Tip of the Iceberg

First published in Dutch on the 3rd of Febuary 2014

“I have a problem right before a test. At first, I can manage fine, but a week before, I drive myself mad with stress.”

Right and Wrong
This student is right about one thing. She indeed drives herself mad. Readers of my essays know by now that a test does not cause anything, but that our interpretation of that test can set many things in motion. At some point, this student has all sorts of negative thoughts about the test. The tension in her body increases and she undertakes all kinds of activities that, in any case, will not soothe her and will probably fuel her stress even more. In this way, she is driving herself mad.

She is wrong, however, when she thinks that her problem starts at that very moment. The intensity of her experience reaches a certain threshold after which she becomes conscious of her experience of the test. Thus, she notices something that already existed before that moment but that was not experienced consciously. The problem did not suddenly flash into her consciousness out of nothing. In the period of time before that, several things occurred that have led to the feeling of misery. I see these things as part of the problem.

No Starting Point
We generally experience a starting and ending point in the (learning) path towards an achievement, but in reality, our achievements and failures are the peaks and valleys in a continuous stream of behaviour. The point that we view as the beginning is not a starting point that was not preceded by anything relevant. We do not begin neutrally, at zero. We have formulated all sorts of convictions that are already active at this “beginning” and have behaved in several ways of which this beginning is the result.

It is understandable that we experience such paths as separate and rounded. Our functioning would be difficult if we did experience a continuous stream of change as Heraclitus said in the famous remark, “no human can step twice in the same river”. We would go mad without a feeling of security, roundedness, and repetition.

With regard to learning problems, I am sometimes inclined to resist this idea and instead tend to go along with Heraclitus’ vision. In a continuous stream, the visible problems are not the starting point of the problems, but part of a larger whole. It is comparable to the tip of an iceberg that is visible above the water. The tip is the exterior appearance of a mechanism that is an integral part of the problem. Without context and history, this mechanism remains beneath the surface, hidden from our view.

Circumstances and Exceptions
The students that come to me are focused on the course for which they received a failing grade again, the thesis that they cannot seem to finish, or the presentation that they have been dreading. I am focused on the context that has led to this trouble. I have attention for circumstances and exceptions on the one hand and patterns on the other. Circumstances and exceptions largely consist of factors that are beyond our control. They are, from a pedagogical and psychological point of view, not very interesting, but often get a lot of attention. Someone who comes late to class because of a traffic jam due to a tipped over lorry filled with cans of brown beans, does not have to draw any necessary conclusions. The chance that this will happen again is naught which means that he does not have to change anything in his practice the next day or any days that follow. Many students are still often inclined to pay an extraordinary lot of attention to such cases that are “in accordance with policy” completely unimportant. At most, certain strategic and tactical choices have to be made in order to compensate for the missed class.

If a problem recurs, it could become a pattern. These are much more important. A pattern is defined as a finite, ordered series of elements that can be subsumed as a condition or conclusion under a production rule. I translate this as a finite series of behaviour-effect links that consistently lead to the same conclusion. The whole series that can be subsumed in the “production rule”, I consider to be the larger problem of which the undesired result is the conclusion. This interpretation has important benefits.

A student whose bike chain is loose which causes him to be late for class, is unlucky, initially. If this happens consistently, he might want to solve the “core” of the problem by having his bicycle repaired. This is understandable, but what if he does not have any money to have this done. The student could conclude that he is powerless and subject to the dismay of an unreliable bicycle. This is wrong. Let’s analyze the behaviour that came before “the problem”. For instance, this student gets up so late every morning that he must make haste. The student jumps on his bicycle and cycles, due to his haste, as hard as he can, causing the chain to jump off. The time he needs to put the chain back on causes him to be late. There seems to be a pattern, the conclusion of which is: be late for class. This allows for several possibilities.

Several solutions
The student who considers his bike to be the overall problem, only sees the solutions that have to do with the bicycle itself. A sound analysis reveals that a whole range of other solutions are also possible. For example, the student always gets up too late because he does not set an alarm. His morning ritual consists of showering, breakfasting, drinking coffee, prepare lunch, etc. We can establish that he does not catch up on his haste because he jumps on his bicycle with that same rush. All sorts of solutions jump up. The student could set an alarm, shower shorter, prepare his lunch the night before, skip the coffee, etc. allowing him to leave the house sooner so that he does not have to wear his poor bicycle down. It is shortsighted to view the problem merely as a “bicycle problem”.

Learning problem
This example might seem too specific to be generalized to other (learning) problems, but this is not the case. When our student from the beginning of this essay consistently drives herself mad one week before the test, we also have a pattern. This pattern would have started weeks earlier. For example, the student is consistently sloppily prepared before class. She does not always go to class and when she does, she is unprepared (what would I need to prepare?) and does not take notes (it’s all there in the PowerPoints!). She does review the material after class but skips the parts that she does not understand. She intends to ask questions about it during the next class, but she does not get around to it because new topics are dealt with. This way, she starts to lag increasingly.

Obviously, she goes through this behaviour-effect series without a feeling of displeasure. It only starts a week before the test, but the stress she experiences is a logical conclusion from a long series of behaviour. She has been terribly unprepared up to that point and there is a real chance that she will fail the test. I often say to students: “the stress is not the problem, but a logical effect of the problem”. We must therefore focus on the period before the stress.

Patience, accuracy and nuance
Students regularly resist these types of explanations. I think this is the case because a nuanced analysis often shows that there are no ready-made solutions that solve everything. We want things to be cleared up easily; a simple action that offers a 100% solution. The more detailed we examine the situation, the more do we seem to get away from this possibility (“I just want a new bicycle!”). But the simple 100% solution is often an illusion. Such solutions are often very weak because something that can simply go well can, under slightly different circumstances, go horribly wrong. Robust solutions need accurate steps on several terrains.

In this way, however, we seem to be digressing from the problem itself (“I have a problem with my bicycle and this joker comes along and tells me that I have to get up earlier and not drink coffee anymore!“). It goes against our sense of linearity and simple problem-solution connections. The Chinese proverb, “when in a rush, take a detour”, seems very applicable to me in this case. For a decent learning process, haste and blinders are not advisable; even less so with regard to learning problems. It is a matter of patience, accuracy and nuance. The learning problems that we notice are the results of the real problems that precede them. they are the tips of the iceberg that is made largely out of convictions, choices and practices. The more we are willing to acknowledge this fact, the more real solutions offer themselves to us.

More than the sum of its parts

First Published in Dutch on the 11the of november 2013

A scouting expedition
Imagine that you are taking part in a scouting expedition. A parkour has been mapped out through the forest in which hundreds of pieces of clothing are spread out. The goal is to collect as many different items as possible. A participant carries a large backpack and runs across the paths as much as possible. Every piece of clothing he finds is thrown in the backpack. At the end of the parkour, he arrives at the game leader. The leader wants to evaluate how well he has played the game. The enthusiastic player wants to empty his backpack on the ground, but the game leader stops him; if everyone would do this, it would become a mess. The game leader wants to conduct a representative survey by asking oriented questions. His first question: “Do you have a red sock for me?”. The participant looks in his backpack in search for the sock. After a few minutes, the game leader stops him and puts a firm line across his check list; there is a time limit for each question, because he has several more questions to ask and there are more participants waiting. The next question: “Do you have a green scarf for me?”, and the cycle repeats itself. This goes on for a bit. Sometimes, the participant is able to find said article, but he fails just as often. In the end, he has failed the expedition.

