Rationale as a form of safety

The other week a student I was working with expressed frustration at the experience of engaged annotation. “To switch perspectives every time a new character comes up is confusing,” he complained, “Can’t I just identify at length with the experience of one character?”

While I agreed that he could, I also explained that the reason he experienced engaged annotation as confusing might be that, in his own life, this man experiences a constant reinforcement of the fact that he is himself. He was born a certain day, at a certain time, in a certain year; is a certain height and build; lives in a certain place and works a certain job; and every experience he has seems to reinforce this narrative. By contrast, engaged annotation was asking him to ask himself whether he might be wrong about this seemingly fundamental fact that he was himself, and not only that—it was asking him to ask himself this question multiple times per page of the book he was reading, from the perspective of a multiplicity of characters.


After explaining all this I asked if he would still like to alter the practice by restricting his identifications to just one character, but he stopped me and said that, after hearing my explanation, he better understood the method and would like to continue engaged annotation as normal. (In other words, he would like to continue writing from the perspective of each and every character as they arose.)

This experience reminded me of why ‘rationale’ is such an important element in effective teaching: rather than go about something unfamiliar with a sense of trepidation, rationale helps us to remember that the place we’re going is better than the place we’ve been. So often in teaching and in learning, we encounter the unfamiliar, the unpracticed, and without rationale, we become either scared or frustrated by this experience, frustration being only a secondary emotion that attests to the suppression of fear. With sufficient rationale, on the other hand, we understand that where we’re going, is a place better than where we currently rest, and this awareness helps us to recognize the discomfort as a pass-through rather than as a sign that something’s ‘wrong.’

Good rationale makes us feel safe, and with safety we take the kinds of leaps that provide durable growth and learning.

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