First published in Dutch on the 15th of July 2010
“It” as a Problem
Students frequently say, “I can’t do it”, “I don’t get around to it” or “It is so boring.” Then, when I politely ask them whether it is animal, vegetable or mineral, they are first surprised and then they laugh and say, “You know what I mean.” I firmly answer, “No, I don’t know what you mean and you probably don’t know either.”
The student puts their problem in words that almost grants it material properties. But as soon as I ask a few specific questions, he often realizes he doesn’t understand his problem in such concrete terms at all. This is unsurprising, after all, he came to me for answers. The challenge, however, is not so much getting the student to use more nuanced formulations; instead, the problem is that, despite nuances, the notions behind his original statement usually do not change. Without realizing it, the student experiences an it that causes all sorts of difficulties.
Not Just Students
This way of thinking is not reserved for students alone; teachers and supervisors can also be caught doing it. Recently, I was once again able to behold the infamous trench-war between students and teachers, during a discussion about study motivation. The teacher blames the student for being unmotivated, while the student blames the teacher for being uninspired and, subsequently, uninspiring. The teacher, in turn, responds that the student should be more intrinsically motivated.
The participants wrestle with the concepts intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in the remainder of the discussion. They struggle with the exact meaning of the concepts, debate when each is applicable and to what extent one goes before the other. It should not come as a surprise that teachers and students fail to find common ground. What bothers me most about this is that neither party is able to establish clarity regarding the subject.
In discussions like these the student’s (or teacher’s) lack of motivation is often interpreted as experiencing an it; namely, a lack of motivation (or depression, fear of failure, fear to write, social anxiety, etc.). And it causes all these undesirable things to happen. It is what makes the student not listen, study little and neglect attending classes while another it is the reason that the teacher is not able to inspire his students or communicate well.
A False Conception
This conception of an it is hard to manage in practice. It gives little insight in concrete causes of problems. The participants in the debate mentioned before, for example, are not able to pinpoint the causes of ‘bad’ student motivation in concrete terms and come up with solutions, despite the charming labels intrinsic and extrinsic. For students who cannot get ‘it’ done, it is an enormous effort to determine precisely what ‘it’ is.
The reason for this is that the notion of ‘it’ as cause is simply incorrect in such situations. One focuses on an entity which does not really exist. ‘It’ is created artificially.
The term for this process of creation is reification: phenomena are put together and labeled and then the label is interpreted as something that actually exists. The label is also given all of the causal powers of an it. Fear of failure is such an entity. A student who says, “I’m not passing my exams because I have a fear of failure,” gives that label a power which it does not actually have. Fear of failure is not responsible for anything; rather, it is simply a generic term for a set of dysfunctional thought patterns, behaviour and feelings that occur when one needs to achieve something.
The thinking error in giving labels a causal power, comes from a deeply ingrained conception of the causes of human action. For ease of reference I am calling it internal-external thinking. In this way of thinking, an individual moves through external space while the ‘internal I’ is fixed and inviolable. Sometimes he encounters external factors (such as uninspired teachers) that he needs to learn to deal with, but in so doing he does not, in essence, need to change himself. He concludes that the external factors are not helping him and he reaches out to another way of achieving his goals.
This same person also encounters subtler factors that seem internal, but which he interprets as external. Whenever a student tells me that he is not motivated, he is actually saying, “I suffer from a condition that is called ‘being unmotivated.’ Please make it go away.” So, in this instance, too, the individual thinks that his ‘I’ remains essentially untouched and he does not need to change.
A person can change or develop in this vision, but it is the result of a reasonably simple interaction between external influences and internal motivation.
A different view; Constructivism
I believe that reality is significantly different. I am a fervent constructivist and believe, like all constructivists, that the external world is fundamentally elusive to us. We register it by framing the information we receive from the external world in a kind of cognitive template which makes the information comprehensible to us. The template is dynamic and flexible, because components are continuously being expanded, adapted and replaced. It consists of a myriad of memory-constructs that change as a result of (mainly unconscious) learning-processes that we constantly take up.
In this vision internal versus external is an ineffective dichotomy; we move around in an ‘external’ world of our own creation!
A quotidian phenomenon confirms this conception. We take colour to be an integral aspect of an object, but that is an incorrect assumption. Because of Isaac Newton’s discoveries (1643-1727), every pupil in secondary schools now learns in physics class that an object has no colour; rather, it is the beams of white light reflected off the object that hold the colours we see. An object absorbs different colours in the spectrum of light and reflects the remaining colours back to us. We see the reflected colours and then say it is the object’s colour. We experience colour as a property of all material things in the external world; but in fact, this interpretation is the result of the (in this case, neurophysiological) template we have developed.