What would you use instead of a backpack if you knew this had happened to your predecessor? Forget speed! The goal is to show as many right items as possible and not to collect them as fast as possible. A wise choice would be to bring a wardrobe on wheels. When you come across a sock, you put it in the sock drawer. Scarfs are huddled together with the gloves and hats, underpants with the t-shirts, coats go on the rack, etc. When you subsequently come to the game leader and he asks for a specific item, you know where to find it. There are two possible outcomes: you either find the article or you don’t, but in this case, you know that you do not have it. You can implore the game leader to skip to the next question. In the end, you perform much better than you predecessor.

I tell this story as an analogy for studying. Many students apply a working method that is comparable to carrying the backpack. They collect the PowerPoints, read the texts, do the assignments and buy all the summaries. They throw, without making a distinction, all information into an imaginary backpack until it bulges out. Subsequently, they cannot see the wood for the trees. They have a lot of information, but only little knowledge.
This leads to obvious problems during the exam. They cannot find the needed information anymore: “I have read this somewhere, but I cannot remember it precisely anymore.” Or they dump all sorts of things on their answer sheet in the hope the answer is in there somewhere: “I am told that I know a lot of things, but do not give answer to the question.”

Inertia and digressive movements
Most students are, after my story, willing to put more effort into categorizing information. They are, however, soon confronted with something unpleasant: they experience inert progress with digressive movements that unsettles them. “Plodding along with a wardrobe” feels very cumbersome. It is a slow process and it costs a lot of energy to consider every item and then to sort it accordingly. “Running with the backpack”, on the other hand, feels very goal-oriented and fast. Students who experience this distinction in this way find it very difficult to keep up the wiser, but also slower working method. They often relapse.

Not the whole story
This difference in experience (slow and cumbersome versus fast and goal-oriented) is not the whole story of this relapsing. As is often the case, here, too, a misconception about learning creeps through the corridors of our minds. On this point, the scouting expedition is inadequate on an important level as analogy for studying for an exam. It seems as though the success of the person with the wardrobe is solely due to his organizational skills. He collects the same materials as the user of the backpack but organizes them more shrewdly. Users of the backpack may be tempted to justify their working method by saying: “Okay, it might not be as smart, but I collect the same items in my own way. I even collect many more, because I am faster. I only have to make sure to find them.” This interpretation is understandable, but wrong.

To arrive at this conclusion, people rely on the meaning of “organize” as ordering and sorting. This is a possible meaning of the word, but, according to me, not the right one to refer to learning. Organizing can also mean to establish or create. Think, for instance, of organizing a party, event or concert. These happenings do not exist as a collection of part-happenings that have to be organized together. They come into existence through the organization. I am of opinion that this meaning of “organizing” is more suitable to refer to knowledge acquisition.

From the perspective of the first meaning of organizing, students can be tempted to view “I have read this somewhere” as almost knowing it, because they have recognized a fragment of information. This does not mean much. It is comparable to almost winning the lottery if your ticket deviates one number from the winning combination. It is regrettable, but you have lost completely. In the same way, students might think that a list of all kinds of facts, which might have the right answer in there somewhere, is quite the achievement. But this is the same as shooting a widespread shotgun at a target. Indeed, that one round that hits the target did come from your gun, but in the haze of a hundred rounds that were shot, that, too, is insignificant. It shows very little skill.

The fragments themselves are irrelevant; their organization creates knowledge. I say this often to students: “attending classes, taking and working out notes, asking questions, reading literature and summarizing texts, are no preparations for learning, they ARE the learning.” One could possibly set these activities up in a more efficient way but skipping them has large risks. Buying a summary instead of making one oneself, might seem smart, but it impedes the learning process at the root.

Broadening the analogy
The story of the scouting expedition needs to be broadened. Participants should consider the building of the wardrobe as part of the game. The participant is not collecting predetermined items (pieces of clothing) with the help of an organizing system (wardrobe) as a mere tool. Without the wardrobe, the pieces of clothing are not only unorganized, they are meaningless! They are only random fabrics.
You can give deeper layers of meaning to the expedition. Sometimes, one is tested on general knowledge (do you have a red sock?), but especially in university education, the questions are often comprehensive (what type of pants do you wear at the pool?), or questions of application (how do you knot a tie?), insight (what goes well with a bright blue shirt?), and also creative vision (assemble a sporty and daring outfit for a night out on a sultry summer evening). The simplistic ordering of fabrics is hopelessly inadequate when one must achieve such ends.

Mind maps, overviews and inquiry-response models
For students, overviews, mind maps and inquiry-response models are examples of “wardrobes”. These techniques bring parts of information together meaningfully. That is what it is about. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Knowledge and understanding is created in the whole. It is certainly not easy to create a qualitatively high-standing overview or mind map. It takes time and energy, but again: making a mind map or overview is no preparation to the learning, but part of learning itself. When the overview is done, you have learned.
In the case of inquiry-response models, the same is true. My hero Socrates already claimed millennia ago that a good question is more important than the right answer. The question determines the context and creates the connections that render the answer meaningful. Even the right answer does not have meaning in itself.

True Scientists

First published in Dutch om the 18th of September 2013

Convictions as inferior
Yes, but that is what you think. That’s just your opinion”. This response came from an audience of parents and teachers after I had unexpectedly made statements about their own learning problems rather than about those of their children and students. The rest of the audience nervously awaited how I would deflect this assault. The only thing I said was, “yes, indeed”. This was no surrender due to some sort of exposure. My concern was precisely this. We think that by labelling statements as individual convictions, we are getting in some good shots. The statements cannot have any overarching value, because everyone has their own convictions and you cannot argue about taste. I claim that convictions are actually the most important thing we should argue about.

True scientists
We believe that facts are more important and more powerful than convictions because they have been objectively and empirically determined. In the world of science, this is absolutely true. An empirical method is essential and has given us, as method for the acquisition of knowledge, an awful lot. Education is understandably grounded on the same vantage point. Empirically obtained insights after all cover the lion’s share of the subjects that are being taught. From this perspective, the student is conveniently cast as an empiricist. He or she takes the class experience as a starting point and continues through Kolb’s further stages like a true scientist in order to arrive at knowledge.

No true scientists
I have already admitted elsewhere that I embrace Kolb’s cycle, but it is a misconception to think that we only work with facts in our actions and interactions that are directly derived from faithful observations or from scientific findings of others. We think that we are true empiricists, but this is not the case. Our biased conceptions and feelings play a large role in how we advance through Kolb’s cycle. We simply cannot abstract ourselves from this (for countless substantiations of this, see Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow).

The influence of convictions
If tomorrow’s newspapers state that we were all wrong and that the sun does go around the earth, 99,99% of the world’s population would shrug and think, “as long as it’s there in the morning”. We are effortlessly prepared to swap one “fact” for another. Not because in this way we open ourselves to true knowledge, but because, in everyday life, facts are of less importance than we might think. Things change when our conceptions are being compromised. Discussions about the existence of God are not at all about facts. The proving or disproving of His existence would be as uneventful to our factual perception as when it would turn out that the sun does go around the earth. What makes the discussion so much fiercer is that it touches on the conceptions that we have of our world.

Convictions are everywhere
Not only the biggest conceptions on “God’s level” are relevant. Our interpretations are much more extensive and subtler than we think. They appear in all that we consider many/few, hard/easy, good/bad, comprehensible/incomprehensible, frustration/pliancy, creepy/nice, but also fine/rough, heavy/light, sharp/blunt, hard/soft, warm/cold, complex/simple and so on. These are all conceptions rather than facts.

Hardly exchangeable
We want to make the world comprehensible and meaningful and in order to do so we use our interpretations which fall outside empiricism. To us, facts are basically interchangeable unless they tally with the conceptions that we have of life around us. However, we keep these conceptions close to heart because they determine our grip on reality (see my essay I think therefore I am… faulty).

