Don't run away from the mirror

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
Giving students feedback about themselves and their performance is an important aspect of teaching. Comments, coursework marks and exam results all help them know if they are on the right track. A large part of their success boils down to their reaction to this feedback, particularly as the most useful is that which differs significantly from their own view of themselves. For instance, if they think they're a maths genius, then getting zero in their GCSE will help persuade them to abandon plans for that higher maths degree. Much of education, therefore, turns on self-awareness. Indeed, much of the stress of being a teacher is about cushioning the blow so that your pupils don't get too upset by feedback - and stay motivated.

In a sense, teachers are always holding up mirrors to their pupils, trying to make them more self-aware. For example, if you stand in front of a mirror (thus becoming self-aware of that terrible haircut), the chances are that you compare what you see (real self) to some ideal of physical appearance you aspire to. The inevitable discrepancy produces discomfort, and psychological mechanisms are naturally activated to eliminate these unpleasant emotions. This is what teachers have to keep an eye out for.

The initial reaction is to escape self-awareness by avoiding whatever is causing it. I avoid reflective surfaces after a visit to the hairdresser, for example. But mirrors cannot be evaded forever (believe me, I've tried); eventually you have to face reality and try to reduce the discrepancy between the real self and the ideal self. How? Either by modifying the real self (a hat might just do it) or by changing the ideal self (you could lower your expectations about your looks).

Psychological research shows that the bigger the discrepancy, the stronger the tendency to avoid self-awareness. For example, you might notice a discrepancy between your actual and ideal weight; if you are slightly overweight (small discrepancy), you will be likely to modify your diet andor do exercise. That is, you change the real self. But if you are severely overweight (important discrepancy), you might feel discouraged before attempting anything and avoid the whole issue (escape self-awareness).

When self-aware people observe a discrepancy, do they try to reduce the discrepancy by changing the real self, or the ideal self? Do I wear a hat, or try to lower my expectations about being able to pull Liz Hurley? Some pupils reject negative feedback on their school performance by saying education isn't for them, or the standards expected of them are too high.

And how do people escape uncomfortable self-focus? You could drink alcohol.

Or you could turn on the television, a powerful distractor. Sophia Moskalenko and Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia in Canada recently measured the amount of time a study group spent watching television after they had received bogus IQ test results. Some were told they had done very badly; others had positive feedback - or no feedback at all.

When a television was turned on for six minutes after the bogus scores were announced, those who got "good" marks (no discrepancy) watched for an average of only 2.5 minutes. Those who received no word watched a little more - about three minutes - while those who were told they had low IQ scores (discrepancy) turned to the television for an average of more than four minutes. So it seems probable that a lot of pupils' unhelpful behaviour is an attempt to escape self-focus. Educationists need to find a way of giving feedback that helps personal change rather than encourages students to run away from themselves.

Dr Raj Persaud is a consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley hospital and senior lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry in London. He is a fellow of University College London, and author of From the Edge of the Couch published by Bantam Press, pound;12.99. Email:

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