Face Saving in Education: the Born Again Student
Now that I am beginning to understand the role of ‘face saving’ in education, I am starting to see it everywhere. In Betsy DiSalvo’s research on the Glitch Game Testers, she found that teenagers will try harder at academic work if they have a socially acceptable excuse for caring. Trying hard to learn computer science isn’t cool. But trying hard to win a weekly competition to get a video game? That is cool. And over time our participants were more and more willing to admit they cared about learning about technology. But they needed a comfortable excuse to get started.
I saw another example of this yesterday. The son of an acquaintance is a gifted two-sport athlete who has been scouted by professional teams in baseball. I’ll call him Joe. Joe is equally gifted at what Herbert Kohl would call deliberate not learning. He’s a smart kid, but goes to great lengths to not try in school at all. He refused to show up for his ACT college entrance exam last spring because he said he wasn’t going to go to college–hadn’t that baseball scout given him a team uniform and told him they were keeping an eye on him? His parents pleaded with him that perhaps a college scholarship to play baseball might be a good Plan B, just in case the pros don’t really call? He was adamant. Until over the summer he went to a church youth retreat, and was inspired. He told his mother that he had been making baseball his god, but from now on he wanted to pay more attention to the real God. He was tired of missing church for weekend baseball tournaments, so he quit his team. He will play on his high school’s team, but not on his all-consuming travel baseball team. And he started trying hard in school and getting good grades. Quite the transformation.
Now some people will see divine power in his transformation. But whether or not you believe that explanation, I think something else is also going on: face saving. For a kid who had deliberately not applied himself in school for a long time, consider this option:
- Joe admits to himself and his family that he was wrong to not try in school, and now he’ll apply himself.
That sounds hard, doesn’t it? He has to eat a lot of humble pie to go that route. But consider this next option:
- Joe rediscovers his faith, and recommits himself to excel in school as part of his inspiration by a higher power.
The second sounds easier, doesn’t it? Whether you believe in divine inspiration or not, there’s clearly some powerful face saving going on in the process of becoming born again. You can change your ways in a fashion that is more comfortable for your ego.
Most of us can remember someone in high school who bragged about not studying for a test. That’s a form of self protection. If you don’t try, then failure won’t reflect badly on you. If you try, then you risk finding out that you failed. If you don’t try, then at worst you can say “Oh yeah, I didn’t study. That stuff is lame.” It’s pre-emptive face saving. Could we redesign the educational system so that trying feels safer?
One of the interesting results from DiSalvo’s work is that you can deliberately design face saving opportunities into educational environments. It’s a powerful technique we’re just beginning to learn to leverage.