Categorie Blog

Student Autonomy

Transcript of my Keynote at the NACADA international conference in Hasselt, Belgium 8-11 July 2019

Student autonomy; creating positive change for students.

On first glance this formulated ambition seems quite clear-cut. Of course, developing autonomy is a positive change and it would be a good thing to create more of it. But in preparing for this keynote I was quickly confronted with doubts. What do we mean by autonomy? It is often interpreted as the freedom to choose but if so, then more choice should create more freedom and thus more autonomy. Then why do students seem to resist this autonomy? Why do they seem all too willing to relinquish that freedom and want to be told what to do? This is particularly puzzling if the development of autonomy is such a positive change.

A paradox

The paradox is supported by research that shows that more choice leads to less satisfaction. Iyenger and Lepper (2001) discovered with their famous jam experiment that confronting consumers with more options in jam leads to less purchases of the product and less satisfaction with the purchase itself. This is surprising because the autonomy of the consumers should have been augmented by the increase in options. Shouldn’t that have felt good and led to more consumption or at least more satisfaction with the actual choice made? Autonomy might not to be as straightforward as it seems.

A man and a priest

To stress this point further listen this “joke” I once told at another conference at my own university. A man goes to a priest and says; “Father, I’ve recently found out that I don’t have long left to live. I’ve decided that I want to go to heaven. I’ve done some research and believe that Catholicism is my best bet. I’ve implemented a strategy. I’ve had myself baptized, done the holy communion and developed a handy app to help me register my sins and remind me when it’s time to go to confession. I’ve come to you for added tips because I don’t know if it is enough.”

The Priest listens a bit bewildered and replies, “But sir, you have to believe!”. The man responses quickly by getting is notebook and writing down I have to believe. “No, you don’t understand” the Priest says, “you really have to believe!” The man underlines the word really several times in his notebook, “I really have to believe. Thank you father, this is good stuff!”

Students are like the man

The meeting between the two may continue for some time but the chance that they find common ground is remote. The story is funny and most of us teachers, counselors and advisors can relate to the priest. Students often request for clear and specific tips and tricks to change their situation. Thesis students can be particularly exasperated with their advisors; “why don’t they just tell me what they want me to do?!”. We are struggling the same as the priest to explain to the student that such a line of inquiry is exactly the wrong approach.

What is missing?

And yet, the man is proactive, communicative and willing to work. But is he also autonomous? If not, what is missing? I believe that most of us would say that a sense of responsibility is missing. But what should he take responsibility for? Many would probably say; for his own choices! I believe that this is incorrect. The choices themselves aren’t so much the problem as the consequences for those choices are. Consequences are uncertain and we have deep-rooted problems with uncertainty.

Caster Semenya

Ever since the emergence of the Enlightenment we’ve come to believe that knowledge creates certainty but generally it creates new uncertainties. I’m reminded of Caster Semenya, the South African 800m and 1500m running specialist. She is very dominant in her races and protests were made because many didn’t believe that she was a woman. This seems a very clear-cut and testable hypothesis and she was, ultimately,  subjected to a test and found to indeed be a woman. People were apparently unsatisfied with the result because the next accusation was that she had abnormal testosterone levels that could only be the result of doping. Again a testable hypothesis and her levels were, indeed, high but it was discovered that she produced them naturally. The “problem” remained and so it was decided that levels can be too high by definition, independent of artificially induced or naturally produced. New dilemmas are then; when is a level too high, how many measurements are needed for an accurate measurement, and what do we do with cases just under this level?

Science doesn’t create certainty

Science doesn’t create certainty and the entire affair has made me come to the unsettling conclusion that even being man or woman isn’t a black or white situation. Science has robbed my of a sense of certainty about even such a seemingly evident topic. This is a more fundamental fact than it may seem. Recall Iyenger and Lepper. We can easily equate varieties of jam to added knowledge, more jam represents more knowledge. Then we get the following steps; added knowledge leads to more choice, more choice leads to more uncertainty and more uncertainty leads to more dissatisfaction. Hegel stated that our ability to think creates a gap between us and the rest of reality. Our thoughts inevitably focus on the meaning of events and so we tend to have frustrations about the past and anxieties about the future. The future is inevitably uncertain while reality is in the here and now.

Change, an adaptive challenge

If autonomy is so harsh how can it’s development lead to positive change? Let’s first focus on the concept of change. Change refers to something fundamental as opposed to trivial. It is deep-rooted instead of superficial. A change can continue to develop but it can’t be undone. This means that such a change cannot solely be an acquisition of new facts and skills because they can easily be discarded. It must also be the development of new meaningful opinions and convictions to cement those fact and skills in us.

Heifetz, Grashow and Limsky (2009) consider such a change to be an adaptive challenge rather than a technical one. It requires a prolonged focus on the problem and, in doing so, staying frustrated, anxious and in doubt rather than looking for a superficial technical solution that provides an illusion of certainty. I believe that this distinction reveals a serious problem in education. We tend to develop technical solutions in the form of protocols, websites, e-learnings, webinars, moocs, and so forth, to help students learn and change. This change is what education is all about but we don’t seem to address the deeper adaptive challenge it entails.

Negative capability

True change is unsettling by nature. This is not essentially problematic. Robert Bjork coined the phrase desirable difficulties to express that the learning process is at its best when our brain is really challenged. Socrates was aware of this millennia ago and called it the elenchus. His method was to address something seemingly obvious and provoke quick answers and then slowly dissect the opinions of the other until that person was left in total bewilderment, having to admit that he was at a loss. For Socrates that was the moment that true learning could take place.

To accept the unsettling experience requires a leap of faith and I deliberately use this verb to express it as a capability. John Keats was the first to coin it as negative capability. This is the capability to accept uncertainty and stay focused on the fundamental issues rather than the quick solutions. Keats saw this as the way to artistic expression and Simpson, French and Harvey (2002) see it was a powerful leadership competency. I also see it as a fundamental characteristic of personal leadership or autonomy and I fully support the endeavor to create it in students. I usually tell them, provocatively,  that I am going to teach them to fail.

Suffer like an athlete

But if it is such a hardship how can we make it a positive experience? Indeed, some have stated, with the necessary drama, that “to think is to suffer”. Perhaps this is true but then I propose that we learn to suffer as athletes suffer. Their lungs burst with effort, their legs burn from exertion, their bodies bruise from collisions. And yet they laugh it off and go on, despite the uncertainty of outcome.

How do they do this? The answer is as evident as it is surprising. It is exactly because of the uncertainty that their efforts have meaning! Any game, sport or other challenge cannot be considered such if the outcome is certain. So I propose we teach our students a playful attitude because in true play our autonomy is a natural thing. Aristotle made a distinction between different reasons for acting, the Poeisis and the Praxis.

Poeisis versus Praxis

Poeisis focusses on a result. The end justifies the means. Think of the act of making a table. The goal is to make a good table and all the actions of fabrication are subservient to that goal. This attitude is fine for making tables but our man that went to the priest had the same attitude. He wanted to get into heaven and if all actions are subservient to that goal he would also be willing to lie and cheat and maybe even to murder!

Praxis focusses on the process. It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game. Games are indeed a good example of this attitude. The act of playing is the goal in itself. Cheating or lying defeats this function at the core. That is what the priest tried to explain. Belief is belief due to the lack of certainty. I believe that the same applies for autonomy. It can only be true autonomy in difficult and uncertain circumstances and being able to handle those circumstances better is always a positive change.

Did I forget something?

