Feeling Our Way

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Teaching and the Stupidity of Geese

Praise on a developmental scale.

Milo, age 5, noticed geese in the park and wondered if they were the same geese we had seen in the zoo the day before. His dad said he didn’t think so, but added that, in fact, the zoo is adjacent to the park. Milo said he can’t tell one goose from another; they all look the same to him. I asked Milo if he thought all geese look alike to other geese. Milo said he thought they do, although he acknowledged that he’s a person and not all people look alike to him. Milo said to me, “What do you think?” I said I didn’t know, but I was pretty sure that most insects couldn’t tell one from insect from another. I said that I’m pretty sure that a fly treats all other flies the same and doesn’t really see individuals. So, I said, the question might be framed as whether in this respect, geese are more like people or more like flies. Milo said, “Geese can fly, so maybe they’re more like flies.”

I think a major problem in teaching at any level can be described as whether a teacher at that moment ought to praise Milo for drawing an analogy between geese and flies, or whether the teacher ought to correct the analogy for not being relevant to the question at hand. It seems pretty clear to me that with a kindergartener like Milo, an excited comment about flight reinforces participating in the conversation and thinking in analogies. It also seems pretty clear to me that a practicing biologist should be assumed to be making an obscure, but sensible point about whether there is something about being airborne that would reduce evolutionary pressure to distinguish individuals. If you show curiosity about what that pressure might be and it turns out that the scientist was thinking like a five year old, she might feel embarrassed, but she might also laugh at herself or she might enjoy being corrected, since by then she ought to have acquired enough experience with correction to find it valuable. Her reaction will depend a lot on how much face she has at stake to have gotten it right. The more you present yourself as an expert, the more easily a mistake discredits your role performance.

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Graduate students are somewhere in between the kindergartener and the practicing biologist, but shouldn’t they be more like the latter than the former? (Are they more like people or flies?) In the current culture of clinical training, I find that many students expect every verbalization to be met with the sort of delight you feel with a kindergartener who draws analogies. It’s what I’ve called T-ball versus hardball as a strategy for learning to play sports or live prosperously. When a graduate student says that a high score on MMPI’s scale 4 might mean that the person we’re discussing likes to put a pleasant face on conflict, I think the teacher should say in any context, “You’re thinking of scale 3.” If the student says of the high score on scale 4 that the person might be a psychopath, and if it is obvious from other data already discussed that the person is not a psychopath, the teacher should correct the student. The correction should, in my opinion, be frank about the error but should also anticipate in its tone that the student is an intelligent person who wants to get better at psychology. “You’re overreacting to this one data point.” Finally, the student may say something original but wrong, analogous to Milo’s observation about geese, something like, “I wonder if the rebelliousness implied by scale 4 is the reason for his being single; maybe he’s rebelling against family expectations.” The teacher can respond, “It’s a clever idea. What do we know about his family’s expectations of him? What information do we have about his reasons for not dating?” This response reinforces the thinking that takes the datum and explores its implications while also teaching the student how to use critical thinking to respond to her own ideas. The expectation that a graduate student ought to learn how to do this is different from the pure celebration of analogic thinking in a kindergartener.

The main problem with treating graduate students like kindergarteners is that the clinical work they are already doing and preparing to do is not like T-ball. People in pain come to them for assistance, and those people should not be overly appreciative of the old college try; they should expect results. The kindergarten mentality makes graduate students act as if there is no such thing as hardball, no such thing as an original, accurate, specific idea. Praise for everything puts a ceiling of mediocrity on clinical work. It’s also one of the many reasons therapists shouldn’t coo and “mm-hmm” everything the patient says. When your five-year-old child cleans the leaves off the deck, you praise the intent and the activity. By the time he’s a teenager, you expect results and praise or pay the kid only if the deck is cleared of leaves, including the hard-to-get ones between the boards where they will rot and ruin the wood.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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