Thinking About Students: What a Student DOES Rather Than What a Student IS.

Yesterday’s post briefly discussed Alfred Korzybski and, today, I wanted to talk a bit more about some of his ideas, applied as a method for describing students.

“Why do I need a new way to describe students?” you might well ask. After all, we all know that there are good students, bad students, hard-working students, lazy students…

Or do we?

I only have read a relatively small amount of Korzybski but what struck me was his discussion of the verb ‘to be’ and the way that it could be used in a way that confused someone’s actions with their fundamental identity. For example, if I do something foolish, you could say “Nick is a fool” but what you really mean is “I am calling Nick a fool because he did something foolish.” (There is an old, and obscene, joke along these lines that I shall say no more on.) Committing one foolish act no more makes me a fool than the word “Nick” actually reflects the entirety of my identity.

Similarly, let us consider the movie “Green Lantern”. If I say “the movie is bad”, what I am really saying is “I did not enjoy the movie Green Lantern and would not watch it again, even for free on a plane.” The latter is a fact, based on a subjective opinion, but it is clearly identified as such. Anyone else sharing the longer form would clearly be saying that “I heard Green Lantern was not enjoyable to Nick and, given that I have similar tastes, I believe that I would not enjoy it either.”

How does this apply to students?

It’s easy to talk about good, bad, hard-working and lazy students but this often confuses the facts of a student’s actions with the student themselves. How do we characterise a good student? Michael hands up all of his work on time, has never cheated and achieves high marks. Does that make him a good student? These are all characteristics of a good student, certainly, but by listing these actions in full I make it clear how other students can achieve this aim. If I tell someone to be a good student – or to work harder (to be hard-working effectively) – I don’t actually tell them what to so, I ask them to match an identity or fulfil a predicate, rather than clearly showing them what I expect them to achieve. Of course, there is no guarantee that Michael is a ‘good’ student – but by listing our perceptions of his actions we explain why we might apply such a categorisation.

Referring to a student with ‘This student is…’ risks hiding a factual statement inside a statement that appears much stronger and has much wider impact, but without qualification. Now this goes beyond identity and simple statements and extends to the way that we interact with students as well.

“The student is responsible for handing up their work on time” – sounds good, but just saying it is an assertion of what you want to occur. What I mean when I think this is “We expect students to read the deadlines for submission, allow enough time to complete the assignments and submit their work on time, to the correct locations, in the correct format. If you don’t do this, then you will lose some or all of the marks for the assignment and may not be allowed to continue with the course.”

This is, by definition, a discussion of semantics and it is a little bit of me thinking aloud. As a mental exercise, I find it very useful because whenever I want to classify a student as ‘this student is…’ I force myself to think about what the student has done to make me think that way. Quite often, in review, I find terms like ‘bad, lazy, hard-working, good, indifferent, difficult’ dropping away because such simple classifications are beyond me – although not always. You’ll note that a recent post of mine dealt with the ‘rude student’, although I went on to describe why this may or may not be a fair description. Sometimes, for brevity or ease of reference, we may use this form to describe a group or a type, especially where people know what we mean. The problem arises when we make absolute statements about someone from smaller, and occasionally ephemeral, information. Extrapolating to a strong statement when we do not have enough information to do so. And some of these labels will stick – and stick hard – throughout a student’s life.

I suppose that the benefit for me lies in considering everything, good and bad, that a given student has done because it makes me regard them as a person, rather than a simple “is a…” – a being who has taken a number of actions, and may take any of the other possibilities in the future. Somebody that DOES rather than somebody that just IS. Someone with a great deal of unrealised potential and untapped energy. Someone who could do anything rather than being stuck in a box from the misapplication of a strong label somewhere back in their past.


One Comment on “Thinking About Students: What a Student DOES Rather Than What a Student IS.”

  1. Alex H says:

    The sad thing is that, by the time they’ve finished high school, many students will readily do this to themselves. “I’m no good at maths”…”I’m not very organised”…”I always struggle with this bit”…once you become aware of it, it’s frightening to see how often people confuse their actions with their identity, and then cling to this identity.

    In one-on-one teaching situations, you can sometimes see this happening and reframe it: “the next time you see the same situation, you’ll be ready to do X and Y, and the outcome will be different…” But in a classroom, I’m not so sure how to deal with this.


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