Some (quick) Thoughts on Learning and Social Identity

A tweet tumbled through the electronic mail slot this evening, one that sent me on one of those idea-chases that impart some of of the savory taste to life. Maria Popova from the Brain Pickings Project1 pulled a snippet from neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman talking about persuasion:

“You might think that the things that get people to change their behavior are things that are memorable, that they can use their analytical brain to set down a long-term trace, or even just emotional, but surprisingly what we see is the brain regions that seem to be involved in successful persuasion. We can predict who will use more sunscreen next week based on how their brain responds to an ad today. The brain regions that seem to be critical to that are brain regions involved in social thinking, in thinking about yourself and thinking about other people. So this seems to be more about our identity and the identities that we’re capable of trying on. If I can’t try on the identity that you’re suggesting to me—being a sunscreen-using person, or a nonsmoker, or something like that—the ad is much less likely to stick.” (bold is mine.)

Which got me thinking about those reluctant readers and writers I have known over the years and how their inclusion in the world of literate souls really does seem to depend on whether they can see themselves in that literate place, or not. Can I adopt that identity? Can I imagine myself living there?

Which, in turn, helps me to see that perhaps my biggest value as a teacher is not the skills I teach them, or the standards we reach for together, but to be the boatman at the river, the one who readies the ship they might use to sail the self they are now toward the self they might become. To help provoke that fundamentally imaginative exercise: If I were that kind of person, what would it be like?

And, frankly, humans are better at this than robots. Yet another reason to keep the heart and ears open.

A Mesmerizing Contraption
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Leontine Greenberg via Compfight

  1. Thank you, Jan Miller Burkins and Mary Lee Hahn, for turning me on to the website.

4 thoughts on “Some (quick) Thoughts on Learning and Social Identity

  1. Your stuff is oh-so lovely, Steve. Always.

    This identity thinking reminds me of Peter Johnston’s work about giving students new identities to step into. Planting seeds. I think he talks about it in CHOICE WORDS. Kim and I use this a lot in our work with students and with our own children, and even with our selves. 🙂 I’m working on my identity as someone who keeps a neat house. Also, trying to re-discover my identity as a poet. That one’s harder. As always, thanks for the inspiration!

    • And thank you for helping me find Brain Pickings and for the reminder that Peter Johnston talks about identity, too. I had forgotten his work with that, although I feel like there is a part of his CHOICE WORDS and OPENING MINDS that sits on my shoulder and whispers in my ear. Wise words, his, if my brain is not too cluttered and busy to listen.

      Great to hear from you Jan. Take care!

  2. Oh, yes. “The boatman at the river…” Peter Johnston.

    Good stuff here, and not just to remember for non-readers, but for my on-the-brink mathematicians and my (more than a handful) tricky behavior kids.



    • I sometimes wonder if the math identity is the hardest to take on. Seems there’s a cultural acceptance of not being “good at math”, which seems to be an identity issue. How can one accept not being good at something and leave it at that? 🙁

      Ah, yes, the behavior. I have a few of those bad-boy identity issues this year, too. (Always.) But I like the challenge. Good luck!

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