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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Alphabet Soup: The Perils & Promise of E-Learning


CMS stands for Content Management System, which Wikipedia defines as  “a computer program that allows publishing, editing and modifying content as well as maintenance from a central interface.”  Several of the universities I have taught or teach at use a CMS called Blackboard.  It has several iterations; Blackboard Vista, Blackboard 9, etc.  Faculty are encouraged to use Blackboard by many college administrators, but I have yet to talk to a faculty member who has enjoyed using them.

Blackboard is the latest skirmish in a struggle between faculty and administration that I have seen go on for 2 decades in educational settings from Pre-K to PhD.  It usually goes like this:

Technology A is developed in the private sector.  Some enterprising developer of Technology A decides to take it to Educational Setting B.  This takes a while, as it is often hard to find the decision maker in Educational Setting B.  An administrator or administrators finally see the potential of Technology A, and Educational Setting B buys a very expensive version of Tech A.

Tech A is presented to the faculty of Setting B.  “This is a great resource,” they are told.  They are encouraged to use it.  Some enterprising faculty try it, but become confused or bored with it and stop.  The rest of the faculty never try it.  Administrators of Setting B get frustrated, and often mandate the use of Tech A.  They invest more money in consultants to come in and offer training.  This often consists of scripted powerpoints, or nowadays video tutorials.  Sometimes an in-house Tech A supporter is hired.  The supporter is avoided, because s/he is associated with a top-down administrative initiative.  Slowly the faculty begins to use Tech A as little as possible as rarely as possible.  Administrators get frustrated, and begin to answer every Faculty complaint with a thinly veiled, “if you only used the expensive solution we bought you you’d have more time to do X,Y or Z and there would be no more problems.”

Meanwhile, in the outside world, Technology A is now obsolete, because in the time it takes educators to change we have developed, beta-tested, and marketed better stuff.  We’re now on Technology Q, but when Educational Setting B is approached by the salespeople for Technology Q, they are rebuffed by administrators, who say, “Look, our faculty never used Technology A, so we’re not going to waste money on Technology Q.”  Technology Q folks stop trying to design a product that would work really well for educators, because if no one buys it, well, what’s the point.

OK, back to the particular brand of  technology called CMS, content management software.  In this case, people have begun to confuse the software, which allows you to upload content into a course shell, with E-Learning.  At its worst, this stifles creativity, because it misses the point that education is not about content but about facilitating learning.  In a recent TED Talk, Sir Ken Robinson put it this way: “Teaching properly conceived is not a delivery system.”

By now, many educators and learners, will have heard of MOOCs, Massively Open Online Courses.  The Pros of MOOCs for E-Learning are several, most notably the provision of access to educational resources to people who may be disenfranchised in some way.  People can enroll in MOOCs for little or no money, take them after their workday or on weekends, and view and review material at their own pace.

But their are costs, literally and figuratively.  Many MOOCs require entire production teams to create “professional” looking media.  (The Khan Academy does a great job with less polish, but it often produces less formal media which some may consider less professional.)   And ultimately, MOOCs are not going to be free, and seed money will need to be replaced.  In my hometown for example, EdX is beginning to look at ways to generate revenue from future courses.

Not all E-Learning should or does take the shape of a MOOC.  Not all E-Learning is scalable, at least not at first.  Perhaps most importantly, not all E-Learning needs the same kinds of technology to make it good education.

There is a lot more to creating a good online educational experience than converting a syllabus into learning modules.  The content management software can be used to powerfully enhance E-Learning, but in many cases it lends itself to being used as “pedagogy management software” instead.

I was reminded of this recently as I have been developing an online course.  And the ironic part was that I was being stifled not by the administration but by myself.  I had been given free rein to produce a course by the university administration.  They were and are extremely supportive, encouraging and confident that I can teach something well.  But I let myself get sucked into Blackboard.  I started thinking that I had to produce a certain size and shape widget.  The fact that  I could create class modules became an internal mandate to fill them with material.  I began to feel oppressed.

