The Scoreboard of Life

This is ultimately not about the World Cup happening right now this beautiful 2014, but the title was inspired by it being that I think scoring goals in soccer / football is not just due to skill and teamwork but also a matter of psychology. You know when you are so sure that a certain team is not going to catch up after losing a goal? I don’t think it’s purely thanks to skill and teamwork, but also the momentum of morale at that point.

Anyways, these are actually thoughts about living faith and the psychology behind it that I got from some insights about the psychology of learning.

Carol S. Dweck speaks about the psychology of learning in education, and has an acclaimed book entitled Mindset. This is my transcript from the first part (the first 2.5 minutes) of a talk she gave on the subject, entitled How to Help Every Child Fulfil Their Potential:

Here’s that talk:

  • [Picture of a happy baby.] We all come like this: infinitely curious, always experimenting, always learning, and addressing the most difficult tasks of a lifetime with tremendous gusto. You never see an unmotivated baby. [Picture of a bored, smoking baby ‘bum’, face propped by up a hand.] Nooo. And yet, just a few years later, you start seeing lots of kids who look as turned off as that baby. [Picture of a young student in a pose like the baby, minus the cigarette.] Not so different from the baby.
  • But what we have now discovered is that mindsets are at the heart of this kind of problem. Mindsets that make kids afraid to try, and make them easily derailed by setbacks. But what’s important is that we are also discovering why this happens, and what to do about it.
  • In my work, we find that some students have a fixed mindset about their intellectual abilities and talents. They think intelligence is just a fixed trait: you have a certain amount and that’s that. This is the mindset that makes kids afraid to try, because they’re afraid to look dumb.
  • But other students have a growth mindset. They believe that intelligence can be developed through their effort, dedication, learning, and mentorship from others. They don’t think that everyone’s the same, or that anyone can be Einstein, but they understand that even Einstein wasn’t the guy he became before he put in years and years of dedicated labour.

It’s a great talk on its own, but being the distracted listener that I am whenever someone gives an informative talk, I started to draw the parallels between a mindset about intelligence with a Christian walk and the mindset about faith:

  • Babies are born with an openness and willingness to know God, and most children too. After some years, you get teens who become doubtful, skeptical, or legalistic, and they can grow into adults who are even more so.
  • Our mindset about faith and its cultivation at the heart of this problem. Certain mindsets make us afraid to trust God and easily derailed by setbacks. As such, we do not live freely.
  • Some Christians have a fixed mindset. This could be because they see ‘faith’ as a binary of believing or not believing, so you either have it or don’t have it. God chose you and that’s that, so we have no obligation to do more. This could also be because they see faith associated with ‘legitimate’ activities showing the abundance of your faith: working in ministry, being a missionary, successfully making lots of money (to tithe though, you know), being married, being a mom/dad… This mindset makes Christians narrow-minded and focused on the Scoreboard of Life. If they are hitting certain checkboxes they are on track as Christians, and easily satisfied by things other than God and God’s plans. If they fail in that work or lose that role, they do not know their purpose or value, and this can cause them to be embittered with God. They are afraid of change, because it takes away the confidence of faith they’ve built up in their chosen check points.
  • But other Christians  have a growth mindset. They believe that faith can be developed through their effort, dedication, learning, and mentorship from others. It’s not that they think everyone can save themselves through those efforts, but they know that after God has set us aside and saved us, we must respond by taking personal steps of faith, and not just to meet a set of standard criteria set by societal norms or even church norms. They understand that even the greatest men and women of faith put in years and years of dedicated labour, and even Jesus as a child made an effort to learn and know God’s Word well. They understand that faith is a constant development and that there is no plateau to reach and no stagnancy in what God expects of us. We are not to look constantly at a Scoreboard of Life on which we decide how successful or unsuccessful we are being as Christians personally, but we are to fix our eyes on Jesus, author and perfecter of our faith, not to grow weary with sin or prideful with success. They understand that being too occupied with the things of this world that can be seen is not the best that God intends for us, and they hold things and people loosely before God, despite loving them deeply.

Alright, I don’t know if my theology is completely straight with every word there, and I know for sure there are other good parallels I am not drawing, but I think the general outline compares well. Am I fixing my eyes on the Scoreboard of Life (I have a job, I’m witnessing to co-workers, I have a Christian husband, I have a beautiful family, I have smart well-adjusted kids…) or am I fixing my eyes on Jesus, counsellor for the one who gives and takes away?

To go further, Carol Dweck lists 3 worlds in which the mindset about intelligence works:

  1. Goals
    1. Fixed mindset: look smart at all costs
    2. Growth mindset: learn at all costs
  2. Effort
    1. Fixed mindset: it should come naturally; if you have the ability you don’t need effort
    2. Growth mindset: work hard, because effort is key
  3. Setbacks
    1. Fixed mindset: hide mistakes and deficiencies
    2. Growth mindset: capitalise on mistakes and confront deficiencies

I can see this translated too for faith:

  1. Goals
    1. Fixed mindset: look smart faithful at all costs
    2. Growth mindset: learn develop faith at all costs
  2. Effort
    1. Fixed mindset: it should come naturally; if you have the ability faith you don’t need effort works
    2. Growth mindset: work hard, because effort actively trusting God in everyday things is key
  3. Setbacks
    1. Fixed mindset: hide mistakes sin and deficiencies
    2. Growth mindset: capitalise on mistakes and boast in deficiencies and confront deficiencies sin



Computer Programming and Secular Fiction

A friend of mine expressed recently that he wishes he had been more efficient about solving a problem while he was programming (that is, computer programming).