Misinterpretation by reification
If such a (mis)interpretation holds true for material objects, it counts even more so for immaterial issues. We experience an external objectivity, but essentially this does not exist. And just like a faulty theory about colour can lead to an inability to explain specific phenomena (colour as a property of an object cannot explain why a sodium-vapour lamp makes every object look either yellow or black), so too does reification seldomly lead to solutions for concrete problems of human action. This explains why the participants in the debate could not usefully employ the labels intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation becomes the extent to which a student is interested in a particular scientific subject, regardless of teacher, certificate, money, or social status. However, the subject does not exist as an entity apart from extrinsic factors such as the manner in which the teacher presents his subject, what the literature says about it, the manner in which fellow students debate about it, and what you intend to do with it or achieve by it.
These extrinsic factors are just as determining for the shaping of a subject as are the sunrays which give a peacock its fantastic colours. The discussion about the extent to which intrinsic or extrinsic motivation applies as the cause of an individual’s actions is, in practice, as useless as the question whether it is the light or the structure and material of feathers which helps determine the peacock’s colours. They are both, in essence, inextricably linked.
Obstructions in counseling
Internal/external thinking causes obstructions in counseling. A student, for example, tends to make himself more powerless than he is in reality, by interpreting his problems as an it. If he experiences his fear of failure (or a lack of motivation, e.g.) to be the cause of his problems, he does not need to look for it within himself. He suffers from something that needs to be remedied. He does not need to change; he needs to be presented with a solution. This does not work, for the same reason a crash diet does not work. A person obediently follows a programme and the pounds fly off. However, 6 weeks after the diet the lost weight is back on, with a vengeance. This is because the person did not change their lifestyle; instead, he believed the weight loss programme would solve ‘it’ all.
In reality he finds himself caught in a complex system in which internal drives and external factors become a delicate whole, which determine his actions in this particular situation. A student is not a powerless supporting actor; instead, he is always an active participant – even a director – of the system which is his studies.
Emphasis in counseling
Counseling should do justice to the constructivist nature of human beings. This is counseling that is focused on processes and mechanisms which can define a person in his various circumstances. The confusion between the internal and the external should be left behind. An uninspired teacher is not an external factor, any more than fear of failure is. Both factors are part of the reality the student has created for himself. Counseling must expose this process so students learn to take action.
The physician Boris Bouricius has employed this vision in medicine for decennia. He uses a rarely employed procedure in medicine, with which he does not look to determine what ails his patients (his term for reification is nomalisation), but rather, to study what the body does.
This approach has two advantages that also hold in education and counseling. First of all, a person is not made to be unjustly helpless. Bouricius, for instance, does not talk about CANCER, but rather about specific processes in the body. Some people can already see themselves on their deathbeds when they hear the “C-word” and feel completely powerless. The label is experienced as a curse that seals your fate, even though there are many forms of cancer that can be treated and that may sometimes even heal “spontaneously”. Students who experience fear of failure, concentration problems, or a lack of motivation, often experience a similar helplessness evoked by a label.
A second advantage is that an all-or-nothing situation never applies. Physicians who diagnose using labels, sometimes come to their patients and tell them, “we don’t know what you’re suffering from; therefore, we cannot help you.” This is a legitimate response, because they cannot figure out what it is. However, this is not to say that they could not find out anything. Specific reactions and processes of the body are visible to the medical staff; the medical staff simply cannot find the one cause of the problem which helps them determine a particular remedy or operation as the solution.
This is the same for students who use a similar all-or-nothing interpretation. Those with motivational problems often come to me complaining, “I haven’t done anything this week again.” This is not only an ineffective way of thinking, it is also incorrect. He might not do the things he had intended to do, but he does do all sort of things. You can only say you have done absolutely ‘nothing’ when you are dead in your grave.
In counseling we should not think too much in terms of labels. At most, they can help us focus our attention to the areas in which students get themselves in trouble, due to specific mechanisms and processes. These mechanisms and processes are of primary significance if students are to take responsibility as active participants and directors of their own learning.
We can support them in this process, but only if the students do not see us as one of the many external factors influencing their world. We can achieve this first, by keeping ourselves from seeing students as external factors in our own world. Second, we must be cautious with internal/external thinking and formulating its ourselves. Councilors can rise above an it by thinking in terms of a ‘shared’ subjectivity, instead of an absolute objectivity or a complete subjectivity. Counseling is a joint venture by a councilor and a student, in which both parties have to realize that they are part of a shared system. Diagnosing and labeling can be very helpful at times, but they must never create an it that stands in the way of a healthy relationship between councilor and student.