Student Well-Being Opinion

3 Ways to Keep Shame From Blocking Deeper Learning

By Contributing Blogger — January 19, 2016 3 min read
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This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).

When students complain to me about their school experiences, sometimes I realize that they are really talking about shame.

They might say, “It was stupid” about a test, or declare, “No one cares” about a classroom activity. But another message often comes across, either in words or in the expressions on their faces. It says, “I couldn’t do it” or “I didn’t dare.”

That sense of shame--just as with anxiety, fear, confusion, and guilt--has the power to stop learning in its tracks. Andrea Chiba, Director of Science at the Temporal Dynamics of Learning Center at the University of California, San Diego, once explained it to me this way: “The organism does not learn if it is threatened.”

To young learners, humiliation constitutes a powerful threat to emotional and even physical safety. With the brain focusing on that, not much else gets through.

As I document learning in schools around the country, I now watch closely for the structures and practices their leaders put in place to help students overcome their fears of humiliation, to create a shame-free learning environment, and to build their capacity as deeper learners. In my two posts this week, I’ll set out some examples, starting with classroom practices and moving on to whole-school structures.

1. Teach protocols for respectful discourse. “You have to be confident that you won’t be criticized for your opinion,” said Makayla, describing how her English teacher at East Side Community High School in New York City has students gather seminar-style to analyze a text. That “creates a safe place,” Makayla explained. “She doesn’t allow people to call people’s ideas stupid or like completely disregard your opinion.” A classmate added: “But we’ve also learned how to defend, because it’s not enough to just state your opinion. We also have to provide evidence. Like where do you see that? Where do you see that happening?” (Students talk about making argument safe in the video below.)

UPDATED: New video link

2. Prioritize participation. A top priority at Quest Early College High School in Humble, Texas, is that students join in any learning activity without fear of humiliation. At the time of enrollment, students and parents sign a contract agreeing to participate in “open exchanges of ideas, discussions, debates, and class assignments concerning every possible subject matter.” Quest’s mixed-age advisory groups (known as “family”) engage in purposeful play, to build community and trust and to release the tension that comes with high-stakes cultures. They make it safe for students to share their worries, whether it’s a conflict with parents, a tendency to procrastinate, or the feeling of being “not smart enough.”

3. Assess often and lower the stakes. Frequent classroom quizzes, tests, and short-answer writing prompts provide an opportunity for timely and specific feedback. Grades and scores invite humiliation through comparisons and ranking; some research shows that they actually nullify the impact of substantive comments. Instead, soon after a test, engage the class in reviewing what thinking led to their responses. Both you and the students will gain insight into their thought processes. You can use what you learn in follow-up lessons, and they can reflect and plan on what to do differently next time.

These three examples have to do with classroom practices that reject fear, threat, and humiliation in favor of stretch, reflection, and coaching. (You can find more examples in The Motivation Equation, the e-book that documents my collaboration with the UCSD learning scientists and their advisory panel of master teachers.)

In my next post this week, I’ll describe how whole-school structures for performance and promotion can honor--rather than shame--the developmental differences among students that affect the pace of their progress through school.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.