The last post, How to Recover from Traditional Schooling, discussed some of the ways independent learners can rid themselves of the negative thought patterns picked up at traditional schools. I talked about some simple activities you can do to rekindle your love of learning. For many, this is all it takes.
Unfortunately, for some former students, negative attitudes are so deeply ingrained that it takes an additional level of introspection, which is often rather uncomfortable.
Students who were continually considered successful in school (“A-students”) and those who were continually considered failures (“F-students”) often have the most difficult time adjusting to independent learning. This is because the school labels of “success” and “failure” easily become a part of the student’s self-image.
Good News for Mediocre Students
Good news for you “average” students – If you were a “B” or “C” student, it will probably be easier for you to shed the negative attitudes you picked up in schools. Most people I know who received mediocre grades in school don’t have the same label problem that “A” and “F” students have. My brother, for example, always got “B” and “C” grades because he would not sacrifice his integrity to tell the teachers what they wanted to hear. If he thought an assignment was busywork, he would avoid it and instead spend his time learning what he wanted. (He’s the only person I know who reads 3000 page computer programming books from front to back…) He didn’t receive public accolades or disgrace. But it didn’t matter to him – his self-image wasn’t based on his transcripts.
The “F-Student Mentality” – A Belief in Failure
“F-students” often have trouble feeling like they are capable of learning. Again and again, their grades have conveyed the message that they are not smart enough or not good enough. After a while, the message starts to sink in. They get used to feeling like failures, accept the label, and just quit trying. I noticed this pattern as I taught high school in an inner-city neighborhood. Students who had a history of getting bad grades would simply quit trying. They’d show up to the first day of class and refuse to pick up a textbook. Why try? They figured they were just going to fail anyway. Often, these students were not exploring their own hobbies or learning on their own. Everyone had told them that they couldn’t learn, so they decided to spend their time sitting in front of the tv or causing mischief around town.
If you identify with the “F-student” personality, there’s a few things you can do. First, keep in mind that your perception is flawed. When you find yourself thinking you can’t learn something, remind yourself that the “voice in your head” is a negative remnant of traditional schooling and is NOT the truth. Second, realize that people have different strengths. Not everyone is book smart and that’s ok. Schools cater to people who learn through their sense of hearing (i.e. through lectures). Some people learn best that way, but many learn best through their other senses. For example, you might learn best through physical interaction, through your sense of sight (reading), or through working with others (lame group projects don’t count). For an interesting overview of different learning styles, read up on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences. When you’re learning independently, you can find the way that works for you.
Next, give yourself the opportunity to find success in a non-threatening environment. Choose a goal that is difficult. Don’t choose something so easy that you’re sure you can accomplish it. But, don’t choose something so difficult that it is currently impossible. (I’m not saying people don’t have limitations…) Take steps towards your goal. When you accomplish it, celebrate. If you fail, keep trying. Prove to yourself that you can learn and the “failure” label in your mind will begin to disappear.
The “A-Student” Mentality – Trading Accolades for Actual Learning
Many people think that “A-students” are the most adept learners, but it’s not true. “A students” often have an even bigger mental block than “F-students.” Here’s why: people who are used to getting praise and approval often begin seeking these accolades in place of actual learning.
I will confess that this has been one of my greatest challenges. I love universities. One reason is because I love the buzz of discussion, the huge libraries, and the open expression of ideas. But, I admit, another reason is because I remember the way college made me feel. School made me feel good. Attending class was a high – teachers complimented me, my papers were passed around as examples, I almost always got “A”s. The more “A”s I got, the more I wanted to get.
If you think an “A” means “learned well,” think again. In almost all classes, an “A” means “did what the teacher wanted him/her to do.” All you have to do to get good grades in college is to pick up on the personality nuances of the teacher and turn in work accordingly. If you want “A”s, don’t write your ideas in an essay, write what the teacher wants you to write. Play the system. Answer questions from the teacher’s perspective. Use the word “ethnocentric” in all history and literature papers, because professors like that word. (I’m not kidding. If someone is attending a traditional school, please try using that word in a paper and tell me if it doesn’t up your grade by at least 10 points…)
The “play the system” thinking that “A-students” develop is good for grades, but bad for the brain. It kills the natural desire to learn and replaces it with a cheap sense of accomplishment.
If you find yourself identifying with the “A-student mentality,” you can recover your passion for learning and intellectual integrity. It may take a while to purge the negative thoughts from your mind, but it’s definitely worth it. First, acknowledge your skewed sense of values and seek to de-value false praise in your thoughts. The best way to determine if your mind is in order is to meditate on your attitudes toward other people. When you meet someone who doesn’t have a degree, do you feel superior? When you hear about a low SAT score, do you feel proud? Try to overcome these thoughts. Spending time with someone who is smart, displays a good deal of intellectual integrity, and got poor grades or didn’t go to school at all can also be of help. If you want to have a deeper understanding of the damage false accolades can do, a good read is Punished by Rewards.
As you seek to undo the damage caused by the “success” label, try to learn on your own. Don’t do something because friends or family members will give praise. Choose to learn a subject or create something that can be just for you. Keep it a secret. You’ll know when you accomplish something truly great and that will feel better than all the “A”s and gold stars in the world.