First Published in Dutch on the 16th of May 2017

Simon is a dentistry student in his fifth year, whom I’ve tutored a year ago in the course Professional Behavior. I give this course—together with a tutor from that study—a few times a year to senior students. It is focused on helping students with being able to manage their activities. For students starting their fourth year this can be quite hard because they become responsible for the management of their patient files. They have to invite, call, make and change appointments, outline a treatment cycle, establish priorities, etc. In addition, all other activities continue, such as making assignments, attending practicums, writing papers, and so forth.
Recently, Simon came by my office, telling me that he had worked very hard on the course, but that his problems were deeper. He had a lot of stress and anxiety, alternated by depression and despondency. This emotional rollercoaster influenced his ability to function, making it hard for him to manage his activities.

Did I forget something?
In such conservations, I think it is very important to ascertain the concrete situations that the student struggles with. It soon turned out that there were two kinds of activities: Simon had no trouble with treating a patient, attending a practicum, or carrying out a concrete assignment in real time. These were activities that only require to be carried out.
Activities that required strategic decisions for the future were entirely different. Because he had a lot of different activities on his plate, he also had to be able to make an action plan that took several variables into account (patients, treatment plans, personal wishes, schedules, deadlines). This led to a lot of stress. When I asked Simon what made certain activities so stressful, he said he was constantly asking himself: “did I forget something?” We came to the conclusion that the stress was due to him not even knowing how to answer that question.

When it comes to self-management, you could say that this question is of genuine importance. For people who have great self-management, the question is a logical control question for ongoing matters. The question is an expression of the reflection we need in the analysis and adjustment of our work processes. For people without control—and therefore defective self-management—the question is more a sort of rhetorical expression of panic. It is comparable to the question “Is anyone there?” in a horror film. Many different things impel the question to be asked, but the answer “yes!” is about the worst prospect possible.

I primarily receive students who don’t experience overview and control. Some of them have an illness or different kind of handicap. Even though the clinical picture can vary strongly, these people almost always struggle with the feeling of being subject to totally unpredictable periods of physical and/or mental problems. They often think that they are very different from “healthy” people, but this is wrong. I often get students without demonstrable ailment who struggle with their concentration or energy level and are desperate about why “it” sometimes goes well and other times not at all. They experience a comparable sense of unpredictability.
Both groups are totally unable to estimate how the days will go and—as a result—don’t know whether they will be successful in meeting their goals or deadlines. When this lack of agency becomes chronic, the continual insecurity leads to an extraordinary miserable feeling with the person in question.

Powerlessness and Power
One by one, all of these students feel awful. One is depressed, the other aggressive, a third has panic attacks, and a fourth is chronically sleepless. Powerlessness is the most awful feeling we can have. It is therefore imperative to give their sense of power back. This does not mean, however, that we can tackle the feeling directly.

Simon drew a well-known but—in my view—wrong conclusion by thinking that his feeling caused him to function badly. It is precisely the other way around! His defective functioning creates his misery. The inability to answer the question “did I forget something?” creates the emotional stress he experiences. I therefore think that there is no reason—at least initially—to dig for “deeper” lying problems. He just has to be made capable of answering the question. In principle, it is quite easy to develop the personal power in question.

Step 1: Create Overview
There are three successive steps that lead to personal power: creating overview, creating insight, developing control. In the first step, one ought to get an overview of his situation. This means that all relevant factors must be made visible. I generally make the student write time. He has to take notes of everything he does, when he does it and how long it takes him to do it.
The more unpredictable our life seems, the more accurate we ought to record what is happening. Everything, even the most senseless activity, can be relevant (also see my essay Tip of the Iceberg). The goal of this first step is to visualize your situation, how you react on certain events and make decisions.

Step 2: Create Insight
We often experience chaos even though clear patterns can be discerned. Our reactions to a situation are especially more predictable than we think. There are many students who always react to every whatsapp, tweet, and facebook message they receive on their smartphone.
Such insights are typical of the second step. On this level we discern patterns from exceptions and connect causes to effects (“whatsapp takes up several hours a day and contributes to me missing deadlines”). The result is almost always that a student recognizes that there’s no uncontrollable chaos that they are the victim of, but that they create that chaos themselves.

Step 3: Develop Control
When someone gets an insight about the cause-effect relations of their circumstances and the part their own behavior contributes to this, they often also automatically become able to exert influence on those cause-effect relations. When the first two steps have been passed through sufficiently, the possibilities (experimenting with new behavior) come within range.
People often think that they have tried everything to get out of the negative spiral but in reality, they kept operating within a very narrow bandwidth on their behavior. Our feeling of powerlessness is largely caused by the blinders we have on.

Real Self-management
Self-management is the ability to go through these steps and improve your functioning every time. They lead—through the learning cycle—to increasingly higher levels of competence. This competence has two clear manifestations. Firstly, we are able to prevent problems. “I see that I wasn’t able to meet my daily target three times because I immediately answered emails. I have to close down my mailbox for the coming days so I can meet my deadline this week.

In addition, we can solve problems that we had not foreseen. “Due to my car trouble I won’t be able to be there for an appointment. I won’t get the information I need and will have to make a telephone appointment instead. That will mean working an hour longer. I’ll call home to inform my girlfriend.” The examples do not differ in essence from each other; you could say that real self-management is a practical ability to solve problems.

Registration System
It is clear that a chronic lack of personal power and control severely affects someone’s self-esteem. It is a misconception, however, to think that competent people (those that have power and control) are competent because they are self-assured. Confidence is often seen as something elusive that you either “have” or “don’t have.” But confidence comes after control and initially requires something that is especially tangible, that is, a reliable registration system.

Simon felt incompetent because he continually struggled with his negative feelings. He didn’t see that the practical approach of the course, Professional Behavior, was focused on improving his self-management which would actually make him more competent and—as a result—would salve his negative feelings. Overview, insight, and control are essential steps in every shape of management, whether it be self-management, time management, project management, or life-management.

It is a pity that my work is sometimes considered vague psychological babble. I consider our psychological processes to be equally concrete and logical as our physiological ones. It is possible to make everything easy to see and insightful without having to go much further than asking the—ostensibly—innocent question whether “I have forgotten something.”

A Man Goes to a Priest

First published in Dutch on the 23rd of november 2015

Man and Priest
A middle-aged man goes to a priest. He says, “priest, I only have a few years left to live so I decided I want to go to heaven. I have done some research and Catholicism is my best chance. I already started, I have been baptized and took the Holy Communion. I confess every month and developed a convenient app to track my sins to remind me to go to confession again. I am coming to you for some additional tips.” Astounded, the priest looks at him, and says, “but sir, you do have to believe.” The man takes out his notebook and mutters, “I must believe.” The Priest: “no, you don’t understand me. You REALLY have to believe.”. “I REALLY have to believe” he repeats, underlining “believe” in his notebook. “Thank you, Priest, please continue!”.

I recently told this “joke” during a lecture on the annual Education Day of the Radboud University Nijmegen. I wanted to point out that the willingness to behave “well” and sometimes even actually behaving in this way, is not necessarily sufficient. Most of us can probably identify with the priest. The motives of the man contradict – in one way or another – the actual belief, despite his willingness. It will be extraordinarily hard for the priest to explain this to the man. Chances are that he will ultimately give up and say, “you will probably never understand it!”, while the man would say to the priest, “why are you overcomplicating this?”.

In education, we sometimes have similar conversations with students. They want to finish the assignment and we want them to learn something from it. They are strongly focused on the end result and we are focused on (having learned) a certain state that refers back to the entire process rather than the end result. As is the case in the dialogue between the man and the priest, this difference in focus can lead to extremely frustrating conversations.

Poiesis and Praxis
I have dealt with this difference in attitude in my essays more often (i.a. Let’s Play and Homo Praxis). I referred to Aristotle who points to this difference as the difference between Poiesis and Praxis. The Poiesis is the umbrella term for result-oriented actions. All activities have a function to reach a result. The result is exterior to the process of actions in the same way that sawing and polishing wooden planks is not part of the finished table. This is opposite to Praxis. These are process-oriented actions that are fully focused on the actions themselves. The most obvious example is playing a game. The playing of the game is the pleasure, not the possible victory.

