Positive Thinking, Pollyanna, and Play

Learning is not just a cognitive activity.

How well we learn — and if we learn — is influenced by other factors, including whether we feel some kinship with the instructor, when we ate  last, and how long it’s been since we were able to get out of our seats to move around.

I read a blog post yesterday that listed phrases that students could use as self-talk messages. Positive self-talk creates a self-fulfilling prophesy. Such messages can be very useful in helping people modify their behavior in positive ways.

As I read, I started to wonder when it became necessary to give students scripts to encourage themselves to take on challenges.

Restroom signs

I was mulling that over as I went to the store for milk. A woman and three teenage girls were in the store.

One of the girls was standing in the back aisle by the stockroom door. As she caught sight of her mother, she called, “Is this where I go?”

Small towns like mine don’t have public restrooms, but neither do they make local folks wet their pants in public. Since nobody comes to the local stores except local people, if you’re desperate, the clerk will let you use the employee restroom.

Not finding a door marked restroom, the girl didn’t know what to do.

The woman said to me, “Wouldn’t you think she’d know to open the door?”

I doubt that the girl’s problem is lack of knowledge about door opening.

I suspect its something more basic, like attitude, expectations, and experience.

Just about 100 years ago — in 1913 to be precise — Eleanor H. Porter scored a big hit with her novel Pollyanna. It is the story of an orphan whose father taught her to look for something to be glad about in every situation.

Even though the world Pollyanna lived in was a tough place, people generally believed the world wasn’t a bad place: You could always find things to be happy about.

People believed the bad parts could be made better:

And they believed they were competent to help bring about those improvements.

I can’t put a date on when that attitude changed, but I’m pretty sure was the same period when playing was replaced by play dates and supervised after-school activities.

As a kid, I had chores, but they were adult-directed.  I’d as soon have thought myself competent because I brushed my teeth than because I’d mucked out the horse stall, which was one of my daily chores. Doing as you’re told does not generate a sense of personal competence.

I got my  initial sense of competence from play.

playground sign: Play at your own risk

Nobody had to tell me to say “I can problem solve” because I was an experienced problem solver. My play consisted mostly of damming the creek and building stuff out of junk salvaged from the neighbor’s dump. It was dirty, and slightly dangerous, and totally engrossing.

Going back to a world where children find their play things on the dump is probably not desirable, except perhaps to children.

But living in a world in which kids can make stuff from found stuff is desirable.

The maker movement is a step in the right direction.

Kids who have had the experience of taking risks, trying different approaches, working within the constraints of what’s available won’t need to be given a list of positive thinking phrases to memorize.

Hands-on experience will make them feel competent to open a door to find the restroom.


Photo credits: Bathroom Signs by clambert; fun and games until… by nosheep

I must believe very student can learn to write

A teacher going for national board certification contacted me through my website. She said she is intimidated by writing and teaching writing.

I told her that if her students learned nothing else from her,  they’d learn to be intimidated by writing, too.  Students pick up  attitudes faster than they pick up skills or content.

Writing teachers must believe every one of their students can learn to write.

It may not be true that everyone can write, but I must believe it is true because without that belief I cannot teach writing. I would quickly fall into the trap of picking a few students to spend my time on: the bright ones, the personable ones, the ones whose mothers are English teachers.  I’d not worry if the kids who are going into the military or working in their uncle’s grocery after high school can write.

If I didn’t believe that every student can learn to write, I’d shortchange a lot of people.

One of them would be me.