Friday, November 16, 2012

What you see is what you get - literally

This is a very well known optical illusion - it seems that everyone has seen it.  Everyone knows that it is either two faces or a vase.  Wrong.  It is both. It is two faces and it is a vase - but you can’t see them at the same time.  It is a classic demonstration of attention equals perception - we see what we are looking for.

Over time, we tend to wear lens’ that frame our vision, that shape our perceptions. We  learn from experience and form our world view according to those experiences.  However, once our world view is established the reverse seems to happen - our expectations and beliefs  actually shape our perceptions;  in other words, we see what we expect to see. Literally.  No less a figure then Einstein wrote about this - and he believed that we not only tend to see what we expect to see but that we ignore what doesn’t fit our expectations.   This holds true, not only for psychological perceptions - but also for our physical bodies. What we think determines what we feel.

For educators this is significant. We’ve all heard studies of self-fulfilling prophecies where teacher expectations predict student achievements.  (Strangely enough we tend to recognise this as a theoretical consideration but rarely seem to acknowledge it in our own practice.)  In short - we tend to see a child as a slow-learner, smart, a behaviour problem...and ‘lo and behold the child performs to our expectations.  The child who is perceived to be a behaviour problem tends to become a behaviour problem,  or at least is perceived to be one.  Perception does indeed become reality.

This means that children may become locked into our version of  reality … which in turn becomes their own. Our view of students may become their version of themselves.

Perhaps an answer is in training ourselves to look for the things that surprise us, for the things that don’t follow a pattern or meet our expectations.  We need to train ourselves to see what is really happening rather than think in mental cliches.  In practice this is not as easy as it seems.  The notion of  observing students, really observing, is important.  Perhaps the increasingly popular notion of the “focus child” offers some help.  During this time, as well as learning the strengths and areas for further development, perhaps teachers should try to discover something that surprises them about the student, to find out something that they did not know about the child, to take the chance to remind themselves that this student is also a person.

When we approach our students with a deficit model we limit our perceptions to what they can’t do.  Shifting our focus to what they can do, perhaps adopting a strength based approach, and helping them to build on that might just provide  the shift in emphasis that is needed to re-engage those students who can’t see any relevance or purpose in schooling.

It’s an idea worth looking at.

Related posts dealing with “The more I practice the luckier I get - Mindset and Carol Dweck”  and another dealing with the importance of attitude - “The second most important word in education” may also be of interest.
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  1. This is so true! Well written, it's made me think about the way we perceive our students.

  2. Thanks for the response. I wrote this post in response to my own realisation that I was seeing a student a little differently to some other teachers. At first I thought that my view was “right”…but then I realised that, from their standpoint, they were “right” too. So then my thoughts started down the “both can’t be right” path until I stopped and realised that what we see depends on our viewpoint – not necessarily what we are looking at. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” rings true – but surely the reality of a child is not determined by our perspective? Surely the reality of the child is independent of our perception?
    Thanks again for your response and I am glad you liked the post.