DRMacIver's Notebook

The trauma model of talent blocks

The trauma model of talent blocks

There’s something very important you learn as a result of doing a mathematics degree. It’s this: People really didn’t like studying mathematics at school, and they are keen to tell you.

There’s something like a 50% hit rate when you talk to normal people (people in tech don’t count) that when you tell someone you did mathematics at university they say “Oh god I hated mathematics at school”. Sometimes they say it in different words. “Oh.”, in a very flat tone of voice. “You must be very clever”. They look at you with the wary look of a gazelle facing off with a lion, fearful and ready to bolt at the slightest sign of you baring your teeth and trying to do an equation at them.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve historically found this quite irritating, but as time has gone on I’ve started looking at it differently. Instead of treating this as an attack on my interests, when people say this to me my first thought is more along the lines of “I’m sorry your mathematics teacher hurt you.”

I don’t usually say it that way, that’s a good way to get punched. Instead I wince sympathetically and say “Yeah, it’s often taught really badly.”

Sometimes I add “Sorry about that”.

In clearing hurdles in learning I talked about how often what happens is that people hit a block where the they require help to progress and think of this as their natural talent limit.

The detail this missed out on is what happens next, which is that you get stuck and we do two things, in order:

  1. Tell you to try harder.
  2. Blame you for not succeeding and then tell you it’s your fault and is an intrinsic feature of you and your abilities.

A distinction I find quite useful is that between guilt and shame. Guilt is when you feel bad about what you do, shame is when you feel bad about who you are. “I did a bad thing” vs “I am bad”. It’s not a perfect distinction but it’s a pretty good rule of thumb.

Another principle I find useful (see Jiminy Cricket Must Die, or “Voices: The Educational Formation of Conscience” by Thomas Green) is that moral emotions are the internalised judgement of others.

A third principle I find useful is that emotional reactions we learn tend to stick around until we find a way to actively engage with them and change them by recognising that our situations have changed (see Emotional reactions as legacy code, Your emotions are valid but probably wrong).

Sure seems like having kids spend a substantial fraction of their entire childhood in an environment in which they are praised or punished for their academic achievement, then telling them that their failure to excel is the result of an intrinsic feature of themselves and punishing them for it anyway might have some uh lasting negative emotional side effects, huh?

Anyway, let me tell you about my experience learning to drive.

My attempts to learn to drive went as follows:

  1. I had driving lessons when I was 18. I was bad at it. I stopped driving lessons and went to university in a town where I could cycle everywhere.
  2. I moved back in with my parents for about six months post university, and used this as an opportunity to practice driving.
  3. I took a few more driving lessons to fill in some gaps, I was fine, and I passed my practical test first time.
  4. I’m absolutely fine at driving, and am comfortable enough doing it that I’ve done multiple long road trips.

What made the difference between my first attempts at learning to drive and my subsequent attempts?

Well, my first driving instructor was a very angry person, and tended to shout when I made mistakes. The result was that I was so anxious learning to drive and so afraid of making errors that I was unable to drive to any degree of competence.

It’s certainly not the case that I’m a natural driver. My physical coordination and spatial awareness are on the poor side. It’s possibly genuinely true that I was dangerous and needed correcting in my first driving lessons.

And yet, somehow shouting at me about that didn’t help, because it turns out that experiencing intense negative emotions every time you make an error is not remotely conducive to the acquisition of complex skills.

I don’t expect feeling shame every time you think of a subject is much different.

I want to be clear: This is, for the most part, not teachers’ fault. There are definitely individual teachers who make the problem worse (e.g. by behaving like my driving instructor), and there are individual teachers who make the problem less bad, but fundamentally this is a function of the system. It arises from the system of grading, and is compounded by the fact that when you hit a block you need individually tailored help to overcome it, which our systems of teaching are absolutely not set up to provide unless your parents are rich enough to hire a tutor for you. While a great teacher can ameliorate the worst of this problem, attempting to solve it will break them because the task is too big.

But regardless of whose fault it is, it seems to hurt a lot of people pretty badly, because they end up hitting their “talent limits” - the bits where they needed help - and instead of either helping them progress or telling them that their current level was good enough, the education system chose violence and made their attempts to improve harder, not just now but effectively forever until they unlearn the incorrect emotional lessons that they got instead of the lessons they should have been getting.

I suspect that above and beyond the specific subjects that we fail to learn as a result of this dynamic, it has a much broader impact on our conception of ourselves, because we think in terms of subjects we are good at and subjects we are bad at, when instead we should be thinking more in terms of how good we want to be a subject and how much help we need to get there.

I also suspect that many people would find it really helpful to get some one on one tutoring in subjects they struggled at at school where they feel bad about that.

But, suspicions aside, one thing I’m reasonably certain of is that there are a lot of adults walking around with lingering low-grade trauma from school that they think of as their “lack of talent”, and would benefit a great deal from the following reframing: It’s not that you’re bad at it, whatever “it” is, you were just never given the sort of help you needed.