As always, an excellent and thought-provoking essay from you, Tim. I have long been concerned with the words educators throw around willy nilly to describe students, rarely with mean intentions. We educators do not receive high-quality information for how to talk to and about students in our child development courses in college. We learn vague psychological theories that sound good on paper but do not provide us with concrete, consistent, and reliable strategies to use in a wide variety of classroom circumstances.
The more observation and research I do, the more I believe commenting on the perceptions, thoughts, emotions, behaviors, or appearance of children is quite upsetting and disorienting for them. Being commented upon is upsetting for all of us at any age.
When we hear the behaviors of others commented upon, it is equally upsetting and anxiety provoking. It means the people doing the commenting are going to be looking for ways in which we don’t measure up and then making that information public knowledge behind our back. I believe our brains cannot stand this.
We take our brains for granted and never stop to think what the organ the brain actually has to do all day long. Possibly no other entity in the world has the work ethic of a brain, regardless of the organism.
The human brain must handle every piece of internal and external information it receives. Each brain has to organize incoming information and form conclusions about it by associating stored learning to the new information. Each brain then must consider the array of possible decisions and the ramifications of those decisions. Finally, each brain must make a guess about what to do next. Neuroscientist Jeff Hawkins calls these guesses probabilistic predictions.
Human beings make one probabilistic prediction after another for what to do next in response to the information they encounter. Predicting what to do next is the only active role we play in our own existence.
The psychological notion that we have a character that determines how well or poorly we make probabilistic determinations is perhaps one reason we educators make some of the comments we do. We have been taught to believe the human personality is a stable sort of manifestation with a temperament, character, personality traits and moods giving it the flavor it has in each person. We are also taught these conceptual constructs actually cause the personality to be the way it is.
Well, these terms were made up during the early days of psychology. These terms were not derived through hypothesis, then observation, then testing like all other scientific facts and theories are. All our current psychological theories are based upon untested assumptions. Psychological theorists make no secret of this.
Yet, they use their untested assumptions as if they are scientific facts. As a result, we educators are stuck applying psychological theories that do not provide us with optimal or reliable strategies to use in the classroom.
What if we don’t have such a thing as a character and it is a made up word that has more to do with the cultural leanings during the time it was coined? Psychology started when there was no separation between one’s religion and one’s everyday life. Psychology gave secular terms to what used to be religious terms. Early psychologists took the idea of a sinner and turned him into a person with a ‘flawed character.’
I say it's time to question a whole lot terms and definitions about the human brain and body we inherited from the early to mid 1900's.
Brain research tells us every physiological capacity within us contributes to the goal of us being able to sense, assess, conclude, and then make a guess, (probabilistic prediction), for what to do next. Jeff Hawkins points out that our brain is in a dark, quiet box, the box referring to our skull.
The brain doesn’t sense anything directly, including pain. It handles the information the sense organs deliver in the form of patterns. It reads patterns and compares patterns constantly. It neither knows or cares whether it is handling internal information from our pain sensors or external information from a moving car. It simply processes patterns. And it processes all patterns in the same way, no matter where the information comes from or what sense organ the information comes from.
The word punk is a noun as is the word character. This reflects our inherited belief that people have a stable sort of entity called a character that guides their decision making. But the brain doesn’t ever morph into a character. The brain just keeps chugging away constantly to keep up with the incessant streams of incoming internal information from each organ in the body as well as external information coming from each sense organ.
The principal and the ‘punk kid’ don’t have characters in their brains making their decisions, their brains are the actual entity doing their decision making.
The kid who scores poorly on reading comprehension tests because he has trouble organizing and assessing the information he reads is usually the kid being called a punk behind his back by educators, regardless of his background. The kid who scores poorly on social studies tests because he has trouble recalling facts and how they fit into a context is probably the kid being called a punk, regardless of the quality of his home life.
Kids who don’t do a great job of organizing information relevant to the context at hand during tests often don’t do an optimal job of it in real life situations either. These kids often make predictions for what to do next a whole lot differently than their educators do. Instead of understanding that these kids need extra help in handling and organizing multiple streams of information in any given context, we declare their characters to be flawed or under-developed. And we address them at the level of their behaviors.
If we understand that each student is a decision-making process in a moment, we can be more understanding and accepting of them as people. We don’t have to see their decisions as a reflection of their character, but as a reflection of their facility with organizing and managing information.
If we assume each student is of equal worth and value, we would have to stop entertaining the idea there is such a thing as a character. The existence of a character somewhere in us means we can compare the relative value of each person. If we assume each child is equal in their worth and value, we can throw our focus into helping each child master information management to the best of their ability instead of focusing on developing their characters, as we have been taught to do.
I believe this subtle shift in how we understand the human personality, as a reflection of one’s decision-making capacities rather than the quality or lack of quality of one’s character, will help us interact with our students in much healthier and less damaging ways.