How Should We Challenge Learners?

I was still in high school and I was riding a jeepney with one of my classmates. My classmate then made the remark that growing up poor taught me a lot and this challenge probably helped me significantly in my education.

I went to Quiapo for my elementary schooling. The school was approximately four kilometers from our house in Sampaloc. My parents gave me enough money to take a jeepney ride to go home, but I decided to walk home from school everyday so that I could save enough to buy me a new pair of pants for Christmas.

Downloaded from "Buhay Pinoy - Filipino Life in Pictures, Philippines"
I currently drive my son to school every morning and pick him up in the afternoon. It is almost winter time in DC so I do not think it would be a good idea to make my son walk from school to home. Besides, he is only in first grade. As I recall that conversation I had with my classmate inside that jeepney, it seems that poverty does provide opportunities to challenge children. How such conditions contribute to learning, in my opinion, is not, however, crystal clear. Wondering if he or she has something to eat for lunch perhaps does not help a child learn. Scavenging through garbage is not likely to improve student learning. In fact, such a predicament, in my opinion, probably gives a child a "dead end" view of life. So what exactly was in "being poor" that helped me learn?

My son had the chance to watch "Baby Einstein" videos when he was a toddler. As parents, we are advised to read to our children often. Poverty denies these opportunities to young children. And, of course, when I was growing up, there were no "Baby Einstein" videos yet. What my parents had at home when I was growing up were not videos or books for young children. Instead, we had a World Atlas:

A Hammond Map - Downloaded from Old Maps
Manila was frequently visited by typhoons and the place in Sampaloc was often flooded. I remember there were weeks that I did not see the ground. During those days, schools were suspended. Not having school forced me to find things I could do at home. I then decided to take the task of examining closely the maps found in this World Atlas. For every country, every continent, I surveyed the mountains. Each map would have a small triangle representing a mountain and beside each symbol was the peak height. I therefore ventured into collecting all the peak height information available in these maps. I first scanned each map and browsed through all the mountains since I wanted to sort the mountains according to height, starting with the highest. I did not first write all the mountains I could find with their heights on a scratch pad with the plan of sorting them out later. That was probably more efficient. Instead, I committed the data I was seeing into memory (using my brain as the scratch pad) and only writing the mountain and its peak height when I am sure that I know its right place in the final sorted list. Of course, it was challenging and frustrating at times. I had to erase mistakes whenever I found a mountain I missed on the map, that was higher than the ones I have already listed. This exercise consumed me for hours, for days. There were so many countries, so many mountains. But I was simply determined to finish that list.

The above recount is simply an anecdote. Again, it is important to look at what peer-reviewed research says about the relationship between poverty and learning. A previous post in this blog, "Overcoming the Constraints of Poverty", was really composed of two parts. The first part described interventions that could address conditions caused by poverty that are serving as obstacles to learning. The second part of that post perhaps explains in part what my classmate meant when he said that my growing up being poor contributed to my education. That second part talked about "grit", which Paul Tough, a journalist from the New York Times, describes as "perseverance in pursuit of a passion":

Professor Angela Lee Duckworth in the Department of Psychology in the University of Pennsylvania describes below her research findings on how "grit" correlates with success:

"Overcoming the Constraints of Poverty" had two parts and it is very important not to mixed up the two parts. Another previous post in this blog, "The Wisdom behind Deped's Short School Hours", starts with the following quote:
“Unlike in other countries, many of our Grade 1 students spend hours walking to and from school,” Luistro says. “They are tired when they reach school. I want them to enjoy school, not (to feel) that (it) is imposed on them.”
The hardships that harm children's learning correlate with broken homes, extreme poverty, hunger, and unmet basic needs. These are not the challenges that can benefit learning. These need to be alleviated. Children still need to be challenged in school. Learning is hard work. Challenges coupled with a sense of accomplishment at the end of an arduous task develops "grit" in children. We should not allow ourselves to be confused of which challenges should be removed and which challenges should remain in school.