In other words, we experience no difficulty with accepting new facts, but neither do we have trouble discarding them when they clash with conceptions that we embrace. A lazy student who thinks that it will work out fine with his or her study would not necessarily be impressed by an enumeration of the credits that he or she has failed to attain. As long as the student’s conception remains intact, the facts will not find their entrance and the behaviour will not change. Conceptions can limit us to come to new insights.

Careless driving
This is not only the case for students! I stress this issue to point out that we are all like this. During my lectures, I often ask the audience for their associations with DRIVING A CAR. I am partly given facts such as, “50 kilometers an hour in urban areas”, and “traffic on your right has right of way”. Some refer to actions such as “steering, accelerating, and switching gears”. There are also those who exclaim their conceptions such as “Freedom! Grazing the pavement!” or “an expensive but necessary evil”.

To the people who like to drive dangerously I propose the following. Evidence shows that people with such conceptions have more car accidents than other traffickers. I present all sorts of statistics on the number of incidents, hospitalizations, and casualties a year. I subsequently ask whether they plan on driving more carefully from now on. The answer is always no. Why not? The most prevalent response is, “that does not apply to me”.

You do not influence learning behaviour with facts
the same perseverance is seen in people with negative conceptions. For example, this is the case with students who say they are bad in statistics, that a schedule does not work for them, or that a fail would be hell on earth. The faulty learning behaviour that stems from this is not easily altered with facts, even though this is often what trainings, courses, and coaching are tapping into. Factual knowledge and skills are often centralized; the steps of a schedule, the purpose of a regression analysis, the possibility of doing a resit. Conceptions are often disregarded. The student is treated as an objective scientist even though he or she isn’t.

This essay is not a plea to show how irrational we are. On the contrary, our conceptions are structured in the same way as all knowledge constructs in our head. This process is solidly and evolutionary tested. It is just not as neutral, objective, and empirical as one would wish to believe. We have proven to be exceptionally successful with it. People who like to drive dangerously in their car have passed their driving exam and have spent many pleasant kilometers on the road. Why would they change?

Less successful
Counselling is aimed at people who are less successful. In the counselling of these people we must realize that their less successful conceptions are, on the outset, just as robust as those of successful people, because their conceptions are structured in the same way. Just like their successful fellow men, they think their conceptions are not at stake. Only the method is insufficient or the result unsatisfactory.
For this reason, it is very useful to track down what kinds of conceptions students and clients have about the subject at hand. These strongly influence their learnability. I momentarily counsel a student who is very intelligent, but also works very chaotically. He sporadically delivers brilliant performances that immensely impressed his tutors. He is now working on his thesis, for eighteen months without any sign of progress. Working chaotically apparently has its setbacks.

Not wrong!
The student is convinced that his creativity will come to its own in this way and has a lot of difficulty (fear even) with working systematically and with incorporating self-management strategies. His conceptions draw my attention. These explain his behaviour and resistance. A faulty working method is never the problem; The conceptions that maintain this working method are the problem. I try to expose the conceptions at hand and challenge the student to defy them. Facts can help me along the way, though. After eighteen months he still does not have an accepted research proposal. His working method (aimed at spontaneous epiphanies at any random moment of the day) has factually not brought him very far. I think this is an important connection in which I am careful not to express a value judgment. His conceptions are not wrong! They just do not provide him with the desired result. In this way, I try to incorporate his conceptions in his learning cycle rather than avoiding them as an unspeakable given.

Desired results
So now let’s return to the lecture that gave rise to this essay. The person in the audience who reproached me for having personal conceptions is completely right. They are my conceptions. I put them on the table and am willing to question them, because they are what a discussion ought to be about. I am prepared to alter them if necessary. Without that readiness, a discussion is reduced to a debate in which viewpoints are defended and exceptionally little result is produced.

I am a lot less inclined to shift my ideas if someone says that my conceptions are wrong, but if one is able to show me that I thereby cannot realize my desired results (counselling students to positive effects), my readiness strongly increases. This is the type of scientist we ought to be.


First published in Dutch on the 6th of August 2013

In my counselling, I focus for the largest part on strengthening the self-management of the students. The reason for this is simple. Every improvement that the student desires will have to be a result of a learning procress. I have indicated more often that I consider David Kolb’s cycle of learning an apt model for this process (a cycle of Experience, Reflection, Abstraction, Action). Three of those four steps (reflect, abstract and act) demand an orderliness of thought and behaviour. A weak self-management undermines this. Impulsiveness, chaos and ad hoc actions may be fun, but they are also exceptionally bad in facilitating stable improvements.

Time writing
To improve self-management, the current self-management needs to be exposed. I arrive at this by making the individual write time. In this assignment the person has to note everything he or she does, from early in the morning till late at night, for at least a week. This visualizes which activities are factually undertaken, safeguarded from desires, fears and conceptions. Some students think they do “nothing”, while others feel they do not have any time left. Often, such experiences are wrong. One student may do “nothing” on self-study but is active in many other study-related areas. Another student, who experiences no leeway in his or her day, might have some useable hours after dinner. In other words, time writing is an exercise in creating an overview.

Crossroads 1
Overview can quickly generate benefit. The student sees that the “doing nothing” is not as bad as its seems or he or she sees that there is plenty of time and room that is left unused. It becomes more irksome when I emphasize the intersections. These are moments where unforeseen things intersect with one’s own plans. Typical intersections with students are: an unexpected request (from the employer, fraternity, partner, etc.), the teacher is unattainable, the assignment proves to take longer than expected or turns out to be unclear, the information appears to be incomprehensible, the fellow student is neglectful, one suddenly becomes ill, and so forth.

I call such moments intersections because the surprises force one to make a sudden decision that can lead to different paths. “What will I do now? Which way do I go?” are questions that are asked and need to be answered. This is irksome because in these situations the students often do not experience an intersection. They feel they are at the mercy of the circumstances that determine their behaviour. They seem to experience a sort of highway without exits or turns, without a real choice. “If I do not understand the assignment, I cannot go on, right?”. This student actually has many options. He or she can ask for help from a fellow student, reread his or her notes, work on under an assumption, skip the part, and so forth.

Litmus test
What is interesting in these intersections is that they expose what the student has a propensity for. From the unexpected, so to speak, emerge one’s true colours. I often tell my students that their capacity for self-management is not visible if everything goes smoothly; a nice spring day in May with a soft breeze in one’s back. Their true skills in self-management becomes visible if it rains and hails unexpectantly, if they have to go up the hill with strong gusts of wind and a flat tyre. How someone deals with his or her intersections, thus, is a litmus test for real self-management.

Locus of control
Engaging in intersections is largely dependent on how the individual interprets them. To what does the person ascribe the situation? Ascribing to factors outside oneself is called an external locus of control. Students with this locus ascribe successes of failures to (bad) luck, public transport, the teacher, the internet, etc. This is opposite to an internal locus of control, where the person ascribes the effects to his or her own effort, perseverance, creativity, and something in that same vein. In my counselling conversations, I am very interested in how the student reacts to surprises in his or her life. To what does the student incline in the ascription of causes?

Strong self-management profits from a balanced locus of control where internal and external factors are ascribed in a realistic and manageable way. I focus a large part of my counselling on the improvement of this balance. A well-known saying that I often use is: “Accept what you can’t change, change what you can’t accept, and be smart enough to know the difference”.

The central vantage point with every form of counselling is always that we cannot choose our circumstances, but we can choose how we deal with those circumstances. The “how” is essential and it is precisely on these intersections that we have a choice. You can say “no” to your boss or fraternity. You can ask for help from fellow students. You can go to the room of your teacher in the hope to get hold of him or her, etc.

