Bad Object Rising: How We Learn to Hate Our Educated Selves

Recently I had the opportunity to work with a great set of educators in a daylong seminar.  One of the things I do with teachers when I present is have them play Minecraft.  In this case I started off by giving a general presentation that ended with a story of auto-didactism in an Ethiopian village, where 20 children who had never seen the printed word were given tablets and taught themselves to read.  I did this in part to frame the pedagogy for what came next:  I had them turn on Minecraft and spend 30 minutes exploring the game without any instruction other than getting them networked.

The responses were as varied as the instructors, but one response fascinated me in particular.  Midway into the 30 minutes, one teacher stopped playing the game and started checking her email.  Later, when we returned to our group to have a discussion about the thoughts and feelings that came up around game play, this same teacher spoke up.  We were discussing the idea of playfulness in learning when she said , “you know, I hear a lot about games and learning, and making learning fun; but sometimes learning isn’t fun and you have to do it anyway.  Sometimes you just have to suck it up and do the work.”

“I’m not saying that I disagree with you entirely,”  I said.  “But then how do we account for your giving up on Minecraft and starting to check your email?”

She looked a little surprised, and after a moment’s reflection said, “fair enough.”

I use this example because these are educators who are extremely dedicated to teaching their students, and very academically educated themselves.  Academia has this way, though, of seeping into your mind and convincing you that academics and education are one and the same.  They’re not.

I worked in the field of Special Education for more than a decade from the inside of it, and one of the things I came to believe is that there are no unteachable students.  That is the good news and the bad news.  Bad news because if a student was truly unteachable, they wouldn’t learn from us that they are dumb or bad if they don’t demonstrate the academic achievement we expect.  I remember the youth I worked with calling each other “SPED monkeys” as an insult; clearly they learned that from somewhere and someone.  They had learned to hate themselves as a bad object, in object relations terms, or to project that badness onto other students.  They learned this from the adults around them, from the microaggressions of hatred they experienced every day:  By hate I’ll go with Merriam as close enough, “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.”

We tend to mistakenly equate hatred with rage and physical violence, but I suggest that this is because we want to set hatred itself up as hated by and other from ourselves; surely we never behave that way.  But hatred is not always garbed in extremis.  Hatred appears every day to students who don’t fit the academic mold.  Hatred yells “speak English!” to the 6 year olds getting off the bus chatting in Spanish.  Hatred shakes its head barely (but nevertheless) perceptibly before moving on to the next student when the first has fallen silent in their struggle.  Hatred identifies the problem student in the class and bears down on her, saying proudly, “I don’t coddle my students.”  And Hatred shrugs his shoulders when the student has been absent for 3 weeks, and waits for them to be dropped from the rolls.

I’m not sure how I came to see this, because I was one of the privileged academically.  I got straight A’s, achieved academic awards and scholarships that lifted me into an upperclass world and peer group.  I wrote papers seemingly without effort, read for pleasure, and was excited to get 3 more years of graduate school.  And I have had the opportunity to become an educator and an academic myself, having taught college and graduate students.  I could have stayed quiet and siloed in my area of expertise, but work with differently-abled learners taught me something different.  It taught me that people learn to dislike education, shortly after academia learns to dislike them.

Perhaps one of the best literary portrayals of  adult hatred of divergent thinkers comes from the movie Matilda:

“Listen, you little wise acre. I’m smart, you’re dumb; I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Nowadays I teach in a much different way than I did early on, before I flipped my classrooms and facilitated guided learning experiences rather than encourage people to memorize me and ideas that I had memorized from others.  And I struggle with this new approach, because I enjoy it so much I feel guilty.  You see, I have internalized the bad object too.  Even with my good grades I internalized it.  And any time I start to depart from the traditional mold of the educated self, I experience a moment of blindness, then a stony silence that seems to say, “you’re being lazy, you should make them a powerpoint and prepare a lecture.”  Yet, if my evaluations on the whole and student and colleague testimonies have truth to them, I am a “good” educator.  So let’s say I am a “good” educator, and if I as a good educator struggle with this, we shouldn’t assume that people that struggle with these issues are “bad” educators.