For Aristotle the Praxis was superior to the Poiesis, because poietic actions are subordinate to the result. Only if the result is attained, will the actions be good, otherwise they won’t be. For practical actions this is not the case. The actions are good by definition. This may seem like an abstract and philosophical opposition, but this difference is clearly visible in practice.

Doubt and Frustration
Throughout the years, I have counselled many students that stall with their thesis. A large number of them don’t manage to proceed because they are entangled in the dilemma of “what is good?”. What are good actions? What is the right theory, research plan or question? What is good reasoning? For them, the terms of “good” and “right” are connected to the desired result (a positive evaluation, a high grade or a degree). However, they are unable to find the answers to their questions because the result is exterior to the process and therefore beyond their line of vision. It is, in most of the projects in our lives, simply impossible to foresee actions that guarantee a positive end result.

For thesis students, this insecurity leads them to struggle with even taking one step on a daily basis. Because they don’t know which way to go, their doubt and frustration increases every day. They cling to their supervisors, hoping they will lead them in the right direction. They are willing to do everything the supervisor says. But this is a waste of time. The supervisor cannot determine if a certain decision will guarantee a positive end result. For the supervisor, this result is also beyond the line of sight. The Poiesis falls short!

The Priest and the Teacher
The story of the man and the priest is not only a joke. The consequences can be quite severe. When the man takes his goals seriously and the deadline approaches, he will grow increasingly insecure and anxious. “What is a good catholic action?” and “will this be sufficient to go to heaven?”. As the answers remain wanting, the man will become more and more frustrated with the lack of clarity from the priest, just as the student will start to be annoyed by his supervisor. The priest and the teacher agree on one thing: the willingness of the student/man to do whatever the teacher/priest says in order to attain the result (degree/heaven), will not lead to that desired result.

Learning as Praxis
We teachers and supervisors realize very well that the learning process is often undermined when people act in a purely functional attitude. This is not really visible when everything goes smoothly, but it becomes clear when it goes wrong. The student with a poietic attitude that receives the news that his work is substandard will want clarity and does not accept vague responses. He wants to know which actions are needed to reach the goal. It is irrelevant what these actions are. They are, to him, subject to the desired result. However, we are especially concerned with the process of the actions! We want to see their judgment, and this requires direction and responsibility. But the student, in his willingness, makes clear that he wants to change everything except taking responsibility.

Every request for clarity brings the student further away from taking the responsibility he ought to take. The capability to decide on the course of your project through an uncertain situation is precisely the right model for “having learned something”; just like being able to act charitably without knowing whether it will take you to heaven, is the model for belief.

In the classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the writer, Robert Pirsig, gives a beautiful example of the vulnerability of Poiesis. The screw that keeps the hood of engine of the motorcycle in place is a trivial little thing until we wear out its head in a hurry. All of a sudden, the screw has become essential because without being able to unscrew it, we cannot take the hood off and repair the engine underneath. That little screw has become the difference between freedom and fun on the road, and a heap of scrap in the garage.

In order to solve this problem, one should let go of the Poiesis and practice Praxis. One shall have to focus on the context of the screw and attune a certain process of actions according to this. What is the shape of the screw? How deep does it go? From which material is it made? How is it inserted into the hood? What is actually its function? The answers to these questions are essential but not only because something went wrong. Whereas the poietic question of “how to get my motorcycle back on the road as quickly as possible?”, is almost impossible to answer with a lot of unclarity, the practical questions about the screw are easily answered and can be logically traced from the context.

Logics of the Context
The lack of clarity that frustrates most students is often caused by their own focus. A fully poietic focus automatically causes a lack of clarity because the desired result can never be guaranteed. People ignore that which does provide clarity, that is, the present context with valuable practical actions and its contents. These are often directly visible or easily deducible. I explain this to the students through an analogy between studying and building. Studying for a test or being given the assignment to write a thesis are comparable to this. For example, once it is clear that you are going to build a bathroom that has to meet certain requirements, its realization largely follows from that logically. Among other things, it ought to have a well-working shower. We all roughly know what is meant by that. It has to have a decent waterflow, an easily operational warm/cold regulator, and it shouldn’t drip once the faucet is turned off. It would be a bit strange if we would continually ask the client what he means PRECISELY. When is the waterflow decent? When is the faucet easily operational? Is one drop a day drip-free enough? The client does not have to explain this into its finer details. He should be able to trust that you as “builder” know what you are supposed to do.

Freedom and Responsibility
The same goes for students. As soon as the assignment is clear, they have to focus on the connections and logic within the subject instead of focusing solely on the end result. The same goes for teachers, by the way. The Education Day’s title was: “balance between freedom and responsibility” as though these are opposite concepts and hard to reconcile. Apparently it is a dilemma whether you give students freedom or point out their responsibilities. But this dilemma only exists from the perspective of the Poiesis. The balance between freedom and the responsibility to be academically successful, is indeed a difficult question because this success can never be guaranteed. One has to focus on the courses and assignments within academic education. Every project has its own connections and logic from which the balance between freedom and responsibility can be logically deduced. We must therefore all be willing to play the game without focusing solely on the marbles. As Shakespeare once said:

All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players.


Corporate Me and the Borg

First Published in Dutch on the 13th of July 2015

Group dynamics
I prefer counselling students in a group. This preference does not stem from laziness. Counselling a group is really not easier than counselling an individual. I have to prepare more thoroughly and be more alert during the meetings. I prefer this method because it is often more effective than individual counselling. It may sound contradictory but the individual learning process flourishes in a group.

In practice, I often come across very different views about group teaching. One side prioritizes efficiency and considers this educational form to be unavoidable, even though not every student receives the attention she deserves. Others consider group education to be completely unacceptable, for this very reason. The individual development is said to be limited too much. Only few seem to think that group education is essential to the learning process. I am of this opinion and want to devote this essay to this issue.

The well-known educational thinker, Ken Robinson (See video), does not beat about the bush: the current educational system murders creativity. His reasoning is simple. No two children are the same and an educational system that treats the entire population of children as one entity cannot be good. The individuality of the child is not acknowledged, and it is especially that which needs attention.

In recent times there seems to have been a turn towards “tailored education”. In primary education, people work with individual developmental perspectives and personal growth documents; in secondary education, people want to provide the pupils the possibility to take exams tailored specifically to their level. Every single exam would be based on the student’s own level (vmbo, havo, or vwo) in order to create a tailored degree. On my own university, the medical faculty will commence coming academic year with allowing the students to give shape to their own learning path.

To be clear: it is good when educational systems centralize the student and take their individual capacities and needs into consideration. This is inevitable since the learning process is ultimately a personal process. What I wish to claim in this text is that education should not be completely subjected to the individual character of this process. Customization has to have its limits.

False Dichotomy
People such as Robinson put the individual against the system, creating two sides: the “free educational thinkers” who claim that the natural curiosity of the individual needs to have unlimited space, and the “system thinkers” who prefer working from the educational organization and therefore prioritize the system. Do you choose the individual or the system?

I believe this is not a matter of a logical opposition, but, again, a false dichotomy. I have written in earlier essays that educational systems that centralize quantification, protocolization, and standardization can seriously fail short of the individual and his or her learning process, but this does not mean that the development of the individual is necessarily obstructed. In my previous essay I argued for this by pointing out that it is definitely possible to codify and organize the development of creativity.

The Borg
Even though I appreciate Robinson’s arguments, I have pointed out before that I think his claims are too extreme (see essay: Blinders). His claim reminds me of The Borg. Every Trekkie knows what I am referring to. In Star Trek’s science fiction universe, this is the name for the population of creatures that have merged into a collective where their individuality has been lost. The individuals do no longer have their own agency or personality. It has been replaced by the will of The Borg which is predatory and wants to incorporate and assimilate all new creatures that it encounters.