A depressed student
I have counselled a student who wanted to pick up his study after a long interruption of therapy, but who still suffered from severe dejection. Quite soon in the sessions he came to a session saying that the past week had been disastrous due to depression. I showed my sympathies and asked why he had not followed through on his schedule. His answer: “I just told you. I was very depressed”. My response: “I understand, but why did you not follow through on you schedule?”. His doubtful reaction: “Because I was depressed!”. I persisted: “but why falter on your schedule?” I interrupted the conversation before making him feel that I was ridiculing him and explained why I asked this question: you cannot choose your depression, but you can choose your reaction. It is possible to be depressed and still study. Perhaps you cannot give a 100%, but perhaps 80%, 60% or 40. Even 25% is decidedly more than 0%. In other words, you do have a choice!

Think, do, and feel
These are, in my eyes, crucial counselling moments. Of course, it is easier said than done, but my perspective is undeniably true. There is no physical or material impediment present that makes it all impossible. The student can factually think and do other things in given situations. What makes it all so complicated is that he wants to feel differently as quickly as possible. I view this as a circumstance that we cannot determine. We are as much subjected to feelings of dejection, a shortage of motivation, stress and fear as we are to the unreliable public transport, erratic teachers, and vulnerable computer systems. It is a given, and now we must proceed.

Intersections 2
When a student is dissatisfied with his or her situation, the student needs to be pointed to the turns he or she has taken on different intersections. The student has taken several decisions that have led him or her to come to that place. If the student resists formulating alternative actions (alternative turns on intersections) and says that “this is just how I feel”, then it must be made clear to the student that this is not an argument. This is the case for the remarks: it is a lot, difficult, vague, no fun, and so forth. All these remarks include a component of feeling that the student is unable to control. A justified reaction is, “All right, it is hard, but what are you going to do?”. There are always several turns on an intersection. If one direction does not lead to the desired destination, one simply has to turn back and take another turn, until the unacceptable has changed and the unchangeable accepted.


A Gifted Gait

First published in Dutch on the 26th of May 2013

Hasty conclusions

Students that come to me generally do not consider themselves “high potentials” or “outstanding” students. To the contrary, they often consider themselves dumb and incompetent. Of course, this is an unfair self-chastising judgment with which I contend passionately. My resistance, however, does not stem from the moral viewpoint that everyone is valuable and has its own “talents”. Of course there are differences. Some outstanding students are capable of incredible achievements that others cannot even aim to simulate. I take issue with the hasty conclusions about the (in)competence of individuals based on their achievements. Too quickly, do low achievements lead the study/teacher to publicly doubt whether the student “can cope”, and they lead to forced attempts of the students to prove that they can cope. Everyone focusses too much on this.

A culture of rejection

“Being able to cope”, apparently, is seen as a property that is concrete, static, and calculable. One can observe this conviction in the many “assessments” that students are exposed to. These are not considered to be snapshots in a process of development, but as an assessment of what the child is capable of. It all begins with the final Cito toets (the Dutch National Curriculum assessment in the final grade of primary school; comparable to the English SATs). Despite denials by several parties, this assessment is definitely used as an IQ test. Subsequently, secondary schools too quickly threaten, after continuous bad results, to send the student to a lower level, because they think the student probably cannot handle the current level. Besides, the final exams in secondary schools are given more and more importance. Their status becomes comparable to the Cito toets in determining their possible tertiary education. Having finally arrived at their undergraduate study the student is still not safe. Very early on in the first year, the student is given a binding study recommendation which can result in the proclamation that the student is not good enough and therefore has to leave. It is a culture of rejection that truly saddens me as educational psychologist.

Giftedness is not static

Achievements in themselves are insufficient to proclaim something about somebody’s capabilities because our intellectual capacities are not so easily measured. In my previous essay, “Disabilities and Aiding Devices”, I have explained that knowledge is dynamic and goal-oriented. It is context dependent, mutable and qualitative. I am convinced this means that giftedness is determined by the interplay between our goals, the available knowledge, and the way we use it in the situations we find ourselves. These variables continuously change and are intertwined in such a way that a stable and objective calculation of our giftedness is very difficult indeed. I see students, labelled as highly gifted and who indeed excel in specific situations, but who, without guidance, are unable to make and follow a schedule, communicate very incoherently, and are immobilized by stress on the moments they need to perform. Their “giftedness” varies strongly per situation. This, more or less, is the case for all of us.

What do we measure?

We use the term “intelligence” ubiquitously to describe the difference of giftedness in people, but scientists are very far from agreeing on what the concrete content of that concept is. Regardless of this, students are frequently tested and measured and all sorts of things are being proclaimed about somebody’s capacities. But what is it that they actually measure and is it a measurement of a static property? The IQ test is seen as the most important tool for measuring intelligence. Every ten years the score of every IQ test taken increases by an average of three points (This is called the Flynn effect after James R. Flynn). In short, the same cohort that scored an average of 110 in 2007, now scores 113. In other words, IQ is inflating. This effect is suppressed by altering the test in such a way that the average of society stays at 100. This alteration is already quite remarkable if the idea of the test is to measure a static property. But aside from this, if the tests truly measure the property of giftedness then this means that a hundred years ago, we were 30 points “dumber”, and it becomes mind-blowing to think that Plato could even write his name!

Eye tests

A test score, or any other achievement, is only relevant within the context in which account is being taken of other variables. Take the example of sight that I dealt with in “Disabilities and Aiding Devices”. Everyone over seventy-five years old must retake their driving test in order to retain their driving license. This includes an eye test that carefully measures one’s eyesight. But what does the measurement of this “achievement” say about one’s visual capacities? Does it say something about the capacity to estimate speeds, distances, and sizes? These capacities align much better to the interplay of which the goal of sight is part. Our visual giftedness is, simply, integral to our capacity to go from A to B while avoiding danger. A certain level of clear eyesight is necessary for this, but not all-decisive. In fact, someone who sees less clearly might be better at focusing on speed, distance, and size, making him or her a more “gifted” driver than someone who has a perfectly clear sight. Tests in education are often nothing more than such “eye tests”.

The problem

Let me reiterate that I have no quarrel with the fact that achievements are being measured, quantified and compared. I take issue with the interpretation of these results as decisive in the assessment of someone’s static intellectual capacities. That this happens, to me, is a given. I see educational institutions and students make wrong assessments on the basis of this misconception. Cito results, for example, are given more weight than is justifiable. Momentarily, I counsel a student who has worked her way through vwo and her university bachelor in history all the way up to her master thesis, even though she had a Cito results of 532 (significantly below average)! Her school had recommended gymnasium (the highest level of secondary education; comparable to grammar schools or sixth form colleges, or the US preparatory high schools), but due to her Cito results she was barely allowed to enter her first year of havo/vwo (a level higher than her Cito results would recommend and one level lower than gymnasium). Many students make a similar assessment error by thinking that receiving a 4 (comparable to an D-) is the same as being a 4, with all the stress and fear that follows. They have convictions such as: “I am dumb if I do not understand something”, “It must come naturally without help”, “I am not here to learn, but to show what I am capable of”, “I just am no good at …”. These are all convictions that follow from a misconception of giftedness. Moreover, they are disastrous for a healthy learning process.


I see many victims of this view on giftedness. An acquaintance recently came up to me about his daughter who kept struggling in school. Most of the people around her (especially herself) thought she was not that clever. I cannot make any claims on her intelligence, but I do know that her idea of learning is not very clever. She immediately disengages if she does not understand something. She seems to be having only two experiences: either you understand something or you don’t. To her, there is no possibility of going from incomprehension to comprehension. With such convictions, I do not think any proclamation can be made about her general giftedness. The student who scored 532 for her Cito test has dealt with serious fear of failure throughout her educational career. She continually feels the need to prove that her Cito results were wrong. Every test is an ordeal, because she feels she could be unmasked at any moment as someone who cannot do it. This is wrecking her. I know tens if not hundreds of students with similar problems.