In fact, when it comes to emerging technologies like social media and video games, educators often try to avoid them, if not because they are fun and suspect, then because educators risk experiencing themselves as the bad object: Who wants to experience themselves as hopelessly dumb, clumsy or lazy when they can experience themselves as the bountiful and perfectly cited fount of all wisdom?  Truth is, both are distorted images of the educated self.

Don’t forget that educators themselves experience tons of societal hatred.  For them it often comes in the guise of curriculum requirements or linking their performance to outcomes on standardized testing.  Hatred comes in the low salaries and the perception that people doing intellectual or emotional labor aren’t really working.  All of this helps educators to internalize a bad object which feels shaming and awful; is it any wonder that we sometimes unconsciously try to get that bad object away from ourselves and locate it in the student?

The good news as I said before is that we are all teachable.  We can learn to make conscious and make sense of the internalized bad object representations.  We can see that thinking of people in terms of smart or dumb is a form of splitting.

And yes, there’s a lot we can do about it.

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Tower Defense & Executive Functioning

Some of the most important tasks the human brain performs are known as the executive functions.  According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, executive function is “a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action. People use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.”  As such, the executive functions are crucial to the learning process over the life cycle.

Like many phenomenon in mental health, executive functions were focused on initially in regards to populations that had some deficits in them.  With the advent and prevalence of the diagnosis of ADHD, as well as the study of learning and learning disabilities, educators and therapists began to become familiar with a concept that had previously been of most interest to neuroscientists. We still tend to think of executive functioning from a pathology-based approach, only paying attention to how they work when they don’t work.

The truth is everyone has executive functions, which are a combination of nature and nurture, and can develop well into adulthood.  They can also deteriorate for a variety of reasons, from traumatic brain injury to Alzheimer’s disease.  And there is a body of research which suggests that mental and physical exercise can help maintain, if not improve our executive functions as we age.  Not surprisingly, as the Baby Boomers age, interest and research grows in this area.  At both ends of the life cycle, our focus on the executive functions are widening beyond pathology to the optimal environments for human learning.  How might we get better at planning, attending, strategizing, and managing time and space?

My suggestion:  Start playing more tower defense games.

Tower defense is a particular genre of video games, one which in general focuses on on preventing the progress of an enemy army across a map.  This is done by the use of towers which have varying abilities, costs to build, and points earned from downing enemies.  You don’t necessarily need to have towers in the game:  Plants Vs. Zombies for example is an example of a tower defense game where the plants are the equivalent of towers, with special abilities used to defend against the march of those pesky undead across the lawn.

More recently I have been fascinated with one of the latest iterations of tower defense games on the iPad, Kingdom Rush.  You start out with a variety of maps and coins for building.  You can use one of 4 basic tower types.  There are barracks which have soldiers who can fight and slow down the invaders.  There are artillery towers which drop bobs for an area wide (AOE) damage.  There are marksman towers which target individuals and fire arrows or guns.  Finally, there are magician towers with wizards firing spells of various types.

Each invading monster has different strengths and vulnerabilities, which are discovered by trying out different towers and noting their effects.  As the invading army is always moving forward in waves, the time element requires you to plan which towers to build first, where to place them, and what upgrades to focus on.  To do this requires a tremendous amount of strategy, organization and time management.  You also need to make decisions, including how long to delay gratification.  The more powerful towers require you to save up many more coins to buy them.  Upgrades that you can select from a talent tree add another layer of choice and complexity.

In short, to succeed in Kingdom Rush you need to have good executive functions.  It isn’t enough to have good hand/eye coordination or reaction time.  You need to be able to learn from your past experiences, and often switch strategies midway through the game.  You need to recall which towers are best for different situations and monsters.  There is a map to be managed in space and a marching army and builders to manage in time.  You need to recognize both immediate feedback and notice trends.  And there are multiple towers and units to keep track of.

The more I play Kingdom Rush, the more struck I am by how many if not all of my executive functions are required to succeed.  I can see where using this game could be both a useful assessment tool and intervention for deficits in EF.  It also has reminded me how necessary executive functions are in terms of managing money as well.  The ability to recall prices, to budget and pace spending, and set up investments that accrue value over time–all these economic experiences are embodied in the game.

Speaking of economy, you can try this game for free if you have a computer in your office or classroom here.  And you can buy it for a whopping $2.99 for your iPad.  Check it out, and see if you agree that it might be a fun, feedback rich way to challenge your executive functions.


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