Pascal Losambe (February 2021)
Last week, as I sat down to speak with a student about his misconduct in a class, he kept saying “I am not good at this” and “I am just not smart enough.” Some may identify this response as an issue of maturity, but I think it is a symptom of a larger societal issue. Scholars Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun note that our society is marked by “either/or thinking,” also known as binary thinking. That is, we have the tendency to simplify behaviors into dichotomies like good/bad, right/wrong, or us/them. This thinking often happens if we find ourselves feeling the need to defend a certain label or an aspect of a dichotomy. A defensive response does not leave much room for context and nuance. Exhibiting “either/or thinking” makes it more challenging to learn from mistakes and work through conflicts.
When children label themselves, you may hear things like “I am not good at math” or “I am not a writer.” This binary thinking can create a sense of urgency to be “perfect” — to demonstrate the ideal and desired state now. When there is a heightened sense of urgency to be perfect, we often reject process and do not allow ourselves or others time to grow and learn from mistakes. Moreover, mistakes are not seen as growth opportunities, but often attributed to a lack of competence and ability.
For example, in educational institutions, feedback often points towards the negative rather than promoting an appreciative culture where an individual’s strengths are highlighted in addition to pointing out areas for growth. Excessive negative feedback may result in people being highly sensitive and developing what Jones and Okun term a “harsh inner critic.”
As educators we work daily with “unfinished products” – expecting a completed, perfect result is counterproductive to genuine growth. Our students need to feel supported and as if they belong before they can relax enough to learn. To create a culture of belonging, it is important to recognize that our students and colleagues are not finished products. It may be easy to label someone and put them into dichotomous categories, but this may not be the best way to foster a positive sense of identity. The truth is that individuals bring strengths and challenges into their environments and communities, and it is imperative that we recognize both. Moreover, it is important to give an individual the ability to name their strengths while also recognizing their areas in need of growth. The best way to do this is to focus on the process and not just the outcomes.