Movement in convictions and behaviour

It is very difficult to help these people. There is no point in imitating Dr Phil or Oprah Winfrey and to emphasise that everyone is special and valuable. They simply do not experience it in that way because they feel boxed in by the affirmation of the statement: “Either you can do it or you can’t”. Teachers and counsellors must not ignore this. We must recognise it as a widely spread, influential way of seeing. Subsequently, we must challenge it, as I attempt to do in this essay. Students must not be overly concerned with being able to do it and not being able to do it. They must stay moving, both in their convictions and their concrete behaviour. Research on the difference between good and less good math students shows that the good students do not make less mistakes. But when they make mistakes they take this as an inducement to go for it again, while the weaker students view the mistakes as a prove of their incapacity, causing them to disengage. We must help the students not to disengage.

 A gifted gait

When the reader accepts my description of knowledge and giftedness then they also have to realise that the “movement” deserves our attention rather than what the student can and cannot do. Goals change and are sharpened through which the relevance of the information shifts. Besides, the situation is in constant flux. Giftedness is the capacity to move effectively under these circumstances. My biggest problem with the idea of “being able and not being able” is that it is taken to be static and thus puts the brakes on movement. Giftedness is no static property; it is movement. In our gait resides our giftedness.


Disabilities and Aiding Devices

First published in Dutch on the 3rd of March 2013

What is the essence of knowledge acquisition?

I was preoccupied with this question as I separately counselled two students. One student, Raymond, was recovering from a serious psychosis and the other, Iris, tried to get a grip on an anxiety disorder for which she had been treated and was still administered medicine for. Both students wanted to get their studies back on track, but complained about bad concentration, forgetfulness, confusion and a shortage of energy. They felt they were not able to think and learn anymore in the way they were used to.

Filling your head

Down the road, it became clear to me that both students interpreted their problems in knowledge acquisition very physically and quantitively: “I cannot get the information in my head anymore”, “I cannot remember as much anymore”. These remarks are comparable to not being able to read the tiny letters at the optician or being unable to sense certain decibel during a hearing test. First they were able to do something and now they cannot do it anymore.


Raymond and Iris were looking for “aiding devices” from me that are similar to glasses. At the same time they were ambivalent towards this. They resisted such aids in the same way that we resist purchasing reading glasses or a hearing aid. That would namely be a sign of old age and decline. For Raymond and Iris accepting aiding devices meant an acknowledgement of a disability. They viewed the specific techniques that can be put into use to improve learning as a sort of prosthetic. In their eyes these are things a healthy or intelligent person does not need. It became clear to me that I had to tease out and highlight different misconceptions to enable an effective counselling.

No filing cabinet

The first misconception is the idea that learning is identical to filling your head with information. It is understandable that students think this. One is offered a lot of static information in books, articles, PowerPoints, lectures, etc. Many of us read the material, summarize it and subsequently try to cram it in our heads. For Raymond and Iris this was also the prevailing method and it is not odd that they had become less good in this due to their problems. But the essence of knowledge is very different from what we generally think. Learning ability cannot be compared to sense of sight and hearing ability. All experts have come to agree that our memory is not a filing cabinet. We neither “fill” the drawers nor “consult” the files. As a consequence the complete “volume” of the cabinet cannot become smaller and information is not necessarily lost if a “file” becomes damaged. The analogy is much too static in comparison to reality.

An interplay

Our way of functioning is a continuous interaction, or interplay with the environment. We are always situated in a context where we use available information (from the environment and from our memory) to achieve specific goals. We continually try to solve problems and answer questions. These vary from small trivial problems (I am bothered by the itch on my nose and what can I do to stop it?) to very large issues (how can I make sure this project will become a success?). Which information is relevant, is determined by the issue that we want to solve.

Learning capacity

For students in education this is no different. The issues within a course, for example, are: what is this about, how is this connected to the previous, what connects this to that, and how can I use it? The interplay consists of the relation of these students with the books, the lectures, the teacher, the articles, the seminars, the assignments, the fellow students, and (not unimportant) with oneself. The way of functioning within this interplay is the real learning capacity that our brains are for, not the capacity to process as much data as possible.

Information is no knowledge

A second misconception, as an extension of the first one, is the idea that information (or data) is equal to knowledge. They are fundamentally different. Information is static and immutable while knowledge is dynamic, and constantly dependent of goals and context. Socrates claimed that knowledge is empty if it does not improve our moral behaviour. I tend to agree to a large degree, though I would substitute moral behaviour with performance-oriented behaviour. Knowledge, thus, is functional by definition. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 is a historical fact, but this fact is no knowledge. The situation in which and the purposes for which this historical given is used determines the knowledge of which it is part. Presumably, this information is differently taught on a North American school than on a Northern European or Middle Eastern school. But even within the Netherlands this information will be dealt with differently in American studies than in Political science.


Knowledge, then, is shaped within the interplay of goals, available knowledge and context. This means that organisational skills are essential to the acquisition of knowledge. This is exactly what Raymond and Iris neglected supposing that only sheer brainpower is necessary for learning. Their mental problems were strengthened by a physical confusion that made them make ad hoc decisions and meant they often just “pottered about”. In complete chaos, one cannot gain knowledge and therefore cannot learn.

This is why I guided them into organising the interplay. The aiding devices I implemented were no protheses but strategies that form an integral part of knowledge acquisition. They had to set goals, make a planning (for time as well as task), and engage in functional contact with fellow students and teachers. The information that they got from books were only a part of the whole and had to serve the formulated goals rather than being a goal in and of itself.


My counselling sessions with both students have ended. Their way of functioning has improved in several areas. The confusion has been lessened and their concentration has increased. Their grip on the material is much better. Certainly, it is still hard and it costs them a lot of energy, but they are receiving passing grades that seemed impossible only a short while ago. And a result that, in my eyes, is even more important is: they feel a lot less disabled.

Other People’s Clothes

The essay was first published in Dutch on the 25th of November 2012

At some point you become sick and tired of putting on other people’s clothes”. This was the surprising reply of an actor to the question why he had quit acting. I was reminded of this when a student recently treated me with a strong performance of self-reflection. She had come to the conclusion that she put every strategy to improve her study behaviour into use three or four times only to discard it thereafter. It didn’t matter how effective the strategy was. Every time, after a while she had enough of it, as though she was wearing other people’s clothes which she got bored with.

Making it your own

I come across this type of behaviour more often. It is actually quite remarkable because we have learnt that positive results should reinforce the behaviour in question. The person, if successful, should want to implement the method even more instead of starting to resist it. The reason why this is, never the less possible, is because the process of positive enforcement has an important footnote: you must be able to ascribe the positive results to yourself. This is more than just ascribing the success to one’s own actions. In a certain way, these actions have to be part of oneself. The method must be experienced as being my method, developing out of my strategies. This, apparently, is not always the case.


When do we talk about self-ascription? This is easily argued: your successes logically lead to a feeling of pride if you see them as your own efforts. This is what is called “a sense of accomplishment”. If I do something that satisfies me in this way, I can conclude that I deem the results to be my own efforts, otherwise, I would not have that feeling. The opposite is just as true. The student who discards every method after three or four times, does not experience an “accomplishment” and has therefore not made anything her own. The method in question is apparently outside of her and, for that reason, the ascription of its successes is too. The lack of satisfaction undermines her resolve and causes her, after a while, to discard the method entirely.


