Monday, June 23, 2014

Fear is the mind-killer

by Dana Ernst

My favorite conference of the year, the Legacy of R. L. Moore — IBL Conference, kicked off last Thursday. The day began for me with an introduction to IBL mini-workshop facilitated by Michael Starbird. For our first activity, Starbird had the participants discuss in small groups the following question.

What do you want your students to keep from their education?

After a few minutes of brainstorming, groups shared their ideas. Here’s the list we generated (I’m paraphrasing):
  • Love of learning
  • Persistence/perseverance
  • Ability to teach yourself
  • Ability to communicate verbally and in writing
  • Independence
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-direction
  • Ability to collaborate
  • Curiosity
  • Confidence
  • Receptivity to different perspectives
  • Appreciation of failure
  • Lack of fear
Do you notice anything interesting about the items on this list? None of them has anything to do with mathematics! Moreover, as one participant keenly observed, one of the major obstacles to most of the items on the list is related to the final item: namely, fear.

Upon hearing this, I was immediately reminded of a quote from one of my favorite sci-fi books, Dune.

Fear is the mind-killer.

This line is part of the litany against fear, which is an incantation used throughout Frank Herbert’s Dune universe by the Bene Gesserit to focus their minds and calm themselves in times of peril. Here is the full litany:

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

I believe (and there is plenty of evidence to support this) that inquiry-based learning (IBL) provides an optimal framework for students to develop the skills on the list above. Yet, it stands to reason that this method will expose our students’ weaknesses in these areas. Some manifestation of fear is often an obstruction to individuals addressing their weaknesses. As instructors, how can we help students minimize the fear that blocks their development?

It might be time for me to add the litany against fear to my syllabi.


CarolinaState said...

I like the idea of putting this in a syllabus! I also think that one of the other things on the list - "appreciation of failure" - helps lessen fear. For me, the fear that arises in classrooms is the fear of being wrong and thus being judged as dumb. If we as instructors emphasize that being wrong is one of the most important steps on the way to being right and that no one is right all the time, it helps lessen the fear. I, of course, also model being wrong sometimes :)

Unknown said...

CarolinaState, thanks for your comment. I think you are right on about the appreciation of failure. In fact, I recently wrote a related blog post, Encouraging Students to Tinker.

Konrad Voelkel said...

Wow, that just made me realize how influental that Dune quote was for my childhood.
Thank you for reminding us! And a good idea to weave that wisdom into teaching somehow, too.

Another "version" I've heard (and repeat to myself sometimes) is "fear is a bad advisor" - but I don't know where this is from, and Google didn't help so much.

Unknown said...

Konrad, thanks for your comment. I like your version!