The creatures of the collective are portrayed as gray and grizzled zombies without any feeling or warmth, spontaneity and (there it is!) creativity. For people such as Robinson, classical education is comparable to this monster. Maybe it is not as much “assimilation” in the rigid sense, but “the system” is certainly hostile towards our freedom or at least our mobility and developmental possibilities.

Task of Education
The conflict is ultimately about the question what the purpose of education is. Two extreme opposite perspectives receive most attention: the individual serves the collective (education or society) versus the collective serves the individual (the Self-as-Business). This is very two-dimensional.
Gert Biesta, professor of pedagogy and educational science, claims that the goal of education is related to three domains that are closely connected. It is about qualification, socialization, and subjectification. Qualification is becoming competent in a job or work field; socialization is about being able to participate in society; and subjectification focusses on identity-formation.

Individual Needs
These three domains are not perpendicular to the individual needs. On the contrary, they are closely connected! In Self-determination theory (SDT), researchers distinguish between three fundamental categories and needs: competence, relation, and autonomy. These connect very well to Biesta’s domains. The system and the individual are not completely opposed!
Autonomy is often unjustly aligned to complete independence. In SDT, it is deliberately defined and positioned in relation to others. Within these dynamics, I create my identity. If everybody turns their back on me, I am not free at all; I am lost.

Falling Short
Every educational system – whether old-fashionably classical or modernly individual – falls short when it does not focus on all three above-mentioned domains. The current educational system is dominated by a focus on the cognitive (and possibly affective) aspects of the individual learning process. This way, we only satisfy the goal of qualification/competence. The ability to participate in society – where rational skills and the formation of autonomy are essential – is not stimulated enough this way. Only part of the learning process is addressed, and complete learning therefore does not take place.

The Value of a Collective
I see the confirmation of this in my practice. Recently, I rounded off counselling a group of students that were struggling in their study Dentistry. They failed to carefully manage their patients’ documents and independently keep track of their own activities. From the perspective of the study they fell short in their professional behavior. Until then, the study implemented the procedure to talk to these students individually and after insubstantial improvement, forward them to individual coaching.

Despite this customization of counselling, the department was still dissatisfied with the results. The students in question considered the problems to be separate incidents of bad luck, clumsiness or thoughtlessness, but never as signs of a deeper attitudinal problem. The desired change of view did not occur. Following my advice, they opted for group counselling because skills in rational thought and autonomy are addressed and stimulated to a much greater degree.

What happened is what I always hope to attain with a group. The students slowly came into contact with each other, first cautiously and superficially, but later more extensively. All relevant issues, some suggested or structured by the coach, were explored. They were encouraged to question each other and the coach. Sometimes they agreed; sometimes they didn’t. There were no judgments. They supported each other where it was possible and provided critical feedback when necessary. This way, they positioned themselves in relation to their field. This led to a deepening of understanding and insight. Eventually, every individual understood what they had to do.

Limits to Individuality
This group was not an exception. In my practice, participants continually indicate in their evaluations that they appreciated the classes with their fellow-students. They often initially think that their questions and problems are unusual or complicated. In my experience, this is never the case. Their problems and how they deal with them are remarkably similar. They also notice this in the group. Others acknowledge and recognize their problems, allowing the student to proportion their own problems accurately. The students that truly follow their own individual path, by distancing themselves from their peer group and others, are the ones who remain stuck in their problems.

Being Happy
Our need for an individual path and customization is not as strong as it seems. The American philosopher, Eric Hoffer, once wrote it succinctly: “when people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other”. One only has to look at playgrounds, fashion, or a concert or festival to see that this is a truism. In counselling in study stress, we explore the ultimate fears of students that could follow from not passing a test or study. Without exception, these feelings can always be traced to the fear of being cast out by their community or to stay behind, alone. The prominent psychologist, Martin Seligman, who researches happiness, also concluded that a stable social network makes individuals the happiest.

Meaningful Limits
The development of qualification/competence, socialization/relation, and subjectification/autonomy can only be reached collectively. Education must provide this collective, obviously not in the rigid sense as The Borg, but pervasive enough in order to strongly limit and structure our Corporate Self. Only in a group do these limitations become meaningful. Truly valuable education can only be established collectively.

Without friction, no shine

First published in Dutch on the 21st of March 2017

I can do the fun courses, that’s not the problem. I have trouble with the boring and annoying courses. I keep procrastinating.”

Student quote

One of the most persistent misconceptions about the learning process is the idea that real learning has to feel pleasant. The idea is understandable. Learning is aimed at us gaining more knowledge and being able to do more things. The resulting addition of competence feels good, because it is nice to feel more and more skillful at things. This pleasure can propel our efforts further, making us more and more competent while our wellbeing increases.

The well-known psychological state called flow is often referred to as the ultimate learning experience. You almost become one with your surroundings and, nearly automatically, make extraordinary achievements. It is wonderful to float on a stream of effectiveness towards formidable destinations where doubts, anxiety, and frustrations are left behind.

I wish everyone to have such experiences, but I also wonder whether our idealization of this magical flow does not do more damage than that it inspires us. Is it, development-psychologically speaking, really that valuable? Is it an ultimate learning experience or is it an ultimate experience? I think the latter.

What is the driving force behind the language development of a child? Or rather, what is the driving emotion? You might think it is curiosity, but you would be wrong. The answer is frustration. The child wants all sorts of things and knows that manipulating the mother, the father and others is very effective in that regard. But with “EEEH!” and “UMMGH!”, the child only gets so far. Frustration causes the child to learn the necessary words.
Of course, feelings such as interest, pleasure, and euphoria also play an important role in our learning, but the value of frustration has been, I think, neglected. I regularly come across this emotion from students. They think my confrontational style is unpleasant, the material too abstract and their progress too slow. This can lead to anxiety, irritation, and frustration.

Dropping out
Some students sometimes even drop out of the counselling sessions. One student searches for the reason within him- or herself. They interpret their displeasure and struggles as a shortcoming of themselves. In their eyes, it is a signal that they are not ready for it or can’t do it. Others aim their arrows at me (“I don’t like your approach.”). They consider me forceful, shortsighted and even arrogant and patronizing. I am often told that I don’t take their problems seriously.

To tempt
First of all, I always take the student seriously. I always lament a student’s decision to stop the sessions early. It really gets to me and I consider it a failure on my part. I have always thought it is a lazy conclusion to claim that the student concerned isn’t able to open up or is not yet ready for it. The very fact that they come to me means that they are open to counselling and are in need of help. It is my responsibility to tempt them to a level of learning that they wouldn’t have reached on their own.

The easier the better
Tempting a student this way, however, is complicated by the fact that many people think something’s wrong when they don’t feel good about a challenge. The educational psychologist Robert Bjork from the University of California (UCLA) has stated in a study that students relate the degree of learning with the ease with which they succeeded in a task. In other words, the better it goes, the better they feel and the more they think they have learnt.

This explains why students are inclined to prefer doing relatively easy assignments such as underlining important passages in a text or making notes during class to harder activities such as summarizing in one’s own words and coming up with questions about the subject matter. A larger degree of effort is seen as counterproductive even though these activities have a much larger learning effect!

Tension field
The idea of learning pleasantly also has an effect on the review of teachers and courses. It has been shown that as the students hold both aspects in higher regard, the actual learning effect becomes lower. They value the pleasantness of the classes rather than what they learn. In that sense, receiving critical feedback might reveal that, as a teacher, you are doing your job well. A certain tension field can be expressed by a “bad” review that is very advantageous for real learning.

