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July 11, 2004
Martin Seligman on learned optimism

This is interesting stuff, which I got via this posting, which I got to from Grand Central Station.


That's a picture of Dr Martin Seligman, and here's some of what Dave Shearon says about Seligman's book Learned Optimism. This is Shearon's summary of and comment on Chapter 8, "School":

Failure devastates us. All of us, upon experiencing failure, quit at least temporarily. Optimists bounce back and began trying almost immediately; defeat is temporary and achievement is assured. Pessimists, on the other hand, are defined by their failures. They are a failure, and there is no point in a failure continuing to try.

Comment: Children are natural optimists, as discussed earlier, and they sure better be in our schools. We often assure failure by such tactics as grading on the curve. We define relative success as failure. Please note that I am not arguing for low standards or namby-pamby, feel good education. I am simply making a point as to how school is experienced for many students. Is it any wonder that educators report "losing" students as they enter the later middle school years, which is approximately the same time that the natural optimism of childhood wanes. These students are suddenly unable to cope with an environment they have been in long as they can remember. How can such a failure not be a complete turn-off?

Working with Joan Girgus, and building on the work of Carol Dweck, Dr. Seligman and his staff conducted a study of 3rd-grade children from 1995 until they finished seventh grade in 1999. They found that children who began third grade with a pessimistic score on the CASQ were at risk for depression and severely-reduced academic achievement. In addition, bad life events, especially including divorce and parental turmoil, contributed to a pessimistic explanatory style. Over all, boys were significantly more depressed at all points along this age range then were girls.

In college, students with optimistic explanatory styles will outperform predictive measures such as SAT scores or high school grades. Students with pessimistic scores will under perform.

Through my (amateur and untrained) career counselling over the years I have found optimism/pessimism to be a key variable. What success I have achieved in this has mostly hinged on helping my punters to identify things they love to do and are good at doing , which they then look forward to doing and are confident they can do, which feeds their optimism, which jolts them pleasurably out of any negative feedback loops they were stuck in and puts them into some positive feedback loops. Often the mere possibility that life could sparkle again is enough to get them up and buzzing at which point they often then do things that had nothing to do with what they talked about with me, but so what? What I try to avoid doing is simply telling them that they must do this or that, because unless they really want to do it, that just creates yet another negative feedback loop.

I think this is one of the core reasons why I oppose compulsion as a principle, in teaching as in all things, and favour voluntarism as a principle, ditto. People who do what they like doing in the way they like to do it immediately start getting what they regard as good results, which makes them more optimistic, which breeds success which breeds further optimism, etc. etc. (And if I can't make people do what they don't want to do, this won't happen, and I won't spread negative feedback loops everywhere.)

But that's an aside. All I'm really saying here is: I think this kind of stuff works.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:57 PM
Category: How the human mind works


Sorry that so far we've not been able to email each other. However, I thought you might be interested in this link to a posting on my Radley/teaching blog re Seligman: http://www.drsnet.org/radley/2004/03/the_good_life.html.

I'm also very interested in the work on 'Flow' by the (unpronounceable!) Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.


Comment by: David Smith on July 11, 2004 09:38 PM

Sorry David, I'll have another go at emailing you.

Meanwhile, I do strongly agree with you about Mihaly Cszxhasdfhk;l.

And I would suppose that "flow" has a great deal to do with what good teaching is all about - getting it going, and then, when you've got it going, NOT INTERRUPTING IT.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on July 12, 2004 02:08 PM
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