The Good & The Bad is The Ugly: Avoiding Labels

I implement a rule with some of my students. If I were more disciplined, I’d probably hold everyone to it, but it requires pretty constant vigilance. For now, it’s my policy for some. So, here’s the gist: they can’t say they’re good or bad at anything. No “I’m good at math.” No “I’m bad at history.” Good and bad are toxic and lazy terms. I want my students to unlearn them.

At first blush, the trouble with declaring (or thinking) yourself “bad” at something is obvious. Clearly, that sort of thinking will quickly undermine confidence. It’s a surprisingly thin line between “I’m bad at Algebra” and “I’m stupid.” Once we open that door, it’s tough to close it again. If this is the obvious consequence of “bad” thinking, there’s also a likely but less apparent effect. Labeling yourself “bad” at a subject creates an alibi. The label reduces all of the complex, interrelated forces that undermine performance to a single immutable fact of nature: “I’m just bad at this.” And if it can’t be changed and it’s just a part of person’s genetic make-up, then the impulse to work at a subject, to grow past a set-back, starts to wither. Worse still, each failure, no matter the cause, gets reduced to the label: “It’s not because I was sleep deprived, because I skimmed the homework sections, because I didn’t review my work actively during the unit, because I made sloppy calculations -- I’m just bad at this.” If we’re just “bad” at it, we don’t have to look at what went wrong too closely. The word has just got to be expunged from our vocabulary.

Good is supposed to be better. Good is supposed to be affirmative and uplifting. It’s supposed to build confidence and positively reinforce. But, if anything, good can be even more insidious than bad. Over the last three or four years, a great deal has been written and observed about the way parental praise can undermine long-term success and about how many of us cripple our children by building worlds of invariably positive expectations and outcomes for them.

Constant, generalized praise can diminish the very drive we hope to bolster. We want students who are curious risk-takers. We want to encourage resilience. In the end, we do all of that best by reinforcing their useful habits, their creativity, their independence, and their daring, not by constructing a sort of blanket expectation of excellence. But, again, when it comes to “good,” there’s another, more obscure and potentially more dangerous trap to negotiate. Quite simply, “goodness” often turns into complacency. How often have I seen a student who’s labeled himself “good” at writing in ninth grade shocked by a bad grade on an essay in tenth. Big surprise: students don’t always possess great metacognitive insight. They see success, they hear about their talent, and they accept it on its face. They don’t think about the open-ended qualities that contributed to that success. The accomplished ninth grader might have found a formula that worked for one year, but if he concludes “I’m good at writing,” rather than “I figured out what this teacher wanted, and I cracked the expectations of that kind of writing prompt,” then he’s setting himself up for a fall. The ability to work out a teacher’s preferences or to work out the requirements of a specific kind of writing assignment are by their nature open-ended skills. They require us to be continually attentive, constantly revising and expanding our repertoire. Being “good at writing,” on the other hand, is closed and limits growth.

Fundamentally, “good” and “bad” have no descriptive value. Talent, skill, capacity, intelligence, knowledge: these are all contingent qualities. They’re only salient according to circumstance. They’re only defined by conditions. There’s no “goodness at Physics” that stays latently with me when I’m not actively doing Physics well. But, further, there’s no way for me to do Physics well if certain environmental, behavioral, and physical conditions aren’t in place. Take, for example, the very last thing we always tell a test prep student to remember before she goes in for the test: “Get a solid night’s sleep and eat a healthy breakfast.” If she does this consistently, unprompted, we don’t commend her for being a “good” breakfaster or sleeper, but her doing so can have more significance in her consistent performance than some vague, imprecise, innate qualities.

In the end, both “good” and “bad” have nothing whatsoever to do with learning. “I’m good at Chemistry” isn’t a statement about academics; it’s a social posture. Students declare themselves good or bad at subjects strictly to locate themselves in the social order. “Good at Chemistry” is, like so many kid and adolescent gestures, a persona students are trying on. Playing roles and trying out different masks is more than acceptable; it’s one of the most charming and admirable habits of youth. But it can get toxic. When our play-acting involves assigning permanent, innate qualities to our minds, the consequences can be hard, if not impossible, to shake all the way down into adulthood. (So often I hear parents echoing the same sentiments as their children about themselves!) This is too high a price to pay.

So, let’s all try to abandon these illusions and these sloppy habits of thought. None of us gets anything from being good or bad. We put in effort. And we draw on the myriad helpful behavioral tricks and techniques we might have at our disposal. And sometimes we do well and sometimes we need help. There’s no other way. “Good” and “bad” have got nothing to say in the matter.

Tags: Subject Tutoring, Tutoring Tips, Parenting Advice
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