It’s February break, which means that I can finally start making a dent in the reading piling up on my bedside table. I kicked things off with Embarrassment by Thomas Newkirk (2017, Heinemann), a book exploring how embarrassment and its associated emotions can get in the way of or even sabotage our students’ and our own learning. (Naturally, there is an entire chapter devoted to “math shame,” with the subheading “Why are we all on the outside looking in?”) It’s an engaging, provocative, and powerful read, with take-aways for teachers and learners of all levels and at all stages in their career. So far (I am halfway through), the most illuminating section for me has been the one entitled “Asking and Receiving.”
To backtrack a little, a key principle underpinning the discussions in the book is that of performance:
In all social encounters we play roles that we desire to perform competently. Embarrassment typically involves discrediting information that undermines our performances. (Newkirk, 2017, p. 9)
A second underpinning principle is what Newkirk calls the awkwardness principle:
Any act of learning requires us to suspend a natural tendency to want to appear fully competent. We need to accept the fact that we will be awkward, that our first attempts at a new skill will, at best, be only partial successes. Moreover we need to allow this awkwardness to be viewed by some mentor who can offer feedback as we open ourselves up for instruction. (p. 10)
It is already easy to see how these principles can work against one another. While, in Newkirk’s words, “there is a great deal of happy talk these days about welcoming failure, the need for failure, and learning from failure, even the gift of failure—this tribute comes primarily from people who generally succeed” (p. 11). For learners who haven’t yet experienced success, the fear of misperforming the roles that underpin our very sense of self can seriously hinder or arrest the learning process.
As a result of this tension, even the seemingly simple act of asking for help can become fraught with anxiety or avoided entirely. Admittedly, I have always been a student who has sought help unabashedly, from primary school through university and beyond. Making this a habit early on, and without having to be coached to do so, I often asked my teachers and professors to clarify ideas during class or after the lecture; I made note of contact information and, as needed, sought advice on making progress with challenging problems during office hours or over email. In university, I worked on assignments (“lived,” we used to say) in the math help centre and formed study groups with friends. Somehow, my desire to learn almost always outweighed any risk of “looking dumb” (or, equally offensive in some circles, looking like a “suck-up”) and was rewarded and reinforced by understanding (and, yes, good grades). And finally, when I became a high school teacher, I assumed that my students would naturally and without delay ask for help when they needed it, too. If they didn’t come at lunch when I asked them to “just see me if you have any questions, my door is always open,” it was because they were doing fine… or lazy, or unmotivated, or otherwise beyond my help. A classic case of false consensus.
Of course, things are almost always more complicated than we first assume when it comes to human behaviour, and Newkirk makes a compelling list of reasons why students who are interested in learning, who are, in fact, not lazy nor unmotivated, may fail to ask for help. Newkirk’s students are in college, but many of the reasons may apply just as well to middle-school and high-school learners:
Seeking help in this way makes the student appear too invested in school work. It feels like grade grubbing, even bordering on cheating. You need to keep your distance.
If suggestions for improvements are offered, this will create an expectation or obligation for the student. That is, the teacher may look to see if the advice has been taken—and be disappointed if it is not.
Seeking help is perceived as an admission of inadequacy or failure, which would be better to hide. Students want to think of themselves as good students, competent students, and asking for help would undermine that identity. So they vote with their feet—better to risk a poor grade than seek help. […]
No matter how open the professor’s [or teacher’s] door, there is often the perception of interruption or intrusion—the student is disrupting important work.
The issue of social class may also play into this reluctance. A professor [and, to some extent, a teacher] is seen as a member of an elite group […]. And students may feel intimidated by what they perceive as a cultural divide.
Students don’t know how to seek help. Though faculty might view help seeking as a self-evident skill, it clearly is not. It requires the capacity to define a problem that you want help on—and often the student has only a global feeling of confusion. In effect, seeking help can compound the embarrassment of the student. (1) It can be embarrassing to seek help in the first place, and (2) it can be embarrassing to have difficulty describing the help you want. (p. 56)
Newkirk goes on to explain that for some students, the difficulty of help seeking is compounded by racism and stereotype threat. He shares the story of Jonathan Gonzalez, a black student who found himself in the following predicament in college:
Jonathan went to a tough high school in the Bronx, but earned a scholarship to Wheaton College where he slowly sank from view and, like many students in his situation, failed to graduate. […] But it wasn’t purely or even primarily a lack of preparation that did him in; it was a sense of embarrassment, a feeling that he stood out, did not belong. […] If he reaches out for help […] he makes himself “vulnerable”; […] he confirms the stereotype that he doesn’t really belong, that he’s not ready. […] And if he fails to get help, and does poorly, he also confirms the stereotype. It’s a catch-22. (pp. 58-59)
For other students still, seeking help “aligns the learner with the institution of school—it announces that doing well matters to the student” (p. 59). For some students, such public displays of caring can be socially and even physically threatening.
And suddenly, I feel—yes—embarrassed to have thought so little of my students, to have assumed that they could all have “just” come for help when they needed it, to not have realized that asking for help is highly complicated by valid social and personal concerns, nor that help seeking is a skill like any other. A learnable and teachable one, Newkirk assures. Aside from explicit coaching, he suggests that one way to eliminate help-avoidance is to simply make it expected:
We apply this principle in health care when we schedule annual physicals or semiannual visits to the dentist. We make it normal. I have much different luck if I schedule regular conferences with students—this practice suggests that getting help is not something you do in a time of crisis, or when you have a “problem.” (p. 72-73)
Quoting Peter Johnston, Newkirk also encourages the use of prompts like, “Who came up with an interesting problem?” “Failure or disappointment is less scary,” suggests Newkirk, “if we can name it, share it, and see it as a normal and expected feature of thinking and working.” (p. 73)
A counteracting tension that I recognize for teachers, and maybe especially for teachers of mathematics, is that we are increasingly encouraged to move away from the image of “helpers” and to promote “productive struggle,” to encourage persistence in times of difficulty, to advocate using one’s own mental and physical resources to solve a problem and resisting the temptation to immediately ask for help. Of course, this is not in conflict with Newkirk’s message. We can promote productive struggle but still recognize that there are many situations where perseverance alone will not lead to success, where struggle ceases to be productive—for example, when students don’t know what to do when they are stuck, or consistently have trouble identifying relevant information in problem situations. But I do wonder if simplistic directives by teachers to “persevere” and “persist” complicate matters even further for students who are already wary of seeking help. How do I know when my struggle is becoming unproductive? If I ask for help, am I revealing a lack of perseverance? Does asking for help mean giving up, a personal failure? Unless our championing of “productive struggle” is accompanied by coaching on when and how one should seek help, as well as by work on normalizing help seeking, maybe we are doing more harm than good.
All this to say: In teaching and learning (and maybe even in spiritual matters, too), the idea that if you just “ask, and it will be given to you” is much less straightforward than I had assumed. Newkirk’s Embarrassment leaves me humbled, challenged, and eager to keep exploring the emotional underside of learning (and teaching, too).