One afternoon, about fifteen years ago, I got a call from my son’s kindergarten teacher. She wanted to let me know that he had become very upset in Art when trying to draw a picture of himself for a class project. “He says his head looks like a telephone,” she reported. “He was inconsolable.” She went on to tell me about all the positive moments in his day -- which far-outnumbered his one unfortunate experience with self-portraiture.
A few weeks later, a booklet of drawings came home, and sure enough, his head was shaped a bit like the single old cradle-and-receiver phone we still kept in the house. The point is not that he was an amazing artist but just couldn’t see it. The point is that of all the moments in that day, only one stuck with him. My son’s reaction to his telephone head had occurred when he saw his friends’ more detailed, more sophisticated drawings. Though he had loads of strengths that did not require fine-motor control, and a lovely, empathetic teacher, negativity bias is a powerful force. Our brains are hard-wired to react more strongly to the bad stuff we experience and perceive than to the good stuff.
Negativity bias, it turns out, has an evolutionary basis that arose when being a little too happy-go-lucky might get you say, eaten. Having a more negative interpretation of events, even if there were some false alarms, was better at keeping us alive. But in our everyday twenty-first century lives, granting negative input ten times the import as positive input is less useful.
I ran across this article in Mindshift by a psychologist and author of a mindfulness book for teachers. The author, Patricia Jenkins, writes about a fourth-grade teacher who was burned out and ready to quit until she became aware of how negativity bias was coloring her perception of her work in the classroom. Despite all the wonderful moments that were happening in her room, she only registered the negative ones and it took a toll.
I’m guilty of it, too. I have such high expectations for the lessons I plan that I don’t always fully register the little moments I should be proud of – the moments that would fuel and invigorate me - while I register at full volume every stumble and misstep. I have been trying, for instance, to think of wrong answers as correct answers to a different question. But sometimes I’m rushed and I don’t take the time to figure out what that other question was. And sometimes I go with the first hand in the air even though I don’t want to leave the impression that quick thinking is what I value. And sometimes I try to do three things in a class period and leave everyone confused because really we should have just done one thing slowly. I could go on. It is easy, in fact, for me to remember just about every mistake I’ve ever made. But I’m trying now, to register the good stuff, too, and give it its rightful place.
Last week I was working with my fifth graders on a pattern problem that involved figuring out how many ways a person could ascend staircases with different numbers of steps if they are able to take the steps either one or two at a time. The task led to some wonderful moments. At one point I looked around the room and saw nearly every pair engrossed in their work. A few students discovered that when they recorded their findings in an orderly way, the visual representation could help them find the solutions they were missing. (Admittedly, many students did not discover this helpful nugget and got a bit bogged down. Productive struggle!) It was fun to see one pair begin hopping up and down when one of them noticed the pattern in their results. The pattern finder was not a student who typically has her hand in the air quickly. When I went over to check in with them, her partner exclaimed, “L found it! She was just looking through the numbers and it jumped out at her!” At the end of the lesson, another student said he was going to find all the solutions up to fifteen-step staircases at home on his own.
During the next class, we watched a TED talk on the Fibonacci sequence (which was the pattern that the
staircase problem reveals). It was not a talk aimed at fifth graders and it was challenging for them. I paused it a few times to give students time to process and ask questions. But most of them were intrigued and curious. At the end of the second lesson, one student stayed for a minute and said with excitement in his voice, “the Fibonacci sequence is confusing. But in a really good way!”
Despite everything I might have done better that day, it was a small moment that came pretty close to perfection. And I registered it fully.