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Is optimism the key to excellent teaching?

In the ‘60s, most learning science researchers agreed that students learn by association and reinforcement, ignoring the individual factors that influence learning. However, that all changed when a renowned researcher, Martin Seligman, and his collaborators posed these fascinating questions: Can people learn to be helpless? Can they learn to be optimistic? What does that mean for the process of teaching?

In a nutshell, after many decades of research, the consensus is that mastery-oriented students tend to fare better in school, not because they are more talented, but because they persevere. They also attribute their success to ability and effort rather than chance. By contrast, students who attribute failure to internal causes also see adverse outcomes as stable. They’ve learned that no matter what they do, they can’t influence what happens in their lives— the definition of learned helplessness.

Clearly, as a teacher, you want to help all students succeed, and it’s hard when you face a brick wall made out of negative self-assessments such as “I can’t” or “I’m not good enough.”

Read more: What’s edtech got to do with growth mindset?

Each student is unique, and there are factors inside and outside of school that can help them overcome a pessimistic style of thinking. However, if students persist in this pattern, their grades will suffer, but there’s also a possibility that they’re never going to change if they don’t get help. That can translate into missed opportunities in life, such as avoiding degrees or careers that are challenging and take many years of practice.

The ideal outcome is not fake optimism. Indeed, you can be optimistic while also taking responsibility for your actions. Optimists are more likely to work harder, achieve their learning goals, and see their abilities for what they are.

The good news is that attribution styles are flexible. School interventions that focus on changing negative into positive ways of thinking about success can improve students’ performance, confidence, and even prevent depression. Before that, as a teacher, you need the ability to identify students that might be at risk.

Figuring how your students think about failure

As a teacher, you are “the first line of defense” when helplessness stands in the way of learning. Not all students will feel hopeless due to a bad event, but they are more vulnerable. Sometimes it’s hard to know what they think, especially since not all of them verbalize their feelings — yet, there are patterns that all teachers have observed in one way or another:

How long does it take to recover from failure?

Optimistic thinkers might feel sad but recover quickly. Failure is temporary and specific to one negative outcome. For students with a pessimistic pattern, it takes a long time to get over one setback. It also has a snowball effect: if they fail the first part of a test, they’re more likely to fail the rest. They also prefer to work on easy tasks over new and challenging ones.

What is their attitude when it comes to trying?

We’ve all heard “I can’t,” “I’m not good enough,” or “never going to make it,” but it can also reflect in how they act: they give up easily. They are not as proactive, and due to a lack of confidence, they’re usually too afraid to actively participate in class (not to be confused with shyness).

What is their self-talk?

Sure, it’s easy to spot negative self-assessments such as “I am a failure,” but they might not open up so easily. It’s important to ask parents or other teachers to check if these things have come up in conversations. Remember, they’re always generalized evaluations, which, apart from being untrue, are downright harmful.

How much help is too much?

If your student is constantly asking: “Am I doing good?” it’s generally not a bad thing. However, if they're constantly asking their peers and yourself for reassurance, even on easy tasks, there’s a chance that they’re not confident in their skills and feel as if they need it because others know better (in their opinion)

To what do they attribute good results?

When faced with learned helplessness, a student will attribute good outcomes to luck or other external causes. Otherwise, they might think that you’re easier on them, the task was too easy, etc. No matter what, their fear of failure goes a long way. They don’t want to take responsibility for the outcome, even when it’s a good one.

What do they focus on?

More optimistic students focus on what they didn’t get right on a task since they want to improve their result. They will also notice what they did right. On the other side, learned helplessness means that your students focus on what they didn’t do, but there’s no desire to improve — they’re going to “let things be” most of the time.

What are your own beliefs?

Your ideas as a teacher matter. For example, if you think that talent is more important than effort, it will develop your teaching approach. However, researchers have stressed that successful people (and students) do well not because they are incredibly talented but because they work hard. And while teachers have picked up on these messages, parents might also have certain beliefs in this area, in which case they should work on what kind of messages they send to their children.

Read more: Best practices for supporting parents with remote learning

Optimism doesn’t mean plastering your classroom’s (virtual or physical) walls with motivational quotes if you’re not into that (but it’s OK if you are!). An excellent method is to work with a school counselor that can evaluate students and give you helpful advice. Try to involve parents, not only because you need their consent, but also because they can help their children succeed long term in dealing with learned helplessness. Then, there’s attribution retraining.

How can teachers bring optimism into their classrooms?

Faulty attributions aren’t set in stone. Students can change the way they think about tasks, abilities, and ultimately, themselves. Attribution retraining is used in schools to challenge this negative pattern of thinking about achievement. Both indirect (teachers model a behavior) and direct (students re-assess their attributions) retraining programs have been successful to various degrees. Let’s see how they work:

  1. Focusing on effort attributions

    When giving feedback to students, both direct or written, pay attention to the delivery. In this method, teachers focus on making comments about their students’ efforts; the more they try, the better. However, it also has to be specific. Telling them, “you’ve made great progress on X strategy, I see that you’ve worked hard” is much more valuable than “Good job!”. Keep in mind that students might feel hopeless in one subject and more confident in others, which opens a new door to show them that they can succeed in more subjects since all knowledge is connected.

    Read more: The 5 Bs of online feedback teachers need to master

  2. Mixing effort with ability attributions

    Students pick up on the idea that feedback in their specific case is only related to effort and might feel unmotivated as a result. That’s why teachers can try to combine effort with ability attributions such as “your reading ability has improved. It’s all the extra reading you’ve been doing at home”. Plus, find a way to always comment on what they do, not what they are — no global evaluations, stick to task-specific feedback. As you know, a high IQ related to general intelligence doesn’t mean that they’ll be good at everything and excel in school. Expert learners acquire knowledge by immersion in specific domains. A focus on mastery and feedback on specific tasks rather than “global intelligence” is needed.

    Read more: How to give feedback to students in the online learning environment

  3. Effort attributions and self-statements

    If students can learn to criticize themselves, they can also learn to reflect on their progress and make accurate judgments. When they work on tasks, it’s important to stress how they think about what they’re doing. For example, a statement such as “I can’t do it, I’m not good enough, so it was a waste of time to try.” can turn into “couldn’t solve it right now, but if I try hard enough, I can do it, this has nothing to do with my abilities, it takes time to get it right.” For teachers, it takes patience, collaboration with parents, and learning how to question or even dispute their maladaptive learning attributions in a way that shapes their thinking towards an effort-oriented approach.

  4. Combining strategy instruction with attributions

    A successful instruction strategy works great when combined with attributions, as long as they connect their beliefs about success/failure and the said strategy. You might find that a lack of motivation to learn is also related to simply not knowing how to learn. When students sit down to do homework, they don’t have a strategy!

    Strategies such as spaced repetition or active recall work great for individual tasks. For others, it might be as easy as making a checklist before they do homework with the steps needed to complete it, drawing concepts so that they’ll be easier to memorize, etc.

    Read more: For effective learning, teach students how to learn

Wrapping up

Achievement in school and life is primarily attributed to perseverance. While all students are different and require a certain degree of individualized attention, each of them can change the way they think about success and failure, replacing inaccurate and unhelpful beliefs with more realistic ones. Again, optimism isn’t about being positive all the time but learning how to recover from setbacks and being more at ease with challenging tasks.

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