I can’t do math! Self-fulfilling prophecies in learning.

By Steve Weaver, FWCL Instructor

Have you ever heard your student, or any student, say something like, “I can’t do math!” Maybe you’ve heard, “I hate reading!” or, “I’ll never understand chemistry!”

While I have said the last statement many times to myself while in high school and college, I no longer think chemistry is Satan incarnate. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve reflected back on how I missed some chances to really understand chemistry and do some spectacular things because of what I told myself. Maybe I’d be an engineer by now or would have discovered the cure for cancer.

Sociologist Robert K. Merton came up with a term to describe the situations above – “self-fulfilling prophecy.”  In the 1940’s, he defined it, saying, “The self‑fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior, which makes the originally false conception come true. The specious validity of the self‑fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning” (Merton, 1948, p. 175).

So in effect, it’s very akin to some words from the old Sufi poet Rumi, “What you seek is seeking you.” I liked how Merton coined the one who makes these prophecies as a “prophet.” The judgment that something will happen in the future is thought, when the thought is converted to some action and the result of the action backs up the original thought, validation occurs. More prophecies will likely result from the prophet’s lips. The interesting thing is if failure is foretold, failure many times is the result because of visualization of the process leading to failure. If one envisions themselves failing a test, will they study as hard as they can or stick with the thought process to completion? What you seek…

We all have made self-fulfilling prophecies from time to time. “I have an insurmountable pile of work to do this weekend!” or “I’ll never get that dog to listen!” or “I can’t.” The last one strikes a chord with me as I have heard it from various students and people throughout the years. It’s a very broad prophecy that can apply to many different things. Let’s talk mainly about the statement in the realm of learning. How does a prophecy such as “I can’t” develop you say? Hmm, good question. The obvious culprit is experience.

Say you missed a day in math class and had to take the test with that gap in your knowledge base and in turn failed the test. One small event like this, in my opinion, can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. “I stink at math.” Although many times this isn’t the case, this is an example of how a stimulus can lead to these statements. It may in-turn develop into an implicit, or unconscious, memory. After some time the prophet forgets the initial reason that sparked the prophecies, and simply makes and lives up to the statement, “I stink at math.”

Another culprit is comparison. Let’s set up a scenario that may not be too different from a real setting. Say there are 20 students in a class where every student takes a chemistry test.  I have taught many classes of students with 20 and over students, and the odds are very likely there will be a small percentage who obtain a lower grade than the others. When a student who gets the lower grade looks around at the other scores on classmate’s tests, what happens? Humans compare themselves and judge their behaviors many times on the behavior of others. Our brain likes to create what are called bipolar constructs, talked about by psychologist George Kelly in the 1950s. They’re extremes such as happy/sad or pretty/ugly are used by people who essentially act as scientists to make predictions and evaluations, placing things in these either/or areas. When it comes to learning, the example of the construct of good/bad comes to mind. I failed the test, I’m bad at math. The teacher put a smiley sticker on my paper, I’m a good student. Are these evaluations true? Who’s to know? These are judgments made that can limit actions we take. We all can see how saying “I’m a bad student” can limit students and make them think and act in ways to live up to the prophecy. However, saying “I’m a good student” can also limit them by steering them towards reproducing those actions that get more of the “good student” reinforcement such as “Good job” or “You’re smart!”  Students may base these judgments many times on comparisons to classmates. “All the other students are getting it, why aren’t I!”

The last culprit toward possibly enacting self-fulfilling prophecies I’ll talk about is the statements from others. “He won’t sit still,” “It’s hard for her to pay attention,” or, “Biology is not her best subject,” are some examples. I remember being a kid and hearing things from adults and taking it to heart. When we hear things from sources we deem credible and trustworthy, we’re likely to believe the information we’re hearing. Words carry a lot of power because they contribute to the thoughts that produce actions. Being very cognizant about what is said around students is important as the early years are when the brain acts as a sponge to soak up every little interaction. Hearing judgments like “unmotivated” may lead toward developing a prophet. As stated in the book of the samurai the Hagakure,” "Matters of great concern should be treated lightly. Matters of small concern should be treated seriously." Every little thing that is said, matters.

How do we reduce the tendency to make these self-fulfilling prophecies by students? Use observation language. Deal with issues, not self-conceptualizations. Try to reduce competition in learning tasks. Above all, regard what is said seriously.

For example, instead of saying,  “You’re the best!” use language like, “You did all those math problems by yourself!” This helps keep the focus on the task and reduces the need to hear a judgment, which in turn leads to self-judgment. Building intrinsic or self-motivation leads to more effective learning than rewards or “reward language.” The focus is on learning to love the learning process rather than learning how to best obtain praise. We must praise in a way that doesn’t produce prophets.

When you hear, “I stink at math, I’ll never be good at it!” respond with language addressing something you observed like “Are you feeling upset about that D you got on the test?” This takes it out of the realm of the vague and puts focus on a specific thing that can be worked on, or that may have caused the prophecy. Follow up with a request to have a meeting about the issue to work on it. The goal here is to redirect the language to possibility rather than dead ends.

 If you hear, “Janet is so much better at spelling than me, I’ll never be better than her!” try to make learning tasks less competitive. Avoid comparisons to other children in the class or to siblings. Shy away from contests such as spelling bees. Try to build in more cooperation. As Alfie Kohn said in his article The Case Against Competition “Competition is to self-esteem as sugar is to teeth. Most people lose in most competitive encounters, and it’s obvious why that causes self-doubt.”

The self-talk students use shouldn’t be taken lightly. Every little thing they say to themselves in regards to learning adds up. Guiding kids away from the realm self-doubt and dead-end prophecies toward a sense of possibility is crucial. 

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