Actual and Proximal Development
The Russian development psychologist Lev Vygotsky referred to this tension field through a distinction between the zone of actual and proximal development. In the zone of actual development, people are confronted with tasks they are already quite good at. As a result, these people are fairly relaxed because they can fulfill the tasks with only a little effort. Growth is expressed primarily in “finetuning” their skills. Impressive achievements can be made but large learning steps aren’t made.

Large learning steps are reserved for the zone of proximal development. Not everything goes wrong here, but the person is inadequate enough for accurate reflection and firm adjustments to be necessary. The large steps of development take place in this zone. Euphoria and success are alternated by setbacks and frustration.

Consciously incompetent
Years ago, I wrote about the four stages of competence (see A Plea for doubt and confusion):
1. Unconsciously competent
2. Consciously incompetent
3. Consciously competent
4. Unconsciously incompetent

I emphasized the importance of the second stage. Since then, my emphasis has only increased (also see: Ever tried ever failed). I consider the ability of being able to deal with your incompetent moments to be fundamental to personal progression. The third stage cannot be attained without going through the second stage. “Embrace your incompetence!” is a message I often give during my training sessions, workshops or lectures. It is the best way to improve.

Fixed and growth mindset
These views fits nicely within the ideas of psychologist Carol Dweck who uses the term mindset for the collection of attitudes that people have about their learning challenges. Dweck distinguishes between two extremes, the fixed and the growth mindset. Both modes of thinking have characteristics that allow the exact same objective learning situation to be interpreted in a completely different way.

People with a fixed mindset view their own capacities as fixed. “You either have it in you, or you don’t. You can do it, or you can’t”. The result is that every challenge is seen as a threat. When the person doesn’t succeed, or not immediately, this means that you can’t do it and therefore are simply less capable than someone else who does manage to succeed immediately. These people prefer staying within the confines of their comfort zone, or rather, their zone of actual development. Within that zone, they only have to do what they already know.

People with a growth mindset, view failures as temporary (“I am not yet able to do it.”). They recognize their incompetence but don’t experience them as a threat because their capabilities are not rigid. They can learn from their failures and develop further. These people see a setback and frustration as normal aspects of the learning process. They know, intuitively or consciously, that without friction there is no shine.

Ever tried. Ever failed

First published in Dutch on the 20th of March 2016

Transfer between secondary and higher education
As part of the Radboud University Nijmegen, I will soon address education coordinators and secondary school deans about the compatibility of secondary school programmes to university education. They usually have many questions (and concerns) about what pupils need in order to succeed in higher education and how they as teachers can take this into account in their classes. My message will be clear: don’t focus too much on all sorts of strategies and techniques. I have said this before; we must focus more on the development of the correct learning attitude than on the acquirement of specific knowledge and skills.

Behavioural and emotional questions
I contend that the educational workplace confirms this view. Pupils and students confront us time and again with complex questions about behavioural and emotional struggles. These problems are sometimes combined with “ailments” such as AD(H)D, autism spectrum disorders (ASD), personality disorders, performance anxiety, and depression. The “normal” learning problems such as not knowing how to tackle the subject matter, receive less and less attention. They seem to matter less.

Dealing with setbacks
I think this is the case. It has been known for years that students who struggle in higher education, often did not suffer from any problems in secondary school. Apparently, they used to be able to take in the subject matter and plan priorities sufficiently. In higher education they notice that their familiar working method is not good enough and this is why they derail. The students that come to me lack the capacity to deal with these setbacks. I think that this capacity, on all levels of education, is most essential to success.

Pedagogical task
Some teachers feel that they have to be a part-time therapist when they are confronted with the struggles of their pupils. They feel handicapped because they have not had training in counselling complex emotional problems. They often do not consider it their task. After all, it is their job to teach.

Obviously, it all depends on how you define teaching. Teaching, coaching, advising, and counselling may seem totally different activities, but they are often intertwined. Development-psychologically speaking, the differences are spread across a continuum. On one end of the spectrum, people are busy with pumping information into students heads and/or engraving techniques into their system, while at the other end, the personal experience of the student is centralised. As is often the case, people reason about such topics in a very black and white manner, rather than using a more detailed scale. Of course, the teacher does not have to be a therapist, but completely ignoring the individual experience is the other extreme. Ever since the efforts of psychologist John Dewey (1859-1952), it has been clear that the teacher has a pedagogical task. As far as I am concerned, this is now more the case than ever.

Especially the subject teacher
We tend to send pupils with emotional and behavioural problems to a specialist, but it is especially the subject teacher who is pre-eminently in a position to help a large number of these students. They could, in theory, reach a lot more students effectively than someone like me. The reason for this is that the emotional experience and the corresponding behaviour is not at all as enigmatic as it may seem. It becomes a lot more understandable when we realise that anxiety and insecurity are often at the base of these responses. Anxiety and insecurity in education cannot be relieved by anyone better than by the subject teacher.

Let me emphasize that emotions and subjective experience are definitely more complex than business-like issues. They seem to have their own natural laws and sometimes defy the most evident logic. I have students who are afraid of not passing an exam and therefore actually delay to such an extent that they will definitely fail. They see what their problems are but are unable to change them. I also have students that continually receive A’s but are still afraid that they will not pass the next exam. The insecurity is almost unbearable. Momentarily, I am counselling a student who has switched topics of her thesis three times even though she knows that her fear of making choices is her biggest problem and that a new topic won’t solve that. Each time, she hopes that the next topic will offer a solution.

But as soon as we focus on the anxiety, the behaviour becomes less enigmatic. Nobody is immune to it and we do everything to avoid that feeling of fear. Precisely this avoiding behaviour is often the problem. An extreme example is the fact that people can trample each other on the way to the exit of a cinema, trying to escape from the approaching fire. We might consider this documented fact painfully confrontational, but it is far from enigmatic. The mechanism to survive simply takes over. The avoiding behaviour of students is more complex than fleeing from life-threatening danger, but the mechanism is really not that different.

Survival mechanism
Many students who are sent to me seem to suffer from large and complex problems but are primarily avoiding unpleasant confrontations with themselves. Here too, survival mechanisms are employed that can take on quite complex shapes but can almost always be brought down to one, or a combination of, three strategies: avoiding, submitting, and resisting.
The avoider is used to turning away from every confrontation and every important choice in order to avoid the feelings of anxiety; the submitter responds to anxiety by making him- or herself completely dependent on a working method, a property, or a person. The personal responsibility that is eventually necessary to deliver a performance, is not taken. With every failure the person simply “couldn’t help it”. And the resister sets its mind on a desired goal or approach and becomes very angry and frustrated when something or someone obstructs this path. In this situation, it is never the student’s fault; the student is a victim and others are the culprit.

Automatic reactions
The survival strategies are automatic reactions that we all have. We apply them without thinking (consciously), making the problematic consequences seem almost inevitable. When something terribly unpleasant seems unavoidable, the three reactions become totally understandable. We deny or avoid it, we submit or subject ourselves to it, or we resist it. All three reactions are inadequate in a learning process. We ignore our own role in the consequences even though we play a role by definition. We don’t want to take responsibility but don’t realise that we then pay a large price: we don’t learn.

Frustration tolerance
None of the three reactions help us to truly confront the learning situation. In principle, we know that we should change. Rigidity, incompliance, maladjustment are no positive descriptions. We ought to be flexible and pliable. This is also the essence of the learning process. The principle is the capacity to change. Most people will be able to relate to this. However, a litmus test determines whether people can really relate to it. This is the willingness to become frustrated and to fail. That is our frustration tolerance. This tolerance determines our capacity for dealing with setbacks.

The title of this essay refers to the opening lines of a famous quote by playwright Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. Not matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better!”. To some, it is a personal motto because it formulates the ultimate frustration tolerance. It can be very enlightening in case of struggles and setbacks. It has been the inspiration for this essay because the fear of failure and to be discouraged in the case of a setback, occurs so often and at the same time is also incredibly subversive to our learning process.

