The SAIL Teaching Framework

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August 2, 2012

Magical Thinking

When I was a boy, I was considered "smart" because I had good grades.  I had no idea why I had good grades, or what "smart" even meant, I was just a boy playing with my friends and going to school because I had to for some reason.  I rarely saw my neighborhood pals in school; I was placed in classes with other "smart" kids and had to wait until the end of the day to play with my friends.

The parents of my friends knew I had good grades, and thus was "smart" (though I doubted they understood the connection any better than I did).  They were happy that their children played with me because this meant that somehow their children might also become "smart."  They even encouraged their kids to stick close to me and watch me because "maybe you'll learn something."  This bothered me tremendously because it not only put my friendships at risk, but it also was patently illogical, even to a boy in elementary school.  "Smart," whatever it was, was not contagious, like a disease.

Now I understand that this was an example of magical thinking.  "Thinking" because it is a kind of thinking, though not logical, and "magical" because belief in the thought is so compelling that evidence or logic to the contrary does nothing to dispel that belief.  It just seems like it ought to be true no matter what.

There is a great deal of magical thinking that goes on in both families and schools.  The example from my boyhood is just one instance of the magical thought that being near something (or looking like or acting like something) will endow you with the qualities of that something.

Here's an example of a kind of magical thinking that happens in schools all the time.  A certain ability or act, like being attentive, often has a certain appearance, like being still and focused.  Taking on that appearance, therefore, will result in that ability.  In other words, if A results in B, then certainly B must result in A.  According to my example, forcing students to be still and to look focused will result in their being attentive.  A variation: students who are still and who look focused ARE attentive, by definition even if not by evidence.  And a corollary: students who are not still and do not look focused can't possibly be attentive to anything.

I am not saying that there is no connection between being attentive and being still.  Certainly both activities often occur together (are highly correlated), and stillness may, under various circumstances, aid attentiveness.  The relationship needs to be clarified, studied, and understood though before we draw the magical conclusion that B must result in A.

I'm sure that my friends' parents saw that I was not a troublemaker, and that I was more likely to correctly weigh the consequences of my actions.  I could be a good example for those of my friends inclined to copy me.  One could conceivably make a connection between these favorable traits and high grades in school.  Somewhere in the mystery of how all this goes is the idea of "smart."  But I guarantee you that the only thing contagious about me were my germs.

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