Shame and Learning

I am up for creating a world full of vibrant learning for all—and one of the biggest obstacles in my path is shame.  There is not much that shuts down learning faster.  There’s not much that shuts me down faster—that keeps me from taking risks, taking on new projects, or saying what I really believe.  And I’ve been playing the shame game for as long as I can remember.

My earliest, most vivid memory of shame is from first grade.  I made the dreadful mistake of forgetting to wear underwear to school.  But that wasn’t my biggest mistake.  I also was wearing a dress.  Forgetting to wear underwear when you’re in first grade is not such a big deal—unless you’re also wearing a dress.  Then, it’s a big deal.

But even that wasn’t my biggest mistake.  Forgetting to wear underwear when you’re wearing a dress in first grade is recoverable.  Just remember to sit and keep your skirts down.  Don’t go on the monkey bars, don’t go down the slide, and don’t do cartwheels.  Fairly simple.

Or it should have been.  But first grade didn’t come with an instruction manual and nobody told me that the worst thing to do when you’re in first grade and wearing a dress with no underwear is to sit down and cry about it.  I sat and cried.

I sat and cried with my legs splayed, my head in my hands and my sobs bursting forth—and every naturally curious elementary student came over to find out what was wrong and ended up peeking up my skirts.

It took me years to share this story.  And even now, my cheeks are pink with embarrassment and shame.  Yes.  Shame.  Still, after all these years.  I keep thinking, “How could I have been so stupid?  Why didn’t I just hide my mistake instead of blaring it to the whole schoolyard?”

As an adult, I have some compassion and empathy for my seven-year-old self.  But I don’t always have that same compassion for my fifty-year-old self.  I still find myself saying unhelpful and unkind things about myself:  “How could I be so stupid?”  “How come I am still so fat?”  “Woman, you are ugly!”  “You should be better at this by now.”

What does any of this have to do with learning?

In some ways everything.

When I am in the throes of shame, I am not capable of the risk-taking that learning requires.  I pull in.  I shut down.  I hide.  I may not still be sobbing on the playground with my legs splayed, but that little girl is still alive in me shouting, “Don’t be mocked!  Don’t let people laugh at you!  Don’t let them judge you out loud!”

When I pull in, when I hide, when I shut down—I stop learning.  Because learning requires participation, engagement, and being willing to fail.

Learning requires failing and being willing to try again and again and again.  Learning requires asking for and being willing to listen to specific feedback about where we are not yet excellent and how we can improve our product or our process.  Learning requires us to acknowledge that we are not yet perfect.  Learning is an act of courage.  Learning is an act of daring.

In the words of Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, learning requires shame-resilient cultures that “nurture folks who are much more open to soliciting, accepting, and incorporating feedback.  These cultures also nurture engaged, tenacious people who expect to have to try and try again to get it right—people who are much more willing to get innovative and creative in their efforts.”

Schools around the country have been engaged for years in fostering growth mindsets and building grit and resilience in their students.  In my work in schools I have seen evidence of this work that teachers and districts are doing to foster greater resilience.  All of these efforts are admirable and are helping to build shame-resilient cultures in our schools.

Yet, at the same time, the national conversation about schools and teachers is often a shaming conversation.  We blame teachers for the failures of schools to change.  We blame teachers for low test scores.  We blame teachers for lack of student engagement.  We blame teachers for making schooling so expensive. The list of things we blame teachers for is long and often strident.

And even when it is not coming from outside, we often blame ourselves.  “I should have known better.”  “I should have been able to reach that student.”  “I should be better at engaging students.”

And we blame students too…and parents…and subcultures…and ethnicities…and socio-economic status.  The list of who or what is to blame when learning doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen fast enough, is also long and frequently aggressively articulated with ugly words.

But blame and shame are not very effective tools for bringing about the changes we really want and need in public education.

Peter Sheahan, author and CEO of Karrikins Group says:

The secret killer of innovation is shame.  You can’t measure it, but it is there.  Every time someone holds back on an idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part.  That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us from taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.

I love how the Maine Department of Education says it:

It is important to point out that our schools are not struggling due to a lack of effort.  Educators in Maine and across the nation are working harder than ever… [O]our schools are not failing, they are simply obsolete:  They were built for a bygone era, and the world of the 21st century requires something new.  —Education Evolving, Maine Department of Education

Perhaps we can stop talking about how are teachers are failing, or our students are failing, or our schools are failing, and start talking about how to build the new kinds of systems that allow vibrant learning to take place where shame is no longer part of the equation.

To create the kinds of learning environments that allow students to dare greatly, requires allowing educators to dare greatly.  We have to trust in the talents and integrity and creativity of the adults we have entrusted with the education of our children.  We have to empower them to be risk takers, to be willing to seek and receive feedback, to be willing to try new things, to be willing to invent the “something new” without fear of losing jobs or public shaming.


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