Thoughts on Teaching and Psychology

I’m very sympathetic to the ideas of Alfred Adler, a fringe psychologist contemporary to Freud. Now because I have a soapbox, you get to hear about Adler and how his work helps me understand teaching, especially my shortcomings in the classroom as well as the limitations of classroom education.

Adler, simply

Adler is not well known by his name, but some of his ideas have anonymously entered common understanding. He coined the term “lifestyle” for example. Some other things may be recognisable though less well known.

One of his key concepts was surrounding responsibility and respect for boundaries. A great deal of strife and distress in the world comes from people refusing to take responsibility for what they ought (their own feelings and actions) and claiming responsibility where they oughtn’t (other people’s feelings and actions). Individuals might tend towards one extreme or the other, but frequently they’re mixed because humans are inconsistent hypocrites. Arguments in intimate relationships are a great place to observe both, where blame (refusal to take responsibility) and unnecessary guilt (wrongly claiming responsibility) are the fundamental destructive behaviours. This is called “separation of tasks.”

You might question whether overextending your responsibility is really that bad, and I’d be inclined to agree somewhat. I’d say you can’t take too much responsibility for yourself, but you can take too much responsibility for others. Adler advises against feeling bad about how other people feel, especially how other people feel about things, third parties, and you. It can encourage others into denial of responsibility. Both sides are then distracted from finding their own solutions.

This philosophy supports an extreme respect for boundaries, and an attitude of consent and individual responsibility in all kinds of interaction. An implication which Adler explored is the idea that we have no right to be emotionally affected by the way others act with respect to their own success or goals. If we look on someone with pity or contempt or even praise, that implicitly judges them by our standards rather than their own. Adler admonishes us to, if we care for someone, encourage them to develop according to their own interests.

In child-rearing and education, he expects this counterintuitive approach to ultimately yield positive results, in that children who follow their own interests naturally explore the world and remain engaged. This is the idea behind autonomous education as practised by some home educators.

Here’s how it works in practice. When I walk into a kids’ class, I take several agendas with me. One is to teach the kids something useful. Another is to try and make sure they have a good time, because it keeps them focused, it makes my life easier, and I’m kindly disposed towards kids and like to see them smiling and laughing. Another agenda is to carry out the lesson in the format my employer and the kids’ parents expect, backed by my higher-order agendas to be a good employee and keep my job.

The latter agenda frequently conflicts with the agendas the children take into the classroom, which I don’t need to tell you can be literally anything. On an abstract level they want to have fun and avoid boredom, but this only sometimes correlates with the prescriptions of my lesson plan.

Now, experience and Adler tell me that if I force my agenda on them, they’ll end up frustrated and resentful. If I bow to their agendas, the class won’t happen and I would be rebelling against the parents’ agenda and the company’s agenda. Whereas if I respect their desires then I have some chance of encouraging them to respect mine.

An example of this working is giving the children leadership roles in games, or choice over what game we play. We have an exercise where one person calls out a flashcard, several of which are laid on the table, and the others compete to grab it first. In classes of more than two, I initially name a card, and then give the winner the prize of getting to call out the next card. Sometimes I join in if they know the answer and are being sluggish. This strategy has several merits. I remain in ultimate control of the game, but delegate authority in a meaningful way. The kids stay focused on the language we’re studying and feel that I’m recognising their desires to some degree. It keeps the game balanced, so the fastest student doesn’t get every card.

An example of failure to apply these principles is a class I did with one quite young student, who understandably just wanted to play and fortunately was a bit interested in his new textbook and all the colourful pages. Even the right page, for a while.

At one point I made the mistake of letting him grab some flashcards. I wanted to play a guessing game. He wanted to play a tag game/ask me for the cards game. So I asked for the cards, and he gave them to me one by one. Except for the last, he wanted to keep ahold of it. I found an opportunity to snatch it away and complete the set I needed, and grabbed it. Unfortunately, I got it. Although he didn’t make a major fuss, it immediately hit me that I had totally flouted Adler’s principles. I had subordinated his agenda to my own through physical prowess. I immediately gave it back, and he eventually returned it to me (not sure whether or not that was the right move, having reached that point).

The point of this story is to illustrate that I don’t think it’s right to view a child’s interests as less important than my own. It’s horribly arrogant. Sure, I’ve got bills to pay and a job to keep and children to educate, but why should a child care about my interests, interests he doesn’t understand? Especially if I’m unwilling to do the same? To be clear, I do recognise the differences between adults and children, and the need for clear consequences in establishing proper boundaries of behavior, but who would respect commands from a hypocrite?

In practice, the key to avoiding all sorts of problems in class is to keep control of all the materials, so that the students can only focus on what the teacher gives them to focus on. I’m somewhat sceptical of the usefulness of colourful classroom displays. For the same reason, I prefer teaching in a small classroom where the students have individual chairs, as there’s less opportunity to run around and fidget. The key is making the activity I want to do the most interesting available thing, and part of this is removing distractions. The other part is getting them invested in the activity.

Practical concerns aside, the kind of teaching I aspire to is one which respects the interests of my students as equal in merit and importance to my own, in the hope that they will return the favour. I think it’s probably impossible to run a classroom on entirely Adlerian principles, at least with only a teacher’s status. The Summerhill School, which offered only voluntary classes for all students probably came close. Ultimately it’s parents who have most of the opportunity to help their children develop healthy behaviours by showing them respect and by doing their part to enforce appropriate boundaries on responsibility. The point is, it’s not a matter of control or discipline, it’s a matter of leading by example. Every parent fears that their kid is observant enough to repeat swear words from a very young age; so why not hope that they’re smart enough to notice respect? When adults fail at this, I think it’s usually because they judge children according to how much they sympathise with typical adults’ goals, which is thoroughly self-centred. Children (and other people in general) ought to be viewed as individuals incomparable to each other, with equally valid interests.

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