Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Achievement and Negative Emotions

Thinking over our discussion of John Holt's How Children Fail, I was struck by how often we invoke positive and negative emotions in our thoughts on education. Holt thought that school failed because it was all about negative motivation, that is, getting children to learn relied too much on making them afraid and upset. That, he thought, impeded learning. 

What everyone seems to want is a system in which people learn because of motivations that we see as positive: curiosity, community feeling, a sense of mastery. 

I wonder, is this realistic? Has anybody ever really mastered anything entirely from positive motivations? It seems to me that the biographies of successful people are full of dark feelings: fear of failure, hatred of losing, shame at underperforming, etc. Or just a grim obsession with their chosen path that dominates their lives.

To take the example closest to hand, I write this blog for fun, and yet I sometimes force myself to sit down and produce something because I feel bad about not having done more. I read over each post several times in a vain attempt to fix all the editorial mistakes, and I keep reading over recent posts for days, catching more and chastising myself for them. (If you hate typos, you should wait three days before reading anything I post.)

My books, likewise, were written partly from the joy of writing but also partly from fear of seeing myself as a boring, uncreative person who does nothing but work and sleep.

So is it realistic to think that children can learn without being made afraid? 

In his essay on his own school days, George Orwell wrote that you can only get boys to learn Latin and Greek by frequent beatings. Is the same true for algebra? Are there millions of young people who could only be motivated to learn math by fear of failing?

Nor does this end with graduation. A corporation, it seems to me, is an institution that motivates people to work hard by a combination of positive and negative reinforcement: praise, pay raises and the possibility of promotion for those who succeed, the threat of dismissal for those who fail.

The ruling theory of raising children used to be "spare the rod, spoil the child." Now it seems to be reducing suffering as much as we can. Can we make that a successful approach to education?


David said...

For a first response, I would say that, over the long term, fear works well for some and not others. And for many, it works, but only semi-well--i. e., sometimes and not at other times. Fear can also fail as a motive in different ways. Schoolhouse fear seems to have failed completely to motivate Siskind and others of his sort--they seem largely impervious to it. And I have students who are very bright and write well, but have been so paralyzed by fear that they simply can't get anything done.

To me, it also seems that the power to impose fear is a grave responsibility.

Shadow said...

Parents are teachers too. Shouldn't they be part of this discussion? Teachers don't get brand new kids out of the box. The kids are already programmed to respond to criticism in whatever way works in the family unit. I'm always amazed at how differently kids respond to criticism. One corrects his faults and improves, another shatters into pieces.

pootrsox said...

Shadow is absolutely dead on target here!

I taught for decades at an upper-middle-class suburban high school in a New Haven suburb, one of the top 5 or 10 schools in all of CT based on the assorted ranking systems.

We had many Asian-American students, and a goodly number of them were almost paralysed by fear of failing: their families, their family's honor, the image they'd been forced to create of themselves. These fears are inculcated and reinforced at home.

One girl, K, the third of her family to have graced my advanced sophomore English class, dissolved into tears and admitted to what sounded to me like clinical depression. I did send her to her guidance counselor with a note suggesting making use of the school psychologist. But I also had already talked to her about *why* she felt as she did. Pressure at home not to be a "failure." She had to pursue violin and piano. She had to demand to be placed in honors sections and get all As there (as her sisters had done). She could not become involved in school activities such as sports or drama, because she had to do all the things her parents thought appropriate. What *she* wanted to do was play the trumpet and run track.

I was fortunate to have a good relationship with the parents (having taught their other daughters, one of whom was my own daughter's friend). So I made an excuse to keep K after school and then offered to drive her home, knowing I'd be invited in. I explained to her parents the conflict K was feeling, and encouraged them to find a way to allow both their goals for her and her goals for herself. Astonishingly, it worked! I think she was the happiest of their three in the long run (as of the last time I saw any of them, perhaps 15 years ago).

I should also add that as a third generation American Jewish child, I faced some of those same pressures, though there was some mitigation from my parents' experiences in the Depression.

One of the fears that these parental pressures and expectations generate, based on my experience, was the fear of being no longer lovable if one fails to meet the expectations, however unreasonable.

ArEn said...

Re: Fear of the negative. I am reminded of my firstborn who, when told “do well on this test and you’ll get an ‘A’” responded in all serious,” why would I want an A?”

I have no idea what might have motivated my sons to do well in school. None of the seemed to fear failure in a way that motivated them to work hard and do well. I’m at least one or two of them, however, fear of failure may have resulted in paralysis masked by indifference.