It wasn’t until I noticed that the only one expecting me to do that was me, and maybe the software, that I realized I could get off the treadmill.  And I had to, because for me education is about facilitating learning, not putting content into student’s heads.  In this case, a large part of the course is about social media and gaming, so a large part of my work will be about using social media with the students, playing games with them, and then discussing those experiences.  I’ll certainly use Blackboard when it makes sense, but I’m not going to be assimilated by it.

I’m one of the lucky ones.  Many educational settings wouldn’t be so encouraging of  faculty creativity and thinking outside the box.  Many of my colleagues instead find themselves scolded and asked, “why aren’t you using the box?”  I have several colleagues who are engaging educators who have been avoiding E-Learning because they like the interaction with students, as if E-Learning has to be inherently non-interactive.

Fortunately a lot of administrators in higher education are also instructors, so hopefully we can begin to bridge this divide.  These technologies are all relatively new to us, so there really shouldn’t be any hard and fast rules on how to educate students online.  We’re pioneers, and we’re going to make lots of mistakes, but if we can remember to think of education as a laboratory for innovation rather than a delivery service, we may have some epic wins as well.

Failing Better


Play is a vital part of being a person, and failure is a vital part of play. One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the connection between autonomy and failure. When children, adolescents and adults for that matter play video games, they fail a lot. In fact, according to Nicole Lazzaro, 80% of the time we are playing video games we are failing. What other activities in our daily lives can we say that about?

Education, on the other hand, at least the traditional model, grades us on a 100% model very differently. If you get 70% of a test or a class material “correct” you get to pass it. If you get 69% it needs to be done over again, or you don’t get any credit at all. This system actually flies in the face of what educators and therapists know about learning, that it is a matter of trial, error, course correction, trial, error, course correction… and so on.

This in some ways answers a question I have often wondered about: Why are we willing to be failing 80% of the time in video games, and so reluctant to risk failure in “real life” even a fraction of the time? One answer the percentages above point to is that education often stacks the deck against us, effectively rendering any mastery of content below 70% as a failure. This failure has attached to it, shame, sense of time wasted, futility, and hopelessness.

But there is another aspect of failing in video games that I think we need to pay attention to, and that is the role of autonomy. In a 2009 study, Jesper Juul found that people prefer to play games where they feel responsible for failing. The majority of those surveyed didn’t want to attribute it to bad luck, but something the did or didn’t do. They wanted a sense of autonomy in their game play, not luck. Conversely, they didn’t want to feel victimhood either, but rather optimism.

I have been playing a game on the iPad called Incoboto which has given me pause to reflect on fun failure. (An aside for gamers who have also played this and Dark Souls, have you considered Incoboto as a cutified version of Dark Souls, trying to link the fire and bring light to a darkened solitary world? Just saying..) The game has a series of puzzles which one needs to solve in order to collect star pieces to feed to the kawaii sun Helios following your character around. There have been a few places where I got “stuck,” and spent in my opinion too much time having to throw something exactly the right way. This highlighted for me the subjective experience I had for the majority of gameplay, that I was being challenged but would eventually be able to overcome the unneccessary obstacle. On those occasions I called getting stuck, I began to experience feelings of victimization and externalize responsibility. The game was not “being fair,” it was too hard, there was a “bug” in it making the ball not land “right.”

What helped me persevere was both compelling graphics and gameplay, but also a sense of faith in the game. Ok, sometimes I cheated too, by looking up spoilers on the game forum. In those moments, you could say that I was giving up the voluntary attempt to overcome an unnecessary obstacle of the game. But, and this is what’s important, I was also ceding my sense of autonomy. It’s a weird balancing act, in one case I didn’t look at the cheat to find the solution as much as to get reassurance that what I was trying was the solution. But even though I was exercising my digital literacy here, I was also giving up for the moment my sense of autonomy, and agency.

