Practicing Hope


I teach at a charter school which has recently adopted three core beliefs: [1] success breeds success, [2] all students can and deserve to perform at high levels, [3] the staff controls the conditions of success. Over the years of “sharing” these convictions, I have become well-acquainted with the limited impact that these written beliefs have on actual behavior. Despite these core beliefs, I have also repeatedly observed the tendency to assign the blame for the poor performance of students to a lack of motivation. The difficulty is that both beliefs are true. People can enter into a spiral of success or failure, and motivation often is the driving force.


Intrinsic motivation is basic to the human condition, though people often become less intrinsically motivated as they age (due to external social factors). For example, my ten-month-old spends hours everyday practicing her basic motor skills: she picks up and throws toys, she climbs on anything possible, and she walks even though crawling is still much faster. Presumably, she does all this for the shear joy of the task, and not out of the hope for future gains. This image stands in stark contrast to some of my students, who always inquire whether a particular skill or definition will show up on the test, and what they can do to raise their grade in class.


Stories and Societies

Reflection Theory

Imagine an anthropologist attempting to understand the lifestyle of the ancient Babylonians. She might begin by digging up artifacts at an excavation site, and drawing conclusions from what is found. The clay pot suggests that they cooked in ovens, and the drawings on it suggests a culture that values the arts. Now imagine that she found a book of Babylonian myths that were translatable. She reads these stories with interest, feeling like she is getting a first hand glimpse into the lifestyle of the ancients.

If we accept her ability to read a story to better understand a society, then we accept reflection theory. This theory postulates that literature reflects the society that birthed it.


Short-Circuiting the Brain

Emotions move us. What happens when we feel them strongly? Do we just move quicker?

Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at University of Virginia, researched the emotion that is the opposite of disgust (which causes us to withdraw and is usually caused by things associated with blood or poo). He came to term the emotion "elevation", which is the goose-bumps we get when we observe or participate in a great moral act. One thing I found intriguing was that when this emotion is most intense it can temporarily disable the part of the brain that monitors our physical boundaries (where our bits and pieces are in space), which causes the person to lose their sense of self and feel as if they have been absorbed into humanity and are intimately connected to all of mankind. Let's call this state ONENESS and define it as an intense feeling of elevation that causes us to lose our sense of self (and time?) so that we can become completely involved with humanity.


Learning and Emotion

Interest is an emotion. I don't think people tend to think of it as such. We say "such and such" is interesting, as if interest is something inherent to that thing. But some people find that thing interesting, others find it boring, some find it infuriating, others saddening. Whatever the case, that thing is sparking an emotion, and our emotions move us. Sadness moves you to change your environment, anger moves you to attack, boredom moves you to find an alternate activity, and interest moves you to explore.