we see that a child is not meeting a mark we’ve set, we turn quickly to the work of getting the child to meet that mark.  We make it a problem, whether or not kids ask for help with it.

We do this with the noblest of intentions, and we have our reasons.  The big one is that we’ve decided that certain things will get in the way if kids don’t learn how to do them on schedule.  I don’t happen to think we’re right about this, much of the time, because so far we haven’t updated our list of learning necessities as the demands of job markets, economies, and work have changed with time.  (Also, specific skills and bodies of knowledge don’t serve all people the same way.) We keep trusting that the things we’ve always insisted upon to equip and prepare young people for their lives are still and always the ones they need, and need first.  

There’s so much to gain in granting children the dignity of an exploratory type of conversation like this one between the doctor and patient.  By asking ourselves and asking kids whether an inability to do something, or a challenge that arises in the course of learning something, is actually getting in the way or might actually get in the way at some point in the future, we make it possible to see what is truly so and what more there is to see.  When we jump over this step, it removes kids from the process of navigating their lives.  We dole out “help” they haven’t identified a need for and haven’t asked for. And in making that choice we give them an experience of powerlessness and render the help itself difficult to receive and absorb.

Brick Walls

It’s of course true that getting that arm to move that way, or getting a young person to read early in life, or getting any other outcome we want may indeed be just the thing for the person in question.  I’m reminded of Randy Pausch’s point from his Last Lecture about the obstacles one encounters in pursuit of a childhood dream: “The brick walls are not there to keep us out.  The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.” For some, the fussy arm or the difficulty reading turns out to be a brick wall.  It lets the person find out that this thing is worth all it takes to accomplish. For others, though, it might actually be a distraction from other more meaningful or beneficial pursuits.  At least right then, maybe always.

And then what about if there’s really something wrong with the arm or with the reading, something that isn’t about choice or will or commitment?

To me, this possibility is actually the most compelling reason to be sure that a person gets the benefit of starting from a place of his or her own clarity and commitment.  Anyone who has ever had the experience of a brick wall offered up by neurological wiring or other physiology (as with any brick wall) knows that it takes the power of personal, specific motivation to do whatever it takes to get up and over that wall.  Overcoming an obstacle just because someone else thinks you should – because someone else threatens or otherwise insists – is a much, much taller order.


One Response

  1. Well said. I think there is a tendency for us to see kids as simply numbers. And if the numbers are not working out to what we think they should be, then we think there must be something that needs fixing. If kids don’t conform to the average, whatever that’s supposed to be anyways, then we need to jump in and make sure they look like everyone else.

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