Sport, play, and research
It always occurred to me that frustration tolerance in sports and science (especially the exact sciences) is much more common than in education. “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found a thousand ways that won’t work” is a remark generally attributed to inventor Thomas Edison. Even though he did not say it in this beautiful way, it is still the point he tried to make in an interview he gave in 1921. He talked about how he responded to an assistant that became discouraged after continual failure. In the case of athletes, the same attitude can be detected. Interviewers always ask them how they cope with their failure. Every time, they explain that they think they have learnt from the experience and formulate their optimism about the future.

How can we arm the secondary school pupils for higher education? It is easy. Commence every class with: “children, we are going to make a lot of mistakes today! This is good, because we are going to examine them and learn from them.”

Ivan the Terrible

First published in Dutch on the 23rd of December 2014

Western narrow-mindedness
I am currently counselling a Russian student who could be called “unusual”. He is stuck on his thesis because he does not accept the demands and boundaries of his study. This happens more often but he, let’s call him Ivan, fumes repeatedly about the poor intellectual capacity of his tutor, all employees of his study and actually the entire Dutch population. His brilliance and Russian heritage are repressed by our Western narrow-mindedness. He does not conceal this opinion in any way and many people consider him arrogant, brutish and offensive.

Another species
It could be simply the case that Ivan is deranged, as a colleague of mine claims, but I think it is too easy to take on this position. I admit that my conversations with him can become quite extreme, but is he really that different from “normal” students? Teachers sometimes confide in me about their struggles with certain students and in their descriptions they sometimes seem to be talking about a different kind of species. I always resist this. I am of the opinion that the “Ivans” of this world are not really all that different from many of the other students that I counsel and should not be branded as deranged.

A joint process
I am known for underlining a learning process that is applicable to everyone and looks the same for everyone. I focus on the joint processes rather than the individual distinctiveness. My justification for this is that we are all physiologically virtually identical. Logically, this means that we are also identical on the neurophysiological level and therefore also (development) psychologically. Without any hard data, I dare to claim that humans share 95% of their psychological processes.

My communal approach generally reaps good results, but I admit that it does not always work. Ivan did not react well to an explanation of facts, mechanisms and cause/effect relations. He resisted the form of counselling that did not pay attention to his “I”. He continually brought up his brilliance and Russian identity.
This is not as strange as it seems. Our learning process is an active process which means that our knowledge cannot originate passively like some kind of sedimented deposit. We must create it actively and therefore we need an “I” that does it. This I-perspective can have a huge influence. The perception I have of myself plays a role in how I interpret the situation and in effect what I learn. “What I take from a situation depends on what I am looking for” is a citation I once came across.

With every student, one’s identity (or the need thereof!) plays an important role. It is this singularity that hinders or stimulates the learning process. The eccentric Ivan, with his alleged brilliance and Russian-oriented identity, clearly reveals how his “I” hinders him in completing his study. But he is definitely not alone. There are also students who even delay graduating because they feel “student” is a much more pleasant element of their identity than “unemployed”. I also counsel students with a lack of concentration and who suffer from fatigue, due to an accident or disease, who are focused on the identity they previously had (“I want to be my old self again!”). This focus is very hindering because they cannot become their old self again by definition (see the citation of Heraclitus in my essay Tip of the Iceburg). Or what about the students that feel the dire necessity to become physician, psychologist, economist, or any such profession, and therefore feel that they MUST add this to their identity.

5% different
I won’t dare commit myself here to a full elucidation of identity. Through the centuries, an astounding amount of texts have been written about this by philosophers and later also psychologists. At the same time, I also don’t want to concede to the claim that “everyone is different”; a claim I often hear when I emphasize the identicality of people. Maybe it is still better to focus on that singularity and expand on my position.
If we are, as I claimed, 95% identical with regard to psychological processes, this also means that we are 5% different. This may not seem an awful lot, but appearances are deceptive. Chimpanzees and humans genetically only differ less than 5% and yet we agree that there is still some significant difference. It therefore seems reasonable to me to claim that 5% psychological variation is more than enough to subsume all psychosocial, cultural and emotional variation between humans. This may seem improbable, but we must not be too impressed by the superficial appearance of all our social-cultural variation. It is not to say that the underlying processes are really all that different. Chihuahuas and Sint Bernard dogs also don’t look alike but they still belong to the same species.

The experiencing and the narrating I
Let’s assume that the “I” is situated within the 5%. I don’t want to align myself with the theories that claim that we have all sorts of social, cultural, emotional, sexual, and historical identities. In that view, everyone can fall back on a unique composition where being other is centralized. I want to make more general claims about singularity.
Most contemporary (Western) psychologists agree that we can make a distinction in our singularity between the experiencing I and the narrating I. The experiencing I is the person that experiences the events directly. All bodily, sensitive, emotional, behavioral and cognitive processes are experienced in real-time. It is an “I” from which we cannot escape and that no other one can reach. It is the window from which we see reality.

For counsellors of an individual, the experiencing I is inaccessible. We cannot reach that experience because we cannot be that person in question. Luckily, there is also the reflective or narrating I. This “I” can narrate what the experiencing I has experienced. At first, the person does this to itself in order to create a sense of individuality and personal consistency rather than chaos, fragmentation and randomness. Secondly, the person can of course also talk to other people. This is not only pleasant but sometimes also necessary. When reflection stalls and the person does not understand itself well, aid can be found in counselors to stimulate self-reflection which eventually can improve self-governance.

I come across many students who do not understand themselves well and therefore have trouble in conducting a detailed reflection. “I really don’t know what is wrong with me.” But even if the student is capable of wording its experience, this still does not have to mean that it will end well. Thorough self-reflection does not automatically lead to good self-governance.

I know my stress is unreasonable because I only have good grades. I don’t necessarily only want to get an A+ but because I am so incredibly afraid of failing, I continue studying. Then I get an A+ again, but the stress is still there, because I am still afraid that I won’t pass the next test.

This student is very good at talking about her experiences but can’t find a way out of it. The experience, primarily the emotional aspects thereof, dominates. This is characteristic of many students that I counsel. They do not experience freedom of choice. They are subjected to an emotion (“I have to follow my passion!”), a diagnosis (“I can’t do it. I have ADHD!”) or, in the case of Ivan, to external factors (“narrow-minded Western intellectuals impede my potential!”).

Another “I”
In order to be able to function well, we need a third level in addition to the experiencing and narrating I. I call this the intentional I. This “I” is able to distance itself from an experience but is at the same time able to own the experience.
The distance is necessary for realizing that there is freedom of choice (also see my essay Crossroads). People are not at the mercy of their experience but always have different options in dealing with them. Furthermore, owning up to one’s experience is crucial for the realization that you have to do something with the situation and to make a choice that fits the “I”. That this isn’t obvious has been dealt with in my essay Other People’s Clothes”.

Who am I, what can I do, and what do I want?
Answering these questions is one of the main goals on which study and profession consultants want to focus. As far as I am concerned, they are talking about the intentional I and I believe these questions are not only relevant in choosing a study or finding one’s way in the labor market but are important throughout one’s entire educational career. I currently give a course on stress management to students who are in the early phases of their study who are afraid of not meeting the requirements of the binding study advice (BSA), but also students who are in the middle of their bachelor’s and only receive straight As, and even a student who already graduated and has a job. Their chronic stress convinces me that they all deal with these questions that are so important for the intentional I. They experience a powerlessness that does not disappear with accomplishing certain achievements and/or diplomas. They are at the mercy of the achievements rather than that they can distance themselves from them and subsequently own up to them.

“Don’t aspire to be able to do what you want, but to want what you are able to do”

Epictetus (Stoic philosopher from the first century AD).