Failure, and tolerance of failure is a subject thing, which is why Lazzaro’s presentations illustrate zones, not points, of fiero, frustration, relief, and bored. Everyone has variations in how they experience emotions, and failure in video games. And if I didn’t keep that in mind, I might feel very disheartened when I read this review of Incoboto:

“Great mix of platformer and puzzle game, very smooth learning/difficulty curve, and quite a nice gameplay experience too”

Now I am not going to get into a discussion on norms and trends and the importance of betas, because my point here is to compare and contrast the experiences of failure in video games and education.

Education in our country is trying to overcome some serious design flaws of its own. Children and adolescents are given tremendous responsibility for their performance without a commensurate amount of autonomy. This creates a culture of victimhood. Rather than noticing they got more than half of something right, we flunk them. Rather than setting meaningful individual goals, we create industrialized curriculum. And if we do give someone an individualized set of goals in the form of an IEP, we label them as learning disabled first to justify it!

We need to improve the quality and experience of failure in schools. Because video games don’t occur in a separate reality from the point of view of our minds. That mind/body split of Descartes has been debunked for ages, and yet we’re still talking about “real” life. The reality is that mastering challenges and fun failure creates a feeling of optimism, which neurologically and emotionally improves our ability to learn in the future. If we think we are capable of solving a problem, we will keep at it. Therefore, we need to foster a sense of autonomy in learning. The minute we start talking about “my special needs child,” we are taking away their autonomy.

Am I saying we should expect everyone to perform the same at school or other work? Not at all, I am saying we should be better curators of children in learning environments, and let them have less stigma around failure. In a real sense, every child should have an individualized education plan, because we are moving (hopefully) out of an industrial model of education.

As a therapist and educator who has worked in and with school systems and parents for nearly two decades, I have struggled with this frequently, both within myself and with my patients. The language of diagnoses and learning disabilities is a language I speak all too well, and I have unintentionally colluded at times with parents and systems who use it as shorthand for, “my kid can’t ___.” Maybe if failure was more tolerable and fun in school we wouldn’t be so quick to adopt these identities, and maybe if we curated environments that allowed for more autonomy we would notice different varieties of success as well.

The other night I was on a Minecraft server I participate in, founded by educators and edutechs for their children. Several of the kids were on and chatting when I logged in, and shortly thereafter this huge flame war erupted. Capital sentences of “I HATE YOU” flew across the screen. Kids stormed out of the chat room, returned, then logged off again. Some of the young moderators were instigating further conflict, while others were earnestly trying to figure out why people’s feelings had been hurt in the first place. From the therapeutic point of view, they were failing miserably, exhibiting poor social skills, dysregulated affect, and poor impulse control. It took a herculean act of will not to jump in and actively curate this group and allow them to exercise their autonomy.

They kept at the chatting, and over the next several minutes they began to collaborate on understanding what had happened. This did not have the grown up version of a happy ending where the aggrieved parties apologized and made up, so much as the group told one party that they appreciated the apology and weren’t ready to accept it then (my translation) told a second party to stop instigating in the guise of defending someone, and encouraged the third to come and build something to take his/her mind off of it.

In my mind, the fact that this took place in a game environment where failure is destigmatized and autonomy is presumed made it easier for people to keep at the challenge until it had been resolved “enough.” There was no adult who was forcing them to stay on and work at this, they were voluntarily engaged. There were several halting starts and stops of chat. But social emotional learning was occurring.

This in my opinion is an example of “failing better,” and I think this is a skill that not only can be translated from video game experience, but desperately needs to. The more we except failure as an essential part of learning and work, the less stigmatizing it will be. The less we stigmatize failure, the more we encourage autonomy and optimism. Autonomy and optimism make you a better learner, a better collaborator, and a better worker. Personally I think the world could use a lot more of that.

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