The consequence of fear and shame – sometimes we don’t learn

Last year I decided to give some Year Ten students what they wanted most.

I gave them the chance to insult me in public. I asked them to stand up and give me their worst – consequence free. It was a free hit, I said. Go for it.

Donuts.

Plenty were happy for others to stand up and insult me, but no one, not even the loudest loud mouth or clowniest class clown was at all keen.

I cajoled. I encouraged. I point blank begged, promising no consequences.

Nada.

Eyes danced nervously between floor, ceiling and each other. Students shifted and shuffled in their seats. Cheeks flushed. Nervous giggles stuttered out from narrow mouths and clenched teeth.

Sure, they were only allowed to insult me using Shakespearian language, generated from a worksheet over the previous five or so minutes. There were caveats.

The lesson was not doing what I imagined. In the end, I put a kid on the spot. He stood up and timidly called me a ‘slabbering, fowl-eared pignut’.

Crickets. Snorting, giggling crickets.

Someone else? I asked, anticipating that once the shame levy broke I would be flooded with insults.

Nope.

While I managed to get a couple of lads to have a bit of a go, the activity flew like a lead kite. Despite having the will – and there were students in there who no doubt wanted to insult me, the social dynamic would not allow it.

A few months later, as we neared the final examination period and the clock ran down, much of our teacher talk turned to how little effort many of the cohort were putting in.

Lazy. Entitled. They don’t care. They don’t want to work. I said this myself. I said it to some of my students. I cracked the whip and dangled carrots to no avail.

So we might have left it at that, but something irked me like a thumb splinter. This trend was growing. We knew it was coming and we knew it was happening but we did not have any real data around why.

Guy Claxton, eminent UK education leader and promoter of Building Learning Power talks about a high shame, low risk culture in some schools. It is a concept that intrigues me as I think many of us, even as adults, can identify with it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how social fear impacts learning. These kids did not only disliked taking risks – in fact, they would rather not know something than take a risk and find out.

This week, early in the new school year, I was chatting with new Year Ten students. We were in that early space – testing each other out, getting to know routines, you know the drill. Why not now? I thought.

I asked them to complete a quick write – five minutes of describing what it felt like to not know something, or get something wrong.

They wrote.

We shared.

I asked them to tell me the words they used to describe their feelings. And…

Look at those negative words. Shame. Useless. Ignorant. Degrading.

Wow.

And the ratio to positive is also a worry. If we claim that our students are learning to have growth mindsets, then where does snapshot data like this, flawed as it may be, leave us?

In the conversation that followed, we discussed the core activity in schools – learning.

What do we do a lot of when we are learning? We get it wrong. We don’t know.

Joseph Campbell is often credited with the following phrase, without hard evidence, but it appears to be a distillation of ideas he held after a lifetime studying mythology.

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.

We have some work to do this year. But the experience led me to reflect on how I react when I don’t know something. How do I react when I make a mistake?

If effective teachers are effective learners now, and not only in the past, then they must walk the walk.

Time to go find that cave…

Published by charliehynes76

Learner. Teacher. Writer. My aim is to nourish and share a curious mind so that we might honour the gift.

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