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.