For the past two years, my work has largely involved setting up and operating 50 small schools, each one composed of one teacher with around 6-8 students. Two years is enough time to see the commonalities across them, really look at the issues that ripple across them all. One thing that has become hard to ignore is that for many students, a good deal of mental horsepower lies dormant.
There’s a lot of nuance and complexity surrounding the underlying causes, but mostly it seems to stem from the embedded assumption that a teacher's work is to add knowledge to a student's mind. Amusingly what I’ve learned from the successful SchoolHouse schools is that a great teacher isn’t necessarily better at imparting information—they’re typically great at helping students remove the inhibitory and limiting friction points that restrict their motivation and confidence.
Remove Things From the Students Mind
Routine mental blocks, lapses in concentration, anxiety—which seems to be fueled by self-doubt mixed with self-condemnation—and a dozen other tiny inhibitory functions are embedded in base-level human psychology. What would happen if you remove these routine mental blocks? Have you ever really tried? Do you even know where to start?
It’s the true magic of a great teacher. However, its occurrence appears to be rare.
For teachers, in my experience, very little is spoken about these student “inhibitory functions” and I can’t recall being taught as a teacher myself about how to resolve these issues should they arise. It seems that these removal skills are passed from teacher to teacher as the need arises, little tricks and tips born from experience.
As a teacher, the annoyingly hard part about this work —the removal of friction points—is that they need to be triggered to be noticed and in most classrooms, the typical trigger is a student mistake or error of some kind. So it’s kind of seen as crisis management when in reality it’s closer to mental healthcare.
For students, default human psychology seems programmed to avoid mistakes, and often you are unaware of your default reaction to stumbling into one. This is compounded by the fact that most people are never really taught how to learn, and specifically by that I mean — never taught how to develop a toolbox for working through a mistake.
So worst case you have on one side a teacher who isn’t trained to recognize or handle the inhibitory functions that pop up during a mistake, and students who instinctively avoid making them. What happens if you reverse every part of this?
Default Reaction Mechanisms
These “default reaction mechanisms” are key. We each react to and process our own mistakes in different ways. These default reaction mechanisms color your subjective experience of the mistake— and this can drastically impact your ability to learn from what went wrong. For early elementary students in particular, a single mistake interpreted the wrong way can cause them to completely give up. Adults too.
Objectively, teachers can see that mistakes are simply the moments when conceptual gaps are revealed. Quite simply, reality is not as you thought or you just overlooked something. There is no need for an emotional reaction or personal sense of failure. Subjectively, however, mistakes can feel horrible. Bad mistakes can fester in the memory for decades.
That leaves us with two aspects if we want to improve how we process mistakes. The first (which this post discusses) is attending to the subjective emotional experience. In future posts (should I not lose interest) I’ll focus on play around with the cognitive toolset that I’ve seen presented to students to resolve mistakes and solve problems.
Start with Watching
I have a practice of simply watching how I react to mistakes. The good news for me is they happen a lot so I get a lot of at-bats. When I realize a mistake has occured, I’ve trained myself to step back and watch without judgment, detached, what’s happening in my mind. Just sitting like Jane Goodall and simply observing my monkey mind as the mistake unfolds. What is the series of events—the “mechanism”—that happens in your head? Really get to know it.
Once you get to know it in yourself, you’ll be able to spot it happening in others, and in your students.
It’s helpful to find a way to consistently trigger this mechanism. I would recommend learning something with routine failure built in, like learning to code or doing some combat sports like Jiu-Jitsu or Judo. You could start right now with some CodeCademy lessons or by finding your local dojo. Go make some mistakes.
Let’s say you step onto the Judo mat. You’re working with a training partner, and they just continuously sweep your front foot. You fall forwards, you fall backward—you can barely stand for more than 5 seconds before you’re on the mat again.
Your feet are obviously doing something wrong, but first: where’s your head at? Are you angry? Frustrated? Sad? Hopeless? What does that feel like? Is your body heated up? Are you angry? Clenching your teeth? Maybe frowning? Or maybe you are calm and approach the situation with a clear head.
After a while, you’ll be able to see the cause and effect of what’s happening between the mistake and the mental state you’re in. Then ask yourself: why? Why do you say these words you say to yourself? Why do you interpret the mistake that way? This process of really watching your mind is some serious internal listening skills and they won’t come naturally, but treat it as a practice in itself, and in 6 months you’ll start catching your mind before it runs away with itself.
The reason this pause and reflection matters is that your mental state orients you towards the problem and guides your response to it. If you’re angry, you’re going to display certain characteristics and those will have an effect that you might not intend, you might start trying to push on your partner with your full strength and injure one or both of you. You might start mentally beating yourself up, resigning yourself to learned helplessness. Neither approach typically accomplish as much as simply and calmly asking your partner “What am I doing wrong?”
Let’s dig into the negative self-talk “default reaction mechanism”. Look at how it works and how a teacher can work with a student to undo it. It’s a good one to look at since it typically leads to quitting and the cessation of learning entirely—and we’d rather avoid that. I also happen to know it well.
A Mechanistic Understanding of Quitting
Quitting is an end result of an emotional glitch in your default reaction mechanism. I suffered from this for many years and have watched many students, and founders, careen into it. The underlying structure of this mechanism involves misconstruing your mistake as evidence of personal failure. Each mistake becomes another piece of information proving you’re “not good enough”.
