Monday, 19 May 2014

The focusing of emotion into rage

Learned helplessness versus learned agency

I must confess, I was once deeply into power-lifting.  Power-lifting is the art of combining massive amounts of discipline with massive amounts of manufactured focused rage.  Again and again.

How does this relate to maths?  Well actually it was through power-lifting that I learned maths - both the concepts and the attitude.  Today is about - ATTITUDE!

Much can be learned and applied to the learning of mathematics and in particular remediating learned-helplessness (LH) from power-lifting.  This is because while students with LH are slaves to emotion, power-lifters are masters of emotion.

Learned helplessness is the destructive belief that nothing you do will have any effect on the outcome. You are completely helpless and dependent on others. Unfortunately learned helplessness is found within the maths domain - usually at the high school level.  Many young people simply struggle so much with maths that they begin to feel that one is either good at maths or not, that solving maths questions is due to luck or because the questions are easy, and that teachers are either good or bad.  They do not see where their own effort fits into the picture.  I'll do a full post on learned helplessness later.

But briefly:  Students with LH will attribute success or failure to anything but their own effort.  They will attribute math success or failure to:

  • the teacher
  • the content
  • the behaviour of other students
  • innate ability/disability
  • luck/bad luck
They will not attribute it to factors over which they have control.  They are perpetual victims of the mind.

Power-lifters need to manufacturer the complete opposite mindset.  They have to believe they can do the impossible.  They have to believe with all their mind, soul, heart and body that the power to move an immovable object exists within them.

Now keep in mind that while power-lifting is highly social, each person is competing directly against themselves.  That is, they are competing against their limiting beliefs, genetics, environment, access to training, work schedules, other commitments and so on.  They compete and challenge the very things that those with learned helplesness rely on - uncontrollable factors.  And you know what?  - they win.  I am amazed at what they end up doing.  Let me tell you, it is truly amazing what these guys and gals move.

So what can we learn from power-lifters and apply to students learning mathematics.  Here it is:  In the moments before a record lift most lifters engage in a psyche up session.  This is usually solitary, and during this time the lifter searches their mind and confronts the challenge before them.  They think about how hard this will be, how they will have to dig deeper  than ever before, find and exert more effort than ever before. They make that immovable weight before them a representative of every uncontrollable hurdle, hardship and struggle they have encountered.  They begin to manufacture rage out of emotion... not wild rage but very focused rage, positive rage.  And finally in those last moments they let it loose.

Here is what I see with adults who struggle with maths.  They have huge emotion, anxiety, frustration, and anger and it builds up quickly.  But instead of being focused back into positive determination it gets blown on outbursts of many kinds.  One of my learners got so upset he said he was going home to hit the bong.  All that emotion, that could have been focused got dissipated through drugs.  I imagine he felt much better the next morning with all that stress and frustration gone.  But that frustration was ENERGY and it should have gone into mastering the material that was making him angry.  He could have focused it into determination.

Power-lifters have a special mindset - It could be called 'learned potency' but really it is 'learned-agency' and it is the ability to harness emotion into energy and then into action.  It is the challenge between all the reasons this cannot be done, with the will to make it happen anyway.

How do we develop this skill in adult learners who have histories of learned helplessness?  And how do we cultivate it in the minds of our children?

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