March 20, 2008

Persistance, Patience, and Creative Problem-Solving

By: in Teaching and Learning, Teaching Professor Blog

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I never quite believe how long and how hard my husband is willing to work on pieces of junk—old relics that have long given up the ghost. One time it was an old milk truck without brakes and multiple loose parts that flew­­ off when it careened around corners the few times it actually ran. Another time it was a $25 motorcycle. We have two 45 year-old, huge and rusty Allis Chalmers Crawlers—one runs, sort of, the other is for spare parts. Most recently it’s a 1963 International Scout that came with a snow plow that I’ve dubbed POS (piece of, you know, the s word). For starters, POS has almost no body parts; no windshield, dash, windows, doors, or roof. A few parts like fenders have been cobbled together from cast-off pieces of sheet metal.

Despite these missing essentials, hubby is convinced that the motor can be brought back to life. It has been a long, slow process with minimal progress. After each round of new parts, POS is fired up, adjusted, and taken for a spin. After a new fuel pump and other fuel line adjustments, POS did start idling quite smoothly. But press down the accelerator and expect the thing to explode. The backfiring was so bad one day that it blew the last vestiges of muffler clear across the driveway. Once down the driveway and back up through the Christmas trees, POS arrived at the garage with enough smoke billowing out and around to warrant grabbing the fire extinguisher.

He gets discouraged and announces that it is a piece of junk. But several days later, “I had another idea …” And we’re off to some junkyard or we’re online to see if anybody just might have a vacuum advance that will work this vintage distributor.

For the first time today, it actually sounded promising as it headed down the snow covered, icy driveway. I waited and waited, wondering if I needed to head out in a rescue vehicle. Then I heard POS climbing the hill. “I got stuck,” he announced. “I thought I had it in four-wheel drive.” Instead of a dashboard dial, POS has three gear shift levers that are jammed, clutched and ground into low-range, four-wheel drive. But POS may actually be coming to life.

I do admire his persistence, patience, and creative problem-solving. He just can’t believe he can’t fix something. And failure doesn’t crack his confidence. He just hasn’t found the problem yet. I wish I had that kind of commitment. I give up too soon. And my students, wow! I can’t imagine what they could accomplish if they had this kind of faith in themselves. But success in learning the hard stuff, the stuff that really matters, the stuff that lasts a lifetime demands extraordinary effort from most of us. It takes the right kind of attitude about failure and an ear that only hears the steady throbbing of a finely tuned motor.

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