A year or two ago, I was confronted with a fascinating student. His teachers and tutors were faced with a conundrum. He was smart and knew what hard work was. His study (medicine) went very well if he put himself to it. He oscillated, however, between successes and remarkable failures, due to sudden episodes of procrastination. I found out that he was unusually indifferent towards his academic successes. I asked him whether he had once done something that had made him enthusiastic. At first, he did not really understand the question, but, in the end, told me he had swum competitively on a very high level. When I asked him if he was proud of his accomplishments he said, “Why? I only implemented the techniques that were handed to me and trained very hard. The rest follows automatically”. I had never heard this explanation of sport performances before and it has always stayed with me. It clarified his problems. His “sense of accomplishment” lacked entirely. Not a single experience of success gave him the feeling of having deserved it because he ascribed every success to a technique, procedure, or method and not to himself. His successes yielded him nothing. I was not surprised to hear that he had been diagnosed with ASD (autistic spectrum disorder).

Positive reinforcement

A “sense of accomplishment” is stimulating because it gives you the feeling of becoming more competent. The successes heighten your commitment and involvement causing you to achieve even better results and you feel even more competent. This is a positive reinforcement that is more than a purely behavioristic conditioning. Your skills, involvement, and sense of deserving merit, enter a positive spiral. That positive cycle is propelled forward by your ability to internalize the successful actions and ideas. The boy with ASD might not be factually capable to do this, while the girl who pulls out after three times might possibly be able to learn it. In any case, both miss the accessory feeling of satisfaction. Each time, they put on other people’s clothes.

When does something become “one’s own”?

In my essay What is comprehension? , I claim that we only truly understand something when we have processed “it” cognitively as well as procedurally and affectively to a certain level. In this essay I claim that the same is true when we make something our own. Perhaps both concepts do not really differ that much from each other, but in any case, it is now clear that the affective process is essential. Positive reinforcement must lead to an increasingly higher level of affective experience. In my essay on understanding, I used the taxonomy of Krathwohl which starts very primary at the level that we must become aware of the existence of something (ideas/methods). Subsequently, we acknowledge these ideas/methods by reacting to them. The third level is to regard them as useful. Above that level is the preparedness to connect these ideas to our own ideas. The highest level is that the ideas become part of your own system (of ideas and methods). Something becomes “one’s own” by passing through the levels from a minimal acknowledgment to an authentic incorporation in one’s own beliefsystem.

How does something become one’s own?

Two mottos are appropriate in answering of this question. The first one is: “Dwell on it and create an opinion!”. What I want to emphasize with this is that you have to pay conscious attention to the subject you are concerned with and that you have to form an opinion about it. In this way, you stimulate the development of your affective experience about the subject. Few things are as destructive for the learning process as utter neutrality and inadvertence towards a subject. When you form an opinion, the danger looms that it is a negative opinion with all its problematic consequences. That is why a second motto is important: “If you have to do something anyway, do it thoroughly”. By means of this aim you heighten the “sense of accomplishment”, because you intend to achieve something which allows you to experience a sense of success and pride. Such experiences always cast the subject of your intention in a better light; you will view it more positively. Will the ideas and methods remain alienated then you will have to make a choice: go on or quit. In that sense, the actor mentioned above has given an excellent reason to quit acting. Who wants to wear other people’s clothing for years on end?


A Prenuptial agreement

This text was first published in Dutch on the 20th of August 2012

External versus Internal

Two visions on learning are in circulation in education. This would not have been such a problem were it not the case that both visions contradict each other and that neither one of them can solve all the problems we encounter in practice. The well-known behaviourist B.F. Skinner is seen as the progenitor of the vision that the external environment is the determining factor in the learning process. Learning would be established almost exclusively through stimuli from the environment that are interpreted either as rewards or punishment. Our need to receive rewards and avoid punishment push the development forward. On the other end of the spectrum is the view of Carl Rogers. He was convinced that the individual himself is the driving force in his development. Individual wishes and desires are the determining factor and the environment only plays a facilitating (or obstructing) role. For Skinnerians the learning environment (read: teacher + study) reigns, while followers of Rogers believe that the students themselves eventually determine what they learn.

Restrictions in practice

Both visions come across problems in practice. The philosophy of Skinner manifests itself in rigorously fleshed out educational programs in which the student is allowed restricted space to think for itself and is confronted with a lot of obligations. But completely determined and forceful programs can lead to servility, limited self-reliance, deficient motivation, and a grade obsession in students. Teachers often complain about this. The Dutch Studiehuis in secondary schools and competence oriented education in universities of applied sciences rely more on the vision of Rogers. This method, however, struggles with the educational level. It turns out to be quite difficult to keep the level of the student up, and the “rigid” method is applied increasingly rigorously to resist the downward trend.

What do we do?

As is often the case, the truth (and the wisdom) lies in the middle. Both Skinner and Rogers were right. Nobody can deny the fact that the external (learning) environment is regulatory to a certain degree in that it only accepts a limited bandwidth of behaviours per situation. At the same time, it is also true that we have a certain degree of agency in what we want to do and learn. In my book on study problems (2009), I attempt to conjoin both visions with the remark that “the external environment and the internal drives come together in the memory constructs we continually create and recreate throughout our lives.” Three years of practical experience and a whole series of essays later and it is still a challenge to truly understand this “coming together”. It is important because this is where both visions meet.

Project delineation and Goal-orientedness

The (external) learning environment manifests itself within us in a project definition. This is one of the seven skills I use to concretise effective learning. It is the answer to the question: what does the learning environment want from me? With every task, test, assignment, project, or supervision programme the teacher, supervisor, and/or study wants the student to do and realise certain things on specific terms. The better the student understands (delineates) the project, the better he will be able to attain the requirable knowledge. The internal drives manifest themselves in the second skill: goal-orientedness. Attention, interest, and concentration are fundamental attitudes in the learning process (see my essay The Zombie and the centaur). If these are lacking, a sort of zombie attitude arises that ought to be undesirable for all those involved, because a zombie is unable to learn as he is unable to experience anything. In order to experience complex things, one has to have an extensive orientation that keep the attitudes in question activated. One has to want something that goes beyond avoiding punishment or other inconveniences. The student, therefore, has to formulate his own goals within the project. The necessity of the attitudes simultaneously brings agency along. Due to the fact that we experience something continuously, one can draw the conclusion that we also continuously want things. A student who thinks he can disassociate himself from this with the remark: “I wanted to study but before I knew it, I had been whatsapping for three hours,” is mistaken: he wanted to whatsapp for three hours!

Coming together is harder than it seems

One could draw the meagrely noticeable conclusion that we are dealing with the same old song: the teacher/supervisor/study has to communicate clearly (for the student to understand the project) and the student needs to take his responsibility. This is true, but also not the whole story. The “meeting place” for teachers and students is often understood too simplistically as a place where teachers think they can offer neutral and objective information, while most students see themselves as neutral recipients of that same information. This is an illusion. Especially because Skinner and Rogers are both right, we can ascertain that objective and neutral “sending” and “receiving” does not exist. The coming together is entirely shaped by the agents themselves. This means that not only the student has to have an adequate interpretation of the project (what the teacher wants) and has to formulate his personal goals within it, it also has to happen the other way around! The teacher/supervisor also has to have an adequate interpretation of his project (what the student wants) and has to adapt to that. The attitudes of the student also have a forceful character to a certain degree for the teacher. Erik von Glazersfeld (1995) said the following: “The teacher must listen to the student, interpret what the student does and says, and try to build a model of the student’s conceptual structures. Without it, any attempt to change the student’s conceptual structures can be no more than a hit or miss affair.”

Conceptual Structures

I would like to add to this quotation that the teacher also has to communicate his own conceptual structures. The teacher/supervisor cannot escape this. Contrary to information, knowledge is not neutral and objective. Even the simplest skill that we want to teach a student has an intentionality in its definition and is therefore partly subjective and normative. Providing feedback implies, for instance, that the receiver can do something with it that is beneficial to his functioning (see my essay Chaos in the order). The teacher/supervisor always fills in (either knowingly or unknowingly) this intentionality and would do well in making this explicit. The place of coming together between teacher/supervisor and student is shaped by both their conceptual structures that are constituted by their project definition and goal-orientedness, respectively.

