Shame Based Learning

Yesterday Anne Ursu posted this and it’s good and you should read it but I’m not going to post directly about it. It just reminds me of something that’s been on my mind lately, rarely when I’m in a position or have a context to blog about it.

It’s about shame. I used to joke, at my last job as an educational multimedia consultant, about “shame based learning,” as my favorite pedagogy. (Googling I find 13,000 uses of the expression, none by me, so I am not the only one to coin this expression). I don’t know what inspired it originally, but the truth of the joke is how often we hope shame will fix people. The book is obviously such an example, as tender as it tries to be.

I doubt many of us can recall a time when shame improved us. We remember shame with hurt and resentment. No child recalls the time they were shamed for being fat and how they then got thin and started loving themselves. More like, they find that book in their Christmas stocking and feel a throbbing mental pain and try to anesthetize themselves against it by eating all the candy in the toe.  Or they develop an eating disorder and are even less healthy and ashamed than before. As an undersized, undermuscled kid I remember the shaming of gym teachers through about eighth grade and how little motivated I was by their disgust to put down my book and lift weights.

Adulthood has it’s shame moments to — acerbic comments and judgmental looks, sometimes deserved and sometimes not — and I have gotten no better at turning them into inspiration for self improvement. Shame makes you into a wounded animal, snapping and snarling. And yet, with the faith of Saints we still hope that shame will fix other people. In any commentary about schools you’ll find the comments full of grumpsters and gremlins who want to fix the schools with shame: shame for the students, shame for the teachers, shame for the parents, shame for the administrators. Shame is seen as this all-purpose fix all. If only people felt more disgusted with themselves!

Yeah, and Twitter and whatnot kind of has the same spirit. It’s one of the few things that unites people across the vast political and cultural divide: the confidence that we can fix the other side with shame.

The transformative moments for me were when people believed the best in me. When a teachers said — contrary to the usual feedback I got from teachers — that I was “a delight” in the classroom, I vowed to remain a delight and earn the compliment. Professionally, nothing has been more motivating than a friendly email with sincere thanks. I know that the way to effect change is to tell people: I see you as strong, already. I see you as smart. I see you as beautiful. I know you are a loving and compassionate person. I see you as capable. This is especially true when rearing children, but it’s even true with adults.

I guess we regress to shame, despite our own experience, because generosity is hard. And because we’re angry. And because, in that blind and frozen moment, we  don’t want to fix someone. We want to make them feel as small and hurt as we have felt.


One thought on “Shame Based Learning

  1. Beautiful post Kurtis. As a teacher and parent, everything you say here, rings painfully clear. Your final sentiment is so accurate: Most likely people shame others, because they want those people to feel just as small and inadequate as they feel. That is the essence of bullying after all. A tough cycle to break but it is critical we do. Our children deserve better. And don’t we all want to be better adults?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s