To begin with she caused me a lot of grief; she had a smart answer for everything.
Mid height. Slender. Upright. Lithe in her black school pinafore. Her name? Kefilwe. Playful, and a startlingly sharp student.
Tall. Large. Lumbering. Sloping shoulders. Her school dress hanging like a bloated bluebell. A face that gave away nothing; neither sullen, nor blank, but dumb and without expression. No eye-contact. Stumbling in communication. Everyone said, ‘Not academic’.
Two teenagers: Kefilwe, Motswana, African, and Rashida, Malay, S.E. Asian. Diverse countries. Different years. One girl with a promising future; and Rashida, a ‘schooling failure’ without one.
Kefilwe with her mischievous laughter and eyes had strong self-presentation. She was packed with confidence. Common sense told you she’d do well. And she did. Even though she ran up against every teacher, the principal and half the elders in the village.
I watched her once, remonstrating. One hand on a hip, the other wagging a finger; then both gesticulating, pulling back her shoulders, protesting innocence. She could always out manoeuvre the other students. Boy or girl. And adults, too.
At first I thought she just had a high IQ, quick tongue and gutsy character, and that these explained her success. But I was wrong. She had an attribute that was far more valuable, and it helped move her from abject poverty—real desert life—to economic security and stability.
Mud floors in a rundown mud hut with a hand-me-down blanket from a Catholic relief agency for winter nights might sound romantic, but few of the people I spoke to living in those conditions would have missed an opportunity to trade up to a house with running water, a fridge, a bed with a mattress, clean linen, a shower, etc.— So when the educational door opened, Kefilwe didn’t miss her chance. Like a leopard she sprang through it.
Over time, I developed a deep affection for Rashida. A liking that looked beyond surface appearance and saw something of her generosity, maturity and compassion. But Rashida failed academically. Repeatedly. Until one summer’s day shortly before the monsoon began and the sugar palms bent over with the wind.
What had held her back and what brought about the change?
Part of it was to do with self-image. Rashida’s was tarnished, but thankfully not obliterated.
Psychologists in education tell us there are three elements that generate a narrative of self-image. (1) Competency (the belief we can do certain things well); (2) lovability (the belief that we are loved and lovable) and (3) ‘morality’ (the belief we are good people).
Rashida struggled with the lovable, but believed she was a good person.
Competency, however, was a different story. She had been told she was useless at school and she believed it. She wasn’t sporting, either. Truth to tell, she didn’t seem competent at anything. So she ground to a halt and her self-image buckled. She’d fumble in broken English to say something, lose confidence, falter and then stop. Friends made the mistake of thinking, therefore, she had nothing to say. Or at least nothing worth hearing.
Kefilwe, beads of sweat on her forehead in the rippling African heat, was another matter. She knew she was competent; grew in confidence and gained in competence. Loveable, yes, undoubtedly (in her eyes), though at times everyone who knew her must have wondered about the merits of becoming a hermit. Good? Yes, well aside from being mischievous and having a tantalizing knack for stirring up trouble for the fun of it.
In contrast to Rashida, Kefilwe’s self-image was not tarnished; it was fulsome. Her sense of self-belief in her competency propelled her forward.
But self-belief in competency while necessary for success isn’t sufficient. It was something else that Kefilwe possessed that helped her get on in life.
Rashida in a lovely and surprising manner was able to acquire it; and it is her story that I find inspiring. Returning to the fields of education, it is like a harvest for Thanksgiving.
What was it that Kefilwe had and Rashida acquired? Perhaps (unexpectedly for Kefilwe), it was humility. Or put another way, the ability to know you need the help of others, and that your own perspective on things is rarely right.
Researchers again and again confirm findings (going back over more than thirty years) that all of us have a chronic tendency for ‘inflation’. For believing we have done better than we have, or are more competent than we really are. We tell ourselves we are A grade students when, at that moment, we are actually C grade students. And of course, we’re all expert drivers; pretty good athletes and congenial.
And there is a further problem. The same research indicates that we have no intrinsic ability for recognising our own incompetence. For that we need others. They check otherwise unchecked self-judgements. In short, we have an ‘optimism’ about ourselves and own performance. There are good reasons for this, but when it comes to learning a little more realism is vital. It is a precondition for attentiveness to others, and it is the best safeguard against narcissism, delusion and ignorance.
Kefilwe’s genius was that early on, despite her blazing character, she saw her need to listen and to learn from others—to gauge her abilities through human waypoints. All her bombast was really about testing the quality of other people’s insight. It was less about herself and her beliefs, and more about the veracity and reliability of theirs. When I realised she wasn’t out to get me as her teacher, and what she was doing, I began genuinely to delight in her. Usually.
In a nutshell, Kefilwe got the balance right. She had a good amount of self-esteem without being egocentric. Her confidence wasn’t a put on; it stemmed from a healthy self-image that was built on a sense of competence, lovability and the conviction that she was a pretty good person. But she also knew she had blind spots. Or as Cicero said it, she was ‘not ashamed to confess ignorance of what [she] did not know.’
After failing her Cambridge International school leavers examinations 3 years in a row, Rashida curled up in herself, hung back when a group formed, and withdrew to her family’s stilted wooden home above the city waterways. Then for some unknown reason she decided to have one more go. Something shifted in her. A year later, she had pretty much mastered conversational English.
When I spoke with her, I was to discover not a new person, but a truly beautiful person who had recovered her confidence as she gained in competence. It was as if her true personality, which I had only had glimpses of, had been unveiled.
What had brought about the change? Three things. She had shut out the ‘you can’t do it’ narratives—all the negative voices; she had put away the inflated conviction she could do it all by herself; and she had accepted simultaneously her need for human triangulation. She said to me; ‘I’ve learned to listen—to really listen—to people who have learned to listen.’
Rashida had recognised, suddenly, in the plump-cloud humidity of December, that not only did she lack the skills to produce good English, but also she had no way of knowing that the English she produced was error ridden. She had no memory patterns that would point to failure. So she put aside her pride, and anxiety, and her assessments of what made for success or fiasco, and accepted the challenge of learning in relation to others. The result was astounding. I spotted it ten yards away. It was a smile.
Successful, eighteen years after the fact, she now busies herself with employment, her own children, their education and their aspirations.
Take away points: People can succeed and change their life circumstances through education. A lot of evidence indicates it is not only what we learn but who teaches us that matters. But before teaching or learning can happen, we need to examine our own disposition, and try to help our children to do so, too. We have a tendency to think better of our abilities than is justifiable. This is probably because we do not have a ready built in understanding of what success looks like. Our task is to chase down feedback from reliable sources and then form an objective (outside) view of our abilities, gaps in our learning, and ways to fill them. Skilled listeners—teachers—whether formally accredited or not, know how to help us and our children do this. But it begins with an attitude. Humility. And it does not mean the rejection or loss of playfulness, joy, humour or even gregariousness!
Research: Personal bias: Dunning, D. (2006). Strangers to ourselves. The Psychologist, 19 (10), 600-603.
Not knowing what we don’t know: Caputo, D., & Dunning, D. (2005). What we don’t know: The role played by errors of omission in imperfect self assessments. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 41 (5), 488-505.
A shocker. The dangers of narcissism: Twenge, J. M., & Campbell, W. K. (2009). The narcissism epidemic: Living in the age of entitlement. New York: Free Press.
Pulling it all together, chapter 25: Hattie, J, & Yates, G. R. C. (2014). Learning and the science of how we learn. London and New York: Routledge.
Something beautiful: taken from the ‘Tree of Life’.