Calculating Self vs. Authentic Self

I read a book called “The Art of Possibility” by Benjamin Zander and Rosamund Stone Zander and the authors talk about the idea of “Calculating Self vs. Authentic/Central Self.” This idea that we have two selves really shaped how I develop my class structure.

Your calculating self is basically your “fight or flight” self. This is who you are when you feel threatened, and a lot of this is automatic. 

Your authentic self is who you really are, deep in your core, when you aren’t faced with threats and who you are when you know you won’t be judged. 

In the math classroom, a lot of students might be showing their calculating self simply because math gives them anxiety and they just want to focus on passing the class. Now, just because it has the word “calculating” doesn’t mean it is good in the math class; calculating self just focuses on survival. So when I see students being defensive, it shows me that the classroom environment isn’t safe enough for them; they are in “fight or flight” mode. 

Here’s an example from my student teaching experience where someone was showing their calculating self:

I observed the class for a week or two, and the first time I “taught” them, it was a review day. Then they had a test the next day and this student didn’t do too well. The student stayed after class and talked to me and the master teacher and said “I didn’t do well on my test because HE’S *points at me* a bad teacher.” and they said this maybe 3 feet away from me. I’m like, “Uhh, I just did a review with you, so the master teacher did all the teaching…” On multiple occasions, that student would say that I was a bad teacher. We found out later that this was the student’s 3rd time taking algebra 2 and they are a graduating senior. They were showing their calculating self. This class was a threat to graduating high school so they would blame everyone else but themselves. 

So when you hear a student complain, ask yourself, “Are they speaking from their calculating self? Are they saying this because they feel like they are being threatened?” and if you think “yes” to both of those questions, ask yourself “How do I create a safe space in this classroom so I can invite their authentic self into the classroom?”

A couple things that I do that bring in my students’ authentic self in the classroom are:

  • Building relationships. I know this is very cliché but it’s true. Even college students want to feel like they belong on campus.
  • Respect mistakes. I don’t know who originally came up with the quote, but I say early on that “Mistakes are expected, inspected, and respected.” Students should feel comfortable stating ideas that may be incorrect.
  • Allowing revisions. Grades can absolutely be a threat to them, bringing out their calculating selves. Showing them that it’s about mastery of the content throughout the semester rather than “What do you know in these 50 minutes?” reduces the “fight or flight” response.
  • Honestly listening to them. I love getting feedback from students because it makes me a better teacher. After some time has passed, I ask them “What am I doing well? What can I improve on?” to show that they have a voice in how the class runs. 

All in all, it is important to create a safe space in the math classroom to have students reveal their authentic self rather than their calculating self. Once they reveal their authentic self, not only does it get easier for the teacher, but the students will have a more open mind in their appreciation for math, rather than seeing every topic as a threat.