Friday, February 13, 2009

A Prediction About Moderation

Before I begin, a dissertation update: My research has been approved by the IRB, and I am collecting data! It feels good to be underway!

As I collect my data, I am eager to see how explanatory style will play out with teachers. From a clinical psychology perspective, a pessimistic explanatory style is typically not helpful. People who are pessimistic (explaining bad events as personally caused, permanent in effect, and pervasive in scope) are more likely to be depressed, sickly, and easily defeated by circumstances. Even in educational settings, pessimism often leads to poor academic performance and higher dropout rates. The less pessimistic one is, the more likely that person will be happier, healthier, and better adjusted.

But does being extremely optimistic lead to opposite types of effects from deep pessimism? Most studies indicate that it does not. Studies of law students and medical students show that students who are mildly pessimistic (comparatively) are more successful in school than their more optimistic counterparts. Some studies indicate that moderate pessimists tend to devise more realistic plans for future action. Extreme optimists tend to be unrealistic and avoid taking responsibility for bad events that actually are their fault.

Pessimists are more successful? Really? How can a way of thinking so at odds with resilience, happiness, and good health be good for you?

I think extremism in explanatory style in either direction should not be encouraged. Seligman warned about excessive optimism in his book Learned Optimism, and I think his warning should be heeded. Extreme pessimists are those most at risk for pain and suffering. They will give up easily, endure avoidable hardship, and take life's blows without a fight. But, extreme optimists will never take responsibility for their actions and believe themselves more capable and in control than they are. A more moderate explanatory style seems to be the most beneficial for one's health and well being. Some have hypothesized that optimism and pessimism are two sides of the same coin. I wonder if they are not two pathologies with the same cause - unrealistic explanations for good and bad events.

I believe that teachers should be moderate (aka, realistic) in their explanations of the causes of behavior for both their own behavior and the behavior of their students. I see teachers projecting their own pessimism onto their students. They believe that if you don't learn quickly, you won't learn at all. They tell students that failure in one area translates into failure for life. These are their beliefs about student learning that infect vulnerable students with low expectations. This just isn't healthy for anyone.

But we should beware of the extremely optimistic teacher, the one who doesn't take personal responsibility for what goes on in the classroom. I've heard teachers say things like, "I taught this information well. If they don't get it, they must be stupid." Now if that isn't optimistic, I don't know what is -- a bad situation explained in external, stable, and isolated ways. This is how optimists think of failure. But, if a teacher believes this about their teaching, they will not change their strategies to fit the needs of students. They will project onto students the idea that the student is at fault and can do nothing about it. By being optimistic about our own failure, perhaps we are in danger of creating pessimism in our students.

It will be interesting to see what the ranges of optimism and pessimism are for my study. One explanation for why pessimistic law and medical students are more successful is that the range of explanatory styles was quite low for these populations - they were pretty optimistic overall, so the "pessimistic" students in the study were actually quite moderate in their overall styles. And the moderate style ended up being more beneficial than the extreme styles. Are teachers mostly moderate in their explanatory styles? Or will we see a wide range of styles? I am eager to know.

As Cicero said, "Never go to excess, but let moderation be your guide."