In October 2020, I introduced a new PGP elective course, "Managing Self-Limiting Beliefs in Education and Training." Students first take a critical look at the education system with the help of learning and motivation theories, concepts such as mindset, grit and resilience, and the impostor syndrome. They then explore a few self-limiting beliefs - beliefs that hold one back from achieving what one is capable of - through projects. As they go through the course, they reflect on the different belief systems, individual and collective, that have shaped the way we think and act as a society; some of these may be self-limiting. Understanding how certain belief systems have influenced who gets educated (or does not) and how, is the crux of this course.
There are several paradoxes in the education system. For example, different students have different strengths and life experiences, yet centralized examinations measure everyone's abilities with a standard yardstick - test scores. Getting an A grade is great, and talking about failures is taboo. While our education system incentivizes students to ace their exams, there is no room for what one can learn, individually and collectively, from failures. Thus, many students prioritize competing over collaborating, grades over learning, and the instant gratification of success over working long hours trying to solve complex problems that might turn out to be unsolvable. These are some of the examples discussed in class. We know that we learn better through collaboration than competition (and through the mistakes we, and others, make), not all real-world problems have one correct answer, and reality, as we experience it, is more subjective than objective. Why is it that the education and training we experience usually do not highlight these attributes but are mostly grade- and output-focussed?
A rather controversial book by Bryan Caplan, Professor of Economics at George Mason University, The case against education: Why the education system is a waste of time and money, was the primary inspiration for the course. While I do not agree with everything Prof. Caplan writes, this book gave me a lot to think about. Additionally, my research focuses on examining why some successful people experience the impostor syndrome, not believing in their ability, attributing their success to luck rather than hard work, feeling as if they do not belong in the very areas in which they are successful, and constantly doubting themselves. I regularly get invited to talk about my research. My audience, many of whom have experienced the impostor syndrome, usually harbour a collective belief -- "Fake it till you make it!" Yet, I wonder what happens when people acknowledge their limitations rather than pretend-play or fake success. So many are surprised when I talk about "CV of Failures," the idea of writing down a vita compiling all your failures. They realize that a number of failures preceded that one success on their vita. No one published a research paper at the first attempt, became a good teacher with the very first course they taught, or got a competitive award just like that. Yet, we try to make success look so natural, so effortless. The dissonance is mind-boggling.
So what the course does is to help students question everything - why the education and grading systems are the way they are, how we learn (and unlearn) things that serve or do not serve us, why external validations determine our worth, why employers recruit students the way they do, why so many high-stakes examinations ask for answers that require rote learning rather than critical thinking, and why success (or what we understand of it) is so revered and failure so stigmatized.
The students have developed some interesting projects. One group talked to several people who had experienced linguistic marginalization during their education to understand how it led to lower self-esteem and negative experiences. You could be fluent in several languages, but you will be made fun of in class and outside, if your English is not perfect (especially by those who are not native English speakers). Do check out this project: https://www.instagram.com/whisper_of_thousand_languages/
Another group curated narratives about failures in an online forum in their project: https://www.instagram.com/cv_of_failures_iima/. In fact, one in-class activity is developing a combined CV of Failures. Students are reluctant to write about their failures at first, but when they see me doing it, they start participating. I tell them about the different times I have failed, trying out things that did not work. Once students let go of their inhibitions and fear of being judged, they share their experiences around perceived failures. Students realize that we take pride in celebrating accomplishments, but often do not talk about failures because they are associated with weakness.
My hope is that the students will carry these lessons with them when they graduate and create a safe space in the larger community to normalize such discussions. This is important, the more so in the age of social media that presents mostly lopsided, amplified voices of success. Every time I go on Twitter, someone around me is winning awards, getting to teach at Harvard and MIT, publishing their research in Science and Nature, and running marathons in their fifties and sixties (while I struggle to climb a few flights of stairs every day). Everything on social media is made to look so effortless, creating a distorted picture of reality. No one talks about how many rejections and how much hard work went into that one success or how many times one had to fail. No one talks about how much hurt comes every time a project fails or something goes wrong unexpectedly, or when you are told your work is not good enough.
I hope we can stop glorifying success alone and create a more balanced narrative. Martin Schwartz, in an essay that we read in class, "The importance of stupidity in scientific research," talks about the value of being productively stupid. To quote him from the essay,
"We don't do a good enough job of teaching our students how to be productively stupid – that is, if we don't feel stupid it means we're not really trying. I'm not talking about 'relative stupidity', in which the other students in the class actually read the material, think about it and ace the exam, whereas you don't. I'm also not talking about bright people who might be working in areas that don't match their talents. Science involves confronting our 'absolute stupidity'. That kind of stupidity is an existential fact, inherent in our efforts to push our way into the unknown."
I want our students to understand that rejections are not failures. I hope more teachers can make schools and colleges safe places to learn from failures. I hope that we are generous about sharing our stories of failure so that students do not leave educational institutes with some lofty ideas of success. I hope students can learn to question their education and life choices, become culturally competent, know that it is okay to fail, and think of ways to make the education system more accessible and more inclusive for future generations.
About The Author
Ph.D. in Science Education, University of Virginia (2013)
M.P.H. in Toxicology, University of Washington (2008)
M.Sc. in Environmental Sciences, University of Calcutta (2005)
B.Sc. in Zoology, University of Calcutta (2003)