Thesis problems

I see many learning and supervising problems rise from incompatible project definitions and opposing goal-orientedness. I can describe this most clearly with regard to thesis supervision, because this period is an explication of the learning process in all its diversity. What I often see with students who struggle with their thesis is that very little attention has been given to the respective points of view and expectations of the supervisor and student about the thesis (both the process as the content). The period in which the thesis is written is the meeting place where both the project definition and the goal-orientedness of both parties ought to be clarified. Just like all other knowledge, the thesis is neither objective nor neutral. There might be several objective criteria the thesis has to meet, but aside from those both parties have remarkably much elbow room. The teacher as well as the student give their own personal meaning to it (either knowingly or unknowingly).

Mutual responsibilities

The supervisor has a vision on the thesis process with ideas about the self-reliance the student ought to have, which questions are to be answered, in which way and to what degree the student has to expand on his subject, etc. This vision is normative, otherwise the supervisor would not be able to supervise and grade the thesis. The supervisor benefits from sharing his vision with the student and of being open towards possible adjustments to the views and (legitimate) wishes of the student. This is only the case, however, if the supervisor truly sees the supervision of the student as his own project. At the same time, the student has to have a vision on his thesis that goes beyond, “I do everything my supervisor tells me to do so that I am finished as quickly as possible”, or the other extreme, “I don’t want to make any concessions on my ideas”. In both cases, the student would probably end up in trouble because time and again he neither takes his responsibility nor does he really look for contact with its supervisor.

Prenuptial agreement

The relationship between a student and teacher/supervisor is fine mashed and nuanced. Preferably, there is a passionate relationship in which both meet each other in shared views and wishes. Reality, sadly, is often less romantic, but a marriage of conveniences can also be enormously effective. I put the lower limit at a prenuptial agreement because there, at least, the togetherness of the learning process can be emphasised. Eventually, the student and the “learning environment” have to do it together.

Problem-driven and Solution-oriented

First published in Dutch on the 25th of May 2012

What do you actually do?
Recently a tutor said to me; “Your essays are beautifully written and give me much insight in the complexity of learning and counselling, but I still don’t know how you counsel precisely. What do you actually do in practice?”. This was a confrontational question. Apparently I have not yet sketched a clear image about that in my essays.

The basis
The basic idea behind my working method is that (solvable) learning problems stem from a combination of inadequate knowledge, subverting convictions, ineffective actions and/or impeding emotions. Counselling must then logically be aimed at a more productive teamwork between these components. Counselling must, in other words, aim at realising adequate knowledge, constructive convictions, effective actions, and supportive emotions.

My experience is that persistent learning problems mostly occur when subverting convictions and impeding emotions inhibit the individual to acquire the desirable knowledge and skills. I view this phenomenon as a mechanism and I pay much attention to it. I try to unmask how these components of the individual experience constitute the student’s functioning. Subsequently, we search for possibilities for improvement. There is of course no definite method to do this but I can clarify my working method through two practical examples.

Two cases
The first person, Adir, experienced a lot of examination stress. He studied hard but had still failed some courses due to his stress. During the resits it became even worse. He came to me with the appeal to do something about this stress. Otherwise, he wouldn’t pass the year. The second person, Marjolein, had the opposite problem. She continually wandered off from learning. She tried to put herself to it, but she didn’t manage even though she felt she was capable enough. This irritated and frustrated her which led to her doing even less. In this way, her study threatened to get stuck in the rut despite the fact that she did actually like it.

My first step
My first step was to make clear to both students that what they described to be their problems were actually the effects thereof. This might be the most important step in a personal counselling cycle; concentrate on the real causes and problems. The effect of the problem is often confused with the problem itself. This is understandable considering that the symptoms, by definition, stand out the most. The difficulty, however, is that these symptoms in themselves provide us with grisly little insight in what we can improve.
Adir focused on his stress in an attempt to reduce it, but stress in itself does not provide any starting points from which to reduce it. Adir tried, with pure willpower to lessen his stress, but of course it did not work. The stress only increased by his fixation on it. Marjolein suffered a similar fate. She put herself the objective not to wander off from studying and to stay concentrated. This is similar to the well-known objective not to think of a pink elephant. You set yourself, in doing so, a particularly problematic task, because you do not make clear for yourself how you will do this.

One has to look at the steps before the misery. The knowledge, convictions, actions, and emotions that put everything in motion are the true causes of the visible problems. The students in question have to ask themselves; what do I do, think, and feel that gives me so much stress for an exam and causes me to wander off from studying?

Two approaches; 1. Focus on desired behaviour
I make a rough distinction between two manners to make this clear to someone. In the first manner, I concentrate on the desired behaviour. This is a typical solution-oriented approach. I asked Adir whether he had once achieved something without feeling stressed. This was the case. He hadn’t felt any stress for his driving test. This was quite remarkable since many people especially feel stressed for this. I then asked him why this was so. He was able to formulate it very well; “I knew that if I failed this time I would be able to pass next time, or the time after that”. My next question was what effects these thoughts had on him. He was also clear on this; “I felt calm and had room in my head to think things over. I could just apply what I had learnt.
Without being aware of it, he described a productive combination of thoughts, behaviour, and feelings. I pointed out to him that he behaved strikingly different when he had to study for an exam, even though these are similar achievements. He thought this was a surprising remark. He rebutted that this was a very different kind of achievement, because he had to pass now otherwise he would be sent from the program. This was indeed the case, but it was not so much this given as it was his thoughts about this given that hindered him. He had told me earlier that he had had a blackout during an exam, but that he had remembered everything afterwards. The undermining thought “it must happen now, or else…” had the effect that he did not feel calm (feeling) and had no room in his head to let that which he had learnt surface (behaviour). By searching for a situation in which he did perform and by analysing it, we were able to formulate how he wished to function and (very important!) to show that he was also capable to function in that way.

2. Focus on the misery
In the case of Marjolein I took a different approach. I especially focused on the misery. This is a typical RET (Rational-Emotive Therapy) approach. Here, you directly dissect the problems into the components of thinking, acting, and feeling. This is sometimes hard, because the student experiences one big hump of misery (It starts as soon as I get up!). With the RET one can take this apart by concentrating on three separate steps. Firstly, you formulate as precisely as possible the problematic situation (in the morning after breakfast, I immediately sit down behind my desk and tackle the book. After a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes of reading the frustration starts coming up). The second step is to describe the feeling and behaviour that arises (I feel restless, browse through the book and check my watch repetitively. My mind wanders off and I become incredibly angry with myself). The third step is to formulate the accompanying thoughts.

So what? If… then…
I let the student explore his thoughts in a specific way. The logical starting point is the first thought. I asked Marjolein to formulate the first thought that came up at the beginning of the situation. This was; “I have to study 75 pages today”. I continue the conversation with, what I call, the “so what –  if then” method. It is beyond the scope of this essay to go into detail about this method here, but the following dialogue illustrates what I mean. I asked her So what? Her reply; “If I have to study 75 pages today then I won’t be able to do it”. So what? If I won’t be able to do it today then I have to do even more tomorrow”. So what? If I have to do even more tomorrow then I will never be able to do it and I might just as well quit.”

One could easily continue this method for a while to see how much pressure the student experiences. The student could think; “then I won’t succeed in my study and I will have to choose another one. Then the same will happen and I will end up with no education at all. Then I will have to find a stupid job that is beneath my level and I will stay unhappy for the rest of my life”. It is sometimes worthwhile to pay attention to such fears because they can have a strong, unconscious influence and can lead to severe performance anxiety.

