Monday, January 5, 2009

The pessimists wilt. The optimists rise.

The dissertation is a curious thing, indeed. You spend numerous hours agonizing over the research questions, the proposal, the IRB submission, the proposal defense before you even get to do the actual research that will lead to the completed dissertation. In fact, the actual research takes far less time to execute than to plan. They say the only good dissertation is a finished dissertation. I say to the resilient go the spoils. Perhaps these two aphorisms say the same thing.

Here are my research questions (roughly):
  • How does explanatory style relate to issues of teacher attrition, job satisfaction, control, teacher efficacy, and student achievement?
  • Does explanatory style predict job satisfaction, professional identity as a teacher, and longevity in the field?
  • Does explanatory style subsume teacher efficacy as a predictor of longevity in the field?
I believe explanatory style provides a more nuanced approach to describing the underlying reasons why teachers get burned out, view teaching as a job rather than a calling, and leave the field early. What I like about explanatory style is that people can do something about a pessimistic style - they can learn to be more optimistic. The only way you can learn to be more efficacious is to be successful at something.

In teaching, failure happens often. Lessons fail. Teacher-parent conferences fail. Students fail. The best laid plans of mice and men - and teachers - often go awry. If you teach in a difficult school district where administrators are not supportive, students are not motivated, and your colleagues are not interested in rocking the boat, how are you going to learn to be efficacious in your job? In order to find the silver lining, you need to possess some semblence of optimistic explanatory style to view failure as a challenge rather than an obstacle. The pessimists wilt. The optimists rise.

This observation is backed up by research. In 1987, Peter Schulman and Martin Seligman studied life insurance salesmen to see if optimistic salesman were better at their jobs than pessimistic ones. Seligman had talked with the chairman of Met Life on a plane, and they talked about how insurance sales is a tough business. For every call that is successful, there are 10 that are not. Only those who don't take the "no's" personally and think that the next call might be a "yes" are likely to continue being in the business. Schulman and Seligman found this observation to be true in their research. Optimistic life insurance salesmen stayed in the business longer than their pessimistic counterparts.

Do optimistic teachers stay in the field longer than their pessimistic counterparts? We'll see this fall when I finish my dissertation. I feel optimistic (pun intended) about what I will find.


Rob Mc said...


Great blog - I'll read it with interest. Someday (someday!) I'll be ready for my dissertation and I'm interested in looking at a connection between explanatory style/hope/active constructive response, etc and assessment practices. So you please do all the leg work on this one and I'll jsut steal all your ideas, OK?

One (slightly more relevant) thought: Seligman found that pessimists where actually more "successful" at some tasks, right? Successful in the sense of being more accurate predictors of outcomes? I think I remember some "probability estimating" tasks that they were better at?

If that's the case, then are pessimists uniquely suited for some tasks in education that require that? Is that explanatory style a strength at all in education, in any context?

Amy Fineburg said...

Hey, Rob! So glad you're following! I'm happy to do the legwork on this one - it's important stuff and should be done! Now, if only the IRB will sign off...

Good question about "successful pessimists." They definitely do exist. In fact, many optimists employ something called "defensive pessimism" when they explain some past events to protect themselves from any harm those events might pose. So, say you failed a test because you didn't study (a more optimistic thing to say than "I'm just stupid!"). Later, upon reflection, you protect yourself from a "laziness" attribution by blaming the teacher or the type of course (math just isn't my thing, etc.), which are pessimistic attributions. Researchers are certainly intrigued by this tendency.

I'm going to post about what I feel the limits of optimism are in teaching. It's all part of the "way-paving" I'm doing for you! ;-)