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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”