Thinking hazards
In Marjolein’s case, this depth was unnecessary. She already found the first series of thoughts striking and quickly saw how these hindered her. Several typical subverting convictions were laid bare and revealed every lack of nuance. The now-or-never thoughts; “I must start NOW or I will NEVER succeed”. The everything-or-nothing thought; “I have to do EVERYTHING I planned (reading 75 pages) otherwise I will have done NOTHING”. The it-has-to-come-easy thought; “I have to understand what I read IN ONE TRY otherwise it doesn’t matter”.
These convictions are simplifications, exaggerations, and generalisations that I categorised as thinking hazards in my previous essay (I think therefore I am…faulty). Marjolein saw this immediately, but some students have to be shown that their thoughts are based on unreasonable convictions.

Constructive convictions and effective actions
In the end, you want to formulate convictions and actions that the students can apply themselves. These are the tools I referred to in my essay, “Social Media and the Art of Basketball”. I wrote that such tools cannot be just given to someone. One has to create it him- or herself to achieve maximum effect. This is definitely the case for the convictions. It is very tempting to say to a now-or-never thinker that the sun will come up again tomorrow, but it is of little consequence. He has to understand that his thoughts (either true or not true) lead to an undesirable way of functioning. You have no control over a result but you do largely control your own functioning. How does the student want to function?

Marjolein and Adir had to answer this question. In the counselling of Adir this question came up early. He was also able to answer it and understand that he was actually capable to do it. He had done it before. The rest of the counselling was aimed at helping him to develop that same experience with regard to his study, and, more specifically, his exams.
Marjolein, after acquiring the insight, was quick to move on, but often you have to help someone to formulate the constructive convictions and effective actions. The past of the student here, too, is the best starting point. I make them think about achievements of which they are proud and of people that they appreciate and make them translate these to usable thoughts and behaviour. In that regard, both approaches are based on the same; you have within yourself the most important tools to help yourself.




I think therefore I am… flawed

First published in Dutch 14th of March 2012

Difficult people

Sometimes students become desperate because of their study problems. They feel powerless and are at the end of their rope. “It is too much and too hard”, “I just can’t do it”, “It goes wrong every time”, “I’ll never finish”, “I can’t do anything”, “I have to pass this time, otherwise I am doomed”. An outsider could, in reading these sentences, react compassionately, but also a bit supercilious. “These people are making it very hard on themselves”, would be an understandable judgment. This is true. The thoughts are quite extreme and would sooner rouse feelings of misery rather than offer salvation and solutions.

Not the only ones

The outsiders who have their judgments ready must not be too quick in thinking they are much different. They might be able to relativize the situations that these students find unbearable but they also have their own crude idiosyncrasies. Someone who completely sympathises with the remarks above would after all conclude about the outsiders; “Such arrogance! They apply one measure to everyone”. This, too, is true.

Rule rather than exception

Once in a while, everyone is caught having unnuanced thoughts and drawing hasty conclusions. An attentive person would ascertain that this is a rule rather than an exception, especially when the emotions run high. Unsubtlety is not only “not uncommon”, it is a fundamental characteristic of our way of thinking. That is why these students struggle so much with themselves when they are confronted with serious problems they cannot find their way out of.

A hold on the surroundings

Every representative of a species tries to get a hold of their surroundings in order to secure the survival of its kind. Us humans are no different, but due to the increase of our mental capacities, maintaining our grip became increasingly complex. Because our ancestors could think increasingly better, they created more and more opportunities to get hold of things, which, in turn, made them even better at thinking, causing them to create even more opportunities and so on. It became a self-reinforcing system that brought about a gigantic explosion of intellectual capacities. The way of thinking that developed has yielded us an awful lot, but is simultaneously inherently problematic.

Searching for regularities

Our thinking is directed towards knowledge acquisition in the shape of unchangeable facts, clear processes, and unambiguous regularities. Only then do we experience a hold on the surroundings. Exceptions, irregularities, and variables are less interesting because they can cause doubt and indecisiveness. In the past, this was life-threatening but nowadays it can still be incredibly annoying because it makes us feel as though we are losing our hold on the surroundings.

Our quest for knowledge has a certain eagerness. The degree of grip is determined by our successes. These successes are subject to time pressure and competition. In the past, it was a conflict against nature and other animal species. Nowadays, it is primarily aimed at fellow humans. The learning process (that shapes our thinking) is thus not an objective, but a subjective process and has logically developed a number of characteristics with which we can quickly find (alleged) types of knowledge.

Properties of our thinking

Perhaps the most important property of our thinking is our natural tendency to form a hypothesis and then search for its confirmation (this is called the confirmation bias). We are not calm and carefully deliberating beings that, after collecting all the facts, come to a decent and substantiated conclusion. No, we quickly judge, look for the proof that agrees with it and act accordingly. Evolutionary speaking, this is understandable but it also has its disadvantages.

A student who desperately claims that “it is too much and too hard”, has probably already formulated his opinion about the material before he is even aware of it. The “fact” is continuously confirmed as soon as he does not understand a sentence or his thoughts wander off and he finds himself looking startled at the clock. But passages that he does understand the first time, and periods in which he is concentrated, are left unnoticed because they do not confirm his hypothesis.

Thinking hazards

Mainly noticing facts that confirm our hypothesis is called selective attention. This is the reason why most car drivers consider themselves above average chauffeurs and are we firmly convinced that we are always in the slow lane in the supermarket. We primarily see the evidence for that. The facts that contradict our thesis, we either do not see or forget them quickly. This does not only apply to the frustrated and arrogant people among us, we all do it. It is a characteristic of our thinking because we want to formulate a regularity as quickly as possible.

Another characteristic of our eager search is the tendency to simplify and to exaggerate. The thought, “It is too much and too hard”, for example, is a simplification because it conveniently assumes an indivisible “it”, while the material of course consists of different components. Furthermore, it is also an exaggeration by saying it is too much and too hard. In reality, there are several degrees of difficulty and probably only a small part of the material is actually too difficult for the student to fathom independently. This characteristic also applies to all of us. If I say to you “I am a bit in love with you”, then you will hardly register the word “bit”. O dear! He is in love with me! You will barely experience the gradation. This applies to most of the things we experience.

Finally, we generalize too quickly. After all, something only becomes a rule when it is always the case, never succeeds, or applies to everyone. The reasoning has a black-and-white, everything-or-nothing character. “It is too much”, has the same rigidity as “The earth is round”. It seems water-tight, while the student actually says: “I think it is too much”. The consequences are necessarily catastrophic since “too much” presumes an inescapability. The student can only end in the gutter.

An abhorrence

For supporters of philosophy of knowledge, the foregoing phenomenon is an abhorrence. These are considered fallacies, and scientifically and philosophically, they indeed are. But on the level of human functioning it is different. I know students who employ the scientific research method religiously for themselves and who, in effect, have no life left. Now, that is an abhorrence. They are constantly confused, indecisive en consequently frustrated. I also mentioned this in my essay on perfectionism (see Perfectionists and other road abusers). I also see students who struggle with choices because they want to make the best one. But their objective scientific method won’t help them there.


The degrees of the foregoing characteristics differ per individual as well as the capacity to become aware of them and to think (more) attentively. In every composition, there are positive and negative sides. But the limitation of our thinking is a fact. We draw quick conclusions on the basis of simplifications, generalisations, and selective attention. If we want to demonstrate a (quick) conclusion anyway, it is wise to choose a positive and constructive thesis. Not because this is scientifically or philosophically “more correct”, but because this one is usually more practical. “The glass is half full” or “the glass is half empty” are both equally correct, but the first one is generally more pleasant for our way of thinking.