"At 515c-516b (p. 748), Socrates gives a classic account of the student’s experience of education as being ‘dragged’ out of the cave toward the light. It is presented as a painful, confusing experience – full of distress, annoyance, and doubt about the reality or of the new vision being acquired. Transformative learning of this kind is a familiar part of the hero’s journey in various spiritual traditions. But how representative is it as an account of learning? Is there place for this kind of learning (and corresponding teaching practice) in our own age? Why or why not?"
With this account of the student’s experience of education as being “dragged” out of the cave towards the light is seen as a painful experience. At 515e, it is asked that “if he were compelled to look at the light itself, would not that and would he not turn away and flee to those things which he is able to discern and regard them as in very deed more clear and exact than the objects pointed out?”
Even though the student in this story lives a miserable existence, in a cave, looking straight ahead, when given the opportunity to experience freedom, it can be uncomfortable and the student will go back to what they know and are comfortable with, even if it is a more negative experience than the new one being offered. In order to grow, this student must fight against this impulse to return to the cave, or be kept out of the cave. The student must experience discomfort in order to get comfortable with the new situation and surroundings, then they can adjust to the light and understand that once they get past the initial discomfort, being in the light is a positive experience that will lead to greater understanding.
Working Elementary School education, I definitely feel that this experience is representative to the go through when learning to read and when expanding their Math skills. In order to progress, there has to be discomfort.
If students quit reading every time they didn’t understand a word, all of our students would be illiterate. If we only exposed students to books they were totally comfortable with, we would all be looking at picture books all of the time. As an educator, it is necessary to build on the skills of the students and guide them through moments of discomfort, to help them see the benefits of using new strategies, to go beyond their comfort zone to complete new tasks and expand their knowledge base. By providing timely feedback and working with the students to apply new strategies, we can help the students see the light and get through difficult experiences to see the benefit of the new learning.
A final example is in Math. Many young students would prefer to use addition and subtraction to work with numbers, no matter how many steps or how long this will take. This is their cave that they will continue to retreat to, but when you work with these students and show them the connection between numbers and how using multiplication and division can help them to explore number relationships more efficiently and effectively, they begin to see the benefit of using these strategies.
We always offer choice and work with students on their learning journeys, at their pace, but once they have worked with multiplication and division and adjusted to the light, as these processes can be more difficult for the students at first, they see the benefit, adopt the strategies and grow as students.
Plato. Republic, translated by P. Shorey. Plato: Collected Dialogues, edited by Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Random House, 1963, pp. 747-752,