As I lie awake realizing I should have taken a sleeping aid until I’m fully over some jet lag, I turned this thought over in my mind, realizing that this is precisely my sentiment towards the way God’s plans seem to hash themselves out whether on the grand scale of history or in my personal life. Why couldn’t he have been more efficient? Just save us and be done with it, for goodness sakes. As God, could he not have taken out the several wrong turns or daft moments his people had/has/will have? But of course, mistakes are often the greatest teachers. Even as I think this I begin to think fondly of the (mild) troubles in my life..!

When I learned briefly the basics of programming in Python, the instructors gave us a function design recipe. When you create functions to do calculations for you, there are steps to follow in their creation. You consider the outcomes you want, the parameters you need to have, the description of what you’re doing, and then actually write the function. But wait, there’s more. Then you test it, and often there are things to tweak. Usually, the better the initial planning, the fewer tweaks you need to make. But with more complex calculations, there are bound to be more things to consider and more things that can be overlooked. As I learned how to use a programming language for the first time, in order to learn how the language worked, it was actually more helpful for me to purposefully make some mistakes and see their results than to just do the exercise and move on!

What is that but a suitable metaphor for how God could want to purposefully let us follow him in an inefficient manner? Fail, fail, fail and keep at it. It is probably so that we learn better deeper fonder. After all, he has always been preeminently interested in the state of our hearts. Haughty or humble? Hard or soft? Unwilling to change, or ready to be renewed?

Metaphors are great because it lets someone perceive something they do not already understand. Another friend of mine once illustrated this finely: you can’t say that those steps on the hill we’re going to walk on today are just like the ones on the Great Wall of China if I haven’t been to the Great Wall. But after I walk on those steps, the metaphor is useful. Then I’ll know what the steps of the Great Wall are like because I’ll know one half of the metaphor.

This is why this article about the importance of reading fiction rings true. Reading good fiction is no less important than reading good theology because these creations are our connection to the minds of this world. (And I suppose this encompasses good movies, good hobbies, and other worthy pastimes that may otherwise be deemed worldly.) I have quite the list building up of literature I must read. Silas Marner, here we come. (But first, sleep.)


Thinking outside the box, in another box

“You think outside the box.”
“Yea, in a different box.”

That’s one of my favourite and more memorable quoted exchanges because it’s got a big sense of truth running through it. Even when we start out with thinking outside the box, we eventually end up thinking inside a different box.

Such is the case with education sometimes. When it seems like traditional classroom methods of feeding are old and tired and the knowledge content is not getting through to the students, we look for different ways to do things. Differentiate! People learn differently! And so we include a variety of activities to make sure we cater to every learning style. When a particular activity proves effective, we are tempted to do it that way for the rest of time.

Such was the case of thinking outside the box when a colourful Hacky Sack ball was introduced to a class that had a lot of perennially talkative and disruptive students one day. They were taught some vocabulary with collocations (words that are commonly used together) and told that they would need it later for a game. (Gamifying the lesson.) The pre-learning part went as usual, with a few students involved and others distracted and distracting as always. As the game was introduced bit by bit, students were split into teams, points were put on the line, and time limits were added, the class got more and more involved. Those who usually couldn’t care less could literally not care less than they did, and were forced, under the pressure of peering peer eyes, to care more. Say a verb, throw the ball to someone on the other team, and they have to give a collocation for that verb within 5 counts, or your team gets a point. Those who usually cared shone. It was a positive experience for the whole class, lasted a good 45 minutes, and helped everyone consolidate their knowledge, this little vocabulary ball game.

Such was the case of thinking in a different box when a decision was cursorily made to use the ball game idea for another class of fun but studious students. While these students liked fun and games too, they were rather studious and supportive of each other, and all knew their target phrasal verbs (verbs consisting of two or three words) quite well after the first exposure and didn’t really want to make each other squirm to remember. As a result, the competitive edge of the game never took off. Back to lecturing.

Thinking outside the box on one, two, or several occasions does not quite give the benefits of flexibility and creative problem solving we need on a rather constant basis. Improvisation is growing on me, despite my having always wanted to play musical scores exactly as they were. That desire to play every note correctly was so super strong and accusing that it usually caused me to play several notes wrong. It was when I reached that sweet spot of familiarity with a song such that I could attempt it with a Live And Let Die sort of open-minded candour, taking risks to express the music and taking hiccups as they came – it was then that I could actually play the song and have it be sublime.

Perhaps a better image of that adventurous innovation would be having the gumption to go off the beaten path whenever it seems like it might be a good idea. Across the log. Hopping the stones across the stream. Back straight and sideways along the rocky ledge. Through the bushes. Sometimes it’ll take a little failure, rejection, or contempt to motivate you via some angry and frustrated determination. A spice of, “Oh yea?” to multiply your energy and risk-taking tendencies. Crashing through the side trails could get you stung by some nettle, scraped by some prickles, or lost for a short while, but it’s pretty much always worth the while.

Extrapolating a little at the end here, I think Christians can tend to think everything is the sign from God they think it is, when more realistically, some things are a sign. The latter view cools the tabloids down a little and gives you room to trust God step by step. Instead of thinking outside the box of self-direction but only in the box of perceived God-directed self-direction, we can go off the beaten trail of doing what the people around you are doing just because they’re doing it. Live out the uniqueness you’ve been created with when it’s that time, and join the multitudes and the throng in the united body of Christ when it’s time for that.