We have to arrange that which we experience into a narrative of which we are not only the narrator but also the author. You live, tell, and redirect in accordance with the “I” that you want to be. This is the case for all of us, including Ivan. But maybe his “I” is too much alike the one of his terrible namesake. In that case, he might indeed be deranged.


The Boy Problem

First Published in Dutch on the 4th of september 2014

In a meeting at my university we discussed a research. Boys and girls were separately placed in an empty room without distractions and only with a machine with which they could administer small electric shocks to themselves. It was a research in boredom. What was the result? Boys administered themselves with shocks a lot more often than the girls. This result was – in the meeting dominated by women – seen as pretty shocking. I could not refrain myself from commenting: “It’s getting better and better! First, men were autistic and AD(H)D patients, now we also turn out to be masochists!” Some people laughed, and more jokes were made after which we went on with the agenda. My remark was more serious, however, than people thought.

Performing worse in education
In education and politics “the boy problem” has become a household term. It is clear that they perform worse than the women in roughly all levels of education. They have more study delay, quit more often, and have become minorities in increasingly more studies in higher and academic education. Their bad attitude and ineffective behaviour is broadly measured. They postpone work, overestimate themselves, are lazy and unmotivated, do not have overview or structure and so on.

Obviously, the question is to what degree there actually is a problem. The men still make most working hours in their career, they earn more money and have the highest positions. In other words, it depends on how you look at it. This essay, however, does not focus on whether there is a problem or not. I want to focus on the way in which the debate about the boy problem is held.

Concrete Causes
In conformity with the zeitgeist, we want to find a concrete cause for the remarkable difference in educational performances between boys and girls. In conformity with that same zeitgeist, we look at biology in general and to the brain more specifically. The results are there. In the vulnerable age between twelve and fifteen, boys experience an explosion of testosterone where girls produce oestrogen and oxytocin. In the case of boys, this leads to an increase in their kinetic and spatial skills but also to a more aggressive/active attitude. They are mobile, militant, impulsive and have little leaning towards conformity. In the case of girls, the verbal development increases and oxytocin makes them sociable and inclined to please others. Boys have a highly sensitive amygdala which impedes their control of their emotions and, to crown it all, the prefrontal cortex develops much slower in boys than in girls. Their executive functions (creating an overview, work systematically, reflection, and risk assessment) are less well developed than in the case of girls of that same age.

The above is the general scope of the research “Jongens … aan de slag!”, a rapport that is often cited in discussions on this subject. It seems to be a clear story. People come to concrete recommendations: offer structure and clarity, a positive approach, variation in class, active work forms, evoke reflection, and employ humour.
It strikes me that these tips are so unremarkable. They are recommendations that are generally known as factors that improve education for both boys and girls. So far, there is nothing new under the sun.

Even though the recommendations are reassuringly known, and the authors nuance their story by being inclined to talk about boyish and girlish characteristics (i.e. there are boyish girls and girlish boys), instead of talking about behaviour of boys and girls, I still view their treatment of this subject as worrying. I think that the rapport elicits a completely different message than the reasonable conclusions imply. Boys and girls are almost juxtaposed as different kinds of mammals. The anecdote with which I started out this essay reveals that this fear is not entirely unfounded. I have my reservations with the way the subject is dealt with.

Nature/Nurture dichotomy
Firstly, people lean on the neurophysiological differences between boys and girls. The idea is that hormones and brain regions cause behaviour that people in practice have to take into account. In this line of reasoning, the nature/nurture dichotomy is taken as a starting point; there are “nature” factors (e.g. hormones) and “nurture” factors (e.g. teachers) that determine and guide our experience and behaviour. These factors are independent and even opposites. A factor is either nature or nurture and one factor can even “collide” with another.

This dichotomy has been the dominant starting point in psychology and education for a long time. I often see a version of this appear in discussions on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In this, nowadays classic, conflict, the teacher blames the student for having too little intrinsic motivation while the student blames the teacher for not making the course enjoyable enough and for not being enthusiastic enough (extrinsic motivation). The former is a sort of nature argument, while the latter is a sort of nurture argument. These factors are also seen as isolated and opposite. A motivation factor is either intrinsic or extrinsic.

False Dichotomy
The question is whether this view is justified. It is ironical that especially the psychological movement that centralises the neurophysiological development, that is: evolutionary psychology, actively distances itself from this dichotomy. It is said to be artificial and false. I completely agree.

Nature and nurture are not extreme opposites but have to be seen as an organic whole. They are connected and as inextricable as conjoined twins. Our physiological, cognitive, emotional, and social development is no separate threads but form an inclusive development. They are inextricably entwined, and the untangling of those threads leads to little result on the level of our daily functioning.

For instance, research would show us that girls have a closer and larger corpus collosum than boys which would explain why girls are better in formulating and understanding their own feelings and those of others. But is this physiological development really separable from the socio-emotional and cognitive development of girls that are encouraged, at a young age, to express their emotions and to care for others? Our brains do not develop apart from the environment. They develop (within limits) according to what we experience. This is why blind and deaf people, for example, have certain areas in the brain that are more deeply developed than is the case with people with sight and hearing.

Meaningful Behaviour
Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation is, for that same reason, a false dichotomy. Passion for a subject cannot be seen independently from the classes that one has about them, the discussions that one has about them, the books that one reads about them and the possibilities that one sees in them. On the level of human experience and behaviour, a sharp divide between the intrinsic and the extrinsic is unworkable and even right-out misleading.

The nature/nurture dichotomy ignores the active and meaningful character of our (learning) behaviour. Behaviour is described mechanically as passive cause-effect chains that are shaped by varying combinations of nature and nurture factors. The individual does not seem to play a role in this.
But behaviour is not caused by the hormones, the prefrontal cortex or corpus collosum. Behaviour is shaped on the basis of our physiological, emotional, cognitive, and social development and is alway employed within a context. That this development, and in effect our behaviour, is largely unconscious does not impede the fact that behaviour is active, bound to context and meaning, and should therefore be interpreted from that viewpoint.

Implicitly normative
The second side note that I wish to make is that the discussion is shaped from an implicitly normative perspective. This perspective claims that behaviour that is unifiable with education is better than behaviour that is less easily combined. The verbal, social, and cooperative behaviour that is attributed to girls is put in opposition to the mobile, aggressive, and recalcitrant behaviour of boys. People are one step away from saying that boys have too much testosterone.

This becomes apparent in the comment by professor Jelle Jolles who said that boys are one or two years behind in the development of their prefrontal cortex. Behind on what, for what? It is the same reasoning as the remarkable comment that nature is one month ahead due to a warm winter. Nature cannot be ahead or behind anything. At most, it can be ahead of our conception of what the timeline of nature ought to be. The same is the case for boys. They can only lag behind to our conceptions of what the developmental line of a child ought to be.

Moreover, the characteristics of taking risks and self-overestimation are seen as expressions of a less well developed prefrontal cortex. Jolles would even go as far as to claim that these adolescents ought to be protected from themselves. As far as I know, however, boys are not crashing down left, right and centre. They are not an endangered species. They develop in a way that they have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years and are, as I wrote above, quite successful in society. Their risky behaviour and self-overestimation is quite lucrative. Most psychologists claim that a certain degree of self-overestimation is essential for being psychologically healthy.

Girl Problem
The normative character of the discussion is also apparent from the fact that the girl problem is almost completely ignored in education. The girl problem envelops fear of failure and stress. Nine out of ten students that I counsel with complaints of stress are women. Highly educated women have a much higher risk of having a burnout than men. This is an invisible problem in education because these women generally receive outstanding grades and only get into trouble later in life. Are we also going to talk about their hormone system, prefrontal cortex, amygdala and corpus collosum? We probably would not because we think, justly, that stress and burnout complaints have many facets that cannot be reduced to neurophysiological causes. Shall we deal with behaviour of boys with the same respect?