When this emotional glitch fires and the student internalizes the mistake as personal inadequacy, they’ve also now compounded their problems: not only do they not understand the subject matter, they’ve layered on a self-confidence issue. They are two steps away from the solution now.
There’s another issue here. Once you’ve taken the step towards self-criticism and internalized the event as evidence of your own inadequacy, you have gained something you didn’t have before.
Certainty is comforting and it easily possesses the mind. A lot more people than you realize would rather feel certain that they are inadequate—just so they can avoid the massive uncertainty of an open problem.
So now you are now two steps away from your goal and possessed by learning’s greatest enemy, certainty. It’s the quintessential example of fighting from your back. It’s also the situation that most students find themselves in right before they quit. I’ve noticed this glitch is especially acute with online students who are more isolated and don’t have a teacher handy to guide them through a procedure like the one below.
Escaping from the Grasps of Certainty
Whether you are attempting to self-regulate the emotional glitch or you are a teacher working with a student, the first step is to get everything outside of your head. Write down what you're thinking. Thoughts inside the head spin like clothes in a washing machine, so pin them down with a pen—and now you have words on a page to work with. If you are a teacher, simply let the student talk and you write down the key pieces of what they say so that you can both see it. List format helps.
When the concerns are outside of the mind, do an emotional check-in with yourself (or on the student). Now that the words are on paper, is there an internal shift towards calmness? If not, keep writing until you feel like it’s all out and you are closer to calmness…a better orientation than stress, anxiety, or other negative feelings.
Now we need to address the certainty. Certainty locks in a point of view; having certainty is like learning how to drive with the parking brakes on. It seems common to diffuse the intensity of the situation by normalizing it and then by introducing some absurdity as well. As a teacher, you can normalize the mistake by saying something like “everyone gets stuck here”. Often this is enough to just topple the whole negative mental state. If you are self-regulating, ask yourself honestly: are you the first person to ever make this mistake? Probably not. C’mon dude…you ain’t special.
Next, you can weaken the certainty by taking any concerns about the mistake to an extremely absurd and horrible end. As a teacher it might sound something like this:
“Oh this is very bad, very bad indeed…if you can’t read that sentence that means you’ll never finish the book, and then you’ll never learn to make circuits and never build your super mechanized suit to stop the nuclear bomb from hitting New York! You must save us all by reading that sentence!”
If you get the facial expressions right, young kids will usually laugh when you do a future projection like this with them. And more amusingly, these exact words would likely work even better on adults.
Defang the List
While absurdity loosens our certainty and opens some space to escape from the emotional turmoil of a mistake, we still need to deal with this fancy list of thoughts that we’ve compiled. Here again, you want to create space; an easy way to do that is to simply create counterexamples to each list item. Ask yourself: when has this particular concern not been true for you?
Leveraging another person is incredibly helpful here. When asked, I find old friends are typically comfortable telling you when you’re bullshitting yourself. Say to them, “here’s the list of things I’m dealing with…what’s bullshit?”
If you’re the teacher, go through each thing on the list and ask questions that put the student into an obvious disagreement with the possibility of a listed concern. An extreme example would be “so are you saying that you’ve never been able to learn anything and never will?” This question might prompt the learner to say “well no, I can learn things.” The words here aren’t the point, what’s important is that this positioning gets the student to fight for themselves and enables the learner to put some distance between themselves and their own thoughts and maybe even into an analytical mental state.
A key thing here, however, is to recognize that some of the concerns or reasons behind the mistake WILL be legitimate. The legitimate reasons and concerns should be in this list, and we need to decide if we want to focus on them right now. Often a list item can be true, but not directly related to our mistake. Either way, reframe it from being a “problem” to “look—we found the thing we need to work on…how great is that!”
As a teacher, these sessions typically end with saying something like “do you think that maybe with a bit of practice, you could do this?”
Transition to Focus on the Problem
At this point, you would begin to transition the student to actually solving the mistake (come back to my next post for more on that). But we need to recognize something here: this emotional debugging is a lot of work. It’s a lot of backtracking along difficult trails through our psyche. Hopefully, you can now also see why the best teachers aren’t necessarily better at adding information, but they usually have a decent amount of skill in removing these blockers.
For you as a learner, it’s deeply valuable to learn the inner workings of how you process mistakes, so you can recognize these processes as they get triggered, and stop them from firing if possible. The time-saving benefits and the reduced emotional toll is hopefully obvious.
Meditation and journaling are valuable tools here as they enable a simple practice of watching yourself and how your reaction mechanisms fire. It can be very powerful if you can utilize these tools to learn how to keep glitches from firing. However, to date I’ve never seen anything match the speed of results provided by a well-trained therapist; it’s like applying Blooms 2 Sigma to your mental health.
Begin Problem Solving
Now that we can see how to put ourselves (or our students) into a positive mental state, in my next post I’ll dig into simple proactive problem-solving tools that we can reuse over and over to solve problems, recover from our mistakes, and increase the pace of our learning.
For teachers (and parents) I’ve found getting good at this emotional debugging process to be invaluable. I use it multiple times per month and I’ll do a quick step-by-step breakdown below.
Step by Step:
Write it down / list out the issues then wait for calm
Normalize - recognize that this is common
Take to an extreme horrible end and recognize the absurdity
Defang the list of issues
Reframe the student to focus on solutions
Credit: @ujungjang for drawings