Childhood Suffering: Is Much of it Caused By What We Think We Know About the Human Personality?
We educators are passionate about solving problems that cause childhood suffering such as unmanageable amounts of anxiety, depression, violence, abuse of power, inequality and mental destabilization. Due to the seemingly impenetrable mysteries of the human brain it seems there are no consistently reliable solutions to these problems in sight.
What if we could ease childhood suffering of all kinds and bring up children who would be less anxious, less paranoid, less depressed, less violent as adults? What if the answers to the problems of childhood and adult suffering have been right under our noses all along, but we have never noticed, not because of what we don’t know about the human brain and the human personality, but because of what we think we know?
Robert Sapolsky, Stanford professor and one of the world’s leading neuroscientists says, “Often the biggest impediments to scientific progress is what we know, not what we don’t know.”
What if psychological theorists have been wrong about how to interpret the ways in which our genes, hormones, senses, movements, responses, perceptions, emotions, thoughts, behaviors integrate and coordinate?
What if misdirection caused by the application of inaccurate psychological theories has been causing us to employ interaction patterns that mentally destabilize our children in ways that prevent them from ever being able optimize their cognitive capabilities? What if inaccurate psychological theories have played a hand in negatively impacting all of us over the past century in ways that have caused most of us unnecessary forms of anxiety, mental destabilization, and confusion for how our emotions, thoughts and behaviors integrate?
What if uncovering potential inaccuracies and reframing what we ALREADY KNOW about the human brain and personality will allow us to minimize childhood suffering and maximize all human achievement both individually and collectively?
Due to the idiosyncrasies of my various teaching positions through the years, I have had over 3 decades of extraordinary opportunities to observe many different special education teachers, general education teachers, paraeducators, occupational, speech and physical therapists, principals and school staff members in their interactions with students in real time engaging in real activities. I have been able to observe many children over a period of many years while they interacted with their various adult authorities while they moved from grade level to grade level and school to school.
What is the pattern for how educational professionals interact with students compared to one another? Incredibly, there is no pattern.
Educational professionals interact in confusingly different and often contradictory ways from one another. From what I have observed these differences force our children to figure out how each educational authority thinks in order to think and behave in the ways that will not invite a harsh or shaming reaction from an adult.
Respect and responsibility might be the declared values of many schools. But each and every single adult educator has a completely unique manner of interpreting and applying these values in real time.
There is no way for our children to get their bearings in school unless they can glean the sometimes gaping and sometimes nuanced thinking differences from educator to educator. Our children are not taught how to analyze situations in school and make predictions that make sense to them. They are taught how to analyze situations in ways that make sense to the adult authority they are with in any given moment. Many of our children are quite good at this and as uncomfortable and stressful as it is, they figure out how to think enough like each teacher and staff member to know how to modify their behaviors according to the whims of the adult they are with.
Many of our children, however, cannot manage to figure out how each and every one of their teachers thinks and responds and they cannot figure out how to stay on their good sides. These students become anxious, paranoid and uncomfortable in school because they have no idea how to get their bearings.
The gaping differences in how different educators respond to and interact with students makes perfect sense in light of the psychology courses we educators take in our colleges and universities. There are no scientifically verified or mutually and uniformly agreed upon theories of the human personality or human behavior.
We educators are taught as many psychological theories as there have been theorists since the inception of psychology in the late 1800’s. We learn scores of psychological theories for no apparent reason. We are left to cut and paste and pick and choose what we like and leave what we don’t like. We graduate with no guiding theories to help us all stay on the same page with one another for how to optimally interact with our students.
Two approaches seem to emerge from this puzzling situation. First of all, behaviorism rises to the top of the heap because it is the only psychological theory with concrete ideas that can actually be applied. Behaviorism also allows for accountability because it allows one to generate and collect data. Second of all, teachers make up their own guiding theories. They have no other choice.
B.F. Skinner’s psychological theory from which behaviorism arose is inhumane and barbaric. That we educators are employing strategies that arose from his work is disturbing. Behaviorism, whether or not it involves positive rewards or negative consequences, relies upon destabilizing a student in the short run to manipulate him into behaving compliantly in the long run. Corporal punishment relies upon the same dynamic.
Jeff Hawkins, neuroscientist, and author of On Intelligence, has proposed a new theory of intelligence that I believe has the power to help us reframe how we interact with our students. He defines intelligence as “memory-derived predictions.”
Essentially, a child’s senses, perceptions, thoughts, emotions and behaviors are all involved in assisting and supporting that child in collecting all the internal and external information present at all times, formulating predictions for what he thinks is happening now and for what he thinks is about to happen, and then predicting what to do next. When his predictions are violated, his brain cues for an anxiety response to ensure he will pay attention to the discrepancy.
If memory-derived predictions for what to do next is the principle dynamic of our brain mechanics, then it follows that senses, perceptions, thoughts, emotions and behaviors must engage as an integrated and coordinated team. These biological capacities only have value in how they interrelate to one another. None of these biological capacities should be segregated out and treated in isolation. Treating a child in terms of his behaviors is like treating vision in terms of how the eyelashes are moving.
We have all been taught a random and often contradictory assortment of psychological concepts that make guesses about the mechanics of how our human brain operates, but according to Hawkins’ actual research, the only aspect of our brain mechanics we play an active role in is in the predictions we make for what just happened, the predictions we make for what we think is about to happen, and the subsequent predictions we make for what to do next.
I hypothesize that we move from behavior management strategies to prediction management strategies. To do this we will have to discard our demands that students behave in expected ways. Student behaviors will always be in alignment with their predictions, not our expectations. We can expect reasonable behavior at all times, but we can only reasonably teach our children if we help them manage information in the ways that make sense to them and in the ways that help them make optimal predictions for what to do next.
To comply with a teacher’s behavioral expectations, students must know exactly how that teacher is interpreting information and making predictions in any given moment, and students simply cannot be inside the brain of their teacher to know his or her specific thoughts and predictions. Students can only think from their own personal brains and predict in the ways in which they are able to understand and manage information.
If we think about our lesson plans in terms of how each step of the lesson will prompt our students for how to predict what comes next, our students will much more likely attend to the lesson. When students go off task or engage in disruptive behaviors, that is exactly the point at which they are having trouble predicting what to do next. We can get to work helping them manage the relevant information instead of becoming irritated with them and reprimanding or shaming them for their behaviors.
The occupational therapists in our schools are leading the way for how to help children manage themselves optimally in space and time in the ways that are a good fit for how each child is able to sense, think, and move. Their amazing research and strategies could take hold much more easily if we teachers were equipped with solid theories of the human personality and human behavior to guide us in the many predictions we must make throughout our school days for how to optimally interact with our students.