Raising, teaching, and mentoring
I do agree with professor Jolles that we sometimes have to protect adolescents from themselves. This is what we call raising, teaching and mentoring, and is equally applicable to girls as it is to boys. We can certainly take hormones and brain regions into account, but these factors have to be placed into a wider context where the agency of the student is centralized.


This essay was first published in Dutch om the 28th of April 2014

Why do we learn? What do we learn? How do we learn and when have we learnt? If you ask these questions to pupils or students, you often receive clear answers. We learn because it’s compulsory (public education law) or because we want a decent job later on (diploma). We learn facts from books and texts that we often never need again. We learn by reading these books, summarizing and memorizing them. And we have learnt well when we pass the test.
These answers may be a bit negatively formulated but most teachers and supervisors will have heard them often. I am willing to juxtapose them to more positive perspectives. There are many students full of curiosity and ambition. They ravish the books, study till late in the night and in the weekends, have had a vision about their future employment from early childhood and will not settle for less than an A or A+, because the study is the gateway to that job. Both perspectives are applicable to what I wish to shed light on in this essay.

Everything in the name of
The common aspect of both groups is that they relate all of their activity (or lack thereof) to the study itself. I often hear students blame themselves for “not having done anything this week”, or shout with relief that they “have a week off” or “don’t have to do anything for tomorrow”, while others lament that they “have no free time”. Some students do not allow themselves any breathing space: “if I don’t succeed, I am dumb”, “if I don’t graduate from this study then everything has been for nothing!”.

Remarkable comments
These are remarkable comments if you take them seriously (something I try to do as much as possible!), because you cannot do nothing. We do nothing when we lay dead in our graves. At all other times, we are busy as bees. It is remarkable to talk in terms of “free” or “not free” in relation to learning. We learn continuously, and, in effect, we cannot have “free time” even if we wanted to (but why would you want to?). We are unceasingly active in creating all sorts of knowledge constructs in our heads. This is in no way an exaggeration. We literally learn with every step we take because we activate certain regions in the brain that are necessary for our thinking and memory (Professor Erik Scherder has given a clarifying lecture about this at the University of the Netherlands). It is from a psychological point of view impossible that all kinds of actions could be “for nothing”.

Monopoly of learning
Is clarification really still needed to explain that a fail for a test does not mean that someone is dumb and that failing your study also doesn’t mean that you have lost all this time senselessly? Yet, this idea is deeply ingrained in a lot of students. They interpret the activity of learning apparently completely from the perspective of education. Education (in the form of teachers, syllabi, regulations, political or societal discussions) apparently determines how we view learning. It determines what we mean by learning and what acknowledged learning activities are. In addition, the institutions determine whether or when you are free, useful, and how smart you are.
I must admit that I come across professionals in the work field that also seem to believe that education has a monopoly on learning.

In short, we are in a situation where educational institutions provide an unusual large contribution to how we view learning, even though, in reality, it only plays a minor role in our actual learning. This would not be so problematic if learning in schools would be aligned seamlessly to the learning processes elsewhere. Sadly, this is not the case. Educational institutions employ an exceptionally narrow interpretation of learning. Which means that students, in turn, also have narrow interpretations of learning (see my essay Homo Praxis) . This is what makes the comments above so poignant to me. The students judges and condemns themselves on the basis of seriously limited information.

Narrow Interpretation
Our current education system is the result of two influential historical periods: The Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution (the education expert Sir Ken Robinson has made a famous video about this). The influence of both is, after all this time, still extremely strong. Thanks to The Enlightenment, we see learning primarily as rational knowledge acquirement. Aside from language and mathematics, it is primarily about content filled subjects like geography, history, biology and so on, subjects in which a lot of information is poured into the students. At an early age, we learn about tectonic plates, Romans, William of Orange, etc. My daughter knew the ten largest cities in the Netherlands and the capitals of all surrounding countries even before she had learnt to use the city map to find her quickest way home.

In elementary education, there is some attention for playfulness, personal expression and the practice of everyday life, but on secondary schools, this soon has to make room for “real” subjects in all abstract seriousness. English, Dutch and Mathematics are mandatory subjects and all profiles are filled with hard science. Creativity, social emotional development and self-exploration have to be given attention outside of school. At least, there is no room for this in the all-determining final exams.

The Industrial Revolution might even have had more (bad) influence. The most important characteristics are: scale, quantification, standardization, and efficiency, characteristic of all learning and testing methods in our current regular education system. The individual is completely subservient to the organization. As a pupil you have nothing to say about it, and as a student it is not much better.
Multiple-choice tests are a typical product of this way of thinking. I know study programmes that literally hinder their students from finding out what they did wrong precisely on a test; they merely receive the answer sheet. The testing method is already problematic from an educational point of view, but this lack of decent feedback is fundamentally wrong. Yet, this is what happens; frequently and shamelessly.

In my essay, “true scientists” I claim that we are not the sober empiricists that people in education think we are. I referred to the misconception of viewing the individual as someone who critically and objectively goes through the learning cycle of Kolb (because they do not). But my reading of these ideas in educational systems is, on second thoughts, too optimistic. I see little of the ambition to develop empirical skills in pupils and students. Rationalism dominates with the idea that true knowledge can be completely transmitted via books, lectures, assignments, and multiple-choice tests.

Murdered creativity
I would not go as far as Sir Ken as to say that the education system “murders” the creativity of the pupil, but I see apparent negative consequences in my practice. Doing “nothing” and being “free” are only the most innocent signals. The pupils and students that I meet are decidedly conservative in their learning methods and conform completely to their institution. They want to learn techniques and strategies that all fall within the paradigms of The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. They want to read faster, memorize better, and write more effortlessly. They want to attain this behind their desks and laptops by employing concrete, standardized (read: immediately employable without changeover or measurement) techniques. The menacing condemnation of “being dumb” that constantly hangs over their heads is seen as a given and they want to avoid it at all costs. Conclusion: eyes on the prize and avoid all risks.

The Summit
Nowhere is this rigid working method more prominent than in the phase of writing the thesis. This “highest” level of education ought to be filled with citizens who have managed to achieve the summit of their learning capacity. They ought to be critical and creative minds that dare to lean on their learning capability and that take on all intellectual challenges with confidence. They should, in other words, be intellectual hotshots.

Some students undoubtedly match this description, but the majority does not, and I dare to claim that those hotshots that did come this far have done so despite the system and not thanks to it. Many of the students I come across in this period have no idea what the academic level is that they should try to attain and know just as little about what they want to show at this level. They also consider their capacity to show it of a very low standard. They wrestle with a lack of overview, goal-orientedness and self-confidence and would rather write grammatically correct sentences with the proper academic depth, off the cuff.

Broadening the Horizon
In my work, I try to broaden their horizon – which is full of rigid conceptions and working methods (see also: “Let’ Play ”, “Chaos in the Order” and “Fear of Failure”). I let them formulate their confusion and frustrations and show them that these largely stem from preconceived assumptions and misconceptions. Applicable alternatives can be put in use. One does not have to begin at the beginning and go through everything. You do not have to understand everything in one go. A text does not have to be perfect at the first try. You are allowed to ask stupid questions and to write down nonsense (in the first draft!). Put down your laptop for once and pick up large leaves of paper and colour pencils. Take your study book out on the street, talk aloud to yourself, to your dog, or with each other. Organize a “battle” on the subject and go wild in taking extreme positions. Almost everything is allowed in the learning process, as long as the action at hand sincerely explores the subject (!). Every action, no matter how crazy, serves the purpose of the learning process. Only when you have made yourself independent from the paradigms of the education system, have you reached the highest level of learning. More often than not, I manage to widen the students’ blinders. Would it not be beautiful if we could achieve this with the educational institutions?

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.