Wednesday – Action and the Stoic Reserve

In accordance with Stoic Week, each day I will be discussing how a different aspect of Stoicism relates to the practice of teaching. For Wednesday, the theme outlined in this years Stoic Handbook focuses on Action and the Stoic Reserve.

Wednesday’s theme of action and Stoic reserve relates heavily to Monday’s theme of Stoic control. Instead of re-examining the same ideas as they relate to teaching, today’s post will look at the how Stoic action and reserve can change the way our students view their education and success.

I think today’s theme is best applied towards students who suffer from anxiety or stress about their grades and assessments (whether they are of exceptional or poor quality) because often such students don’t have a good working understanding of success. Although many educators understand the difficulties of assessing student’s knowledge of a subject through the use of standardized testing and evaluation, many still continue to use these methods in formally grading their student’s abilities.

In an ideal educational setting, each student should be able to demonstrate their learning in a medium which best suits their individual strengths and interests, however until that day we are left with a system which only rewards a particular kind of learner (i.e. those who excel at factual recall and work well under the time constraints of a test period). Until educational assessment methods are changed, I feel it can be of enormous benefit to our students to share with them different ways of managing and coping with test taking even if these methods simply consist of changing their perspectives on what it means to be successful.

Normally before a test or examination review, I take time to discuss with my class how stoics view action and go over with them the trichotomy of control. I point out that achieving a perfect grade is neither something that they have complete control over, nor is it something that they have no control over. Events like tests and exams fall into the third category of control in that they represent something that a student can have some but not complete control over.

What I try to get across to my students at this point is that no matter how hard they may study on test day, they may face questions which they have no idea how to answer and to walk into a test situation with the mentality that they want or need to achieve a perfect (or even a high mark) is unreasonable.

Instead, each of them should focus on walking into a test situation and doing their absolute best to achieve the highest possible mark that is within their ability. Whether the mark is fifty percent, seventy-five, or ninety percent will depend on a combination of how well they understand the material, how much they studied, and the types of questions which comprise the assessment.

All a Stoic student can do is set themselves up for success by paying as much attention as they are capable of, studying as much as time permits, and being as relaxed as they can when it comes time to perform. If they can walk out of the test with their heads held high knowing that they did their absolute best to achieve the highest mark that is within their ability, then I believe we have taken a very significant step towards helping them develop the attitudes necessary to succeed and carry forward a positive mentality about their studies, irrespective of the actual test mark.

Likewise, when students receive poor marks on assessments, I believe we can use this as an opportunity to further promote a Stoic mentality. Although it is natural to feel frustration or anger over a poor mark, if we sit students down and discuss with them the nature of control and help them understand that they need to focus their energies on the things which they do have power over, then I believe we can again promote a more positive view about student progress and learning.

Luckily, we live in a world where we are usually given multiple opportunities to demonstrate our ability. Rarely do we ever face a situation in which we must do our best and if we fail to accomplish this we can never try again. Instead of viewing a poor grade as failure, we should remind our students that the whole point of such exercises is to gauge their learning. The test is never the end; it only represents a yardstick to measure progress and understanding. If we fall short of the measure we should be glad that such standards are in place to demonstrate our ignorance.

By stressing to our students that they must attune their minds to focus on the things that they have power over and dismiss the things that they do not, we can place them in a positive state of mind and focus their abilities on learning.

However, if they choose to feel anxious or stressed out about an upcoming test then they will be; if they let a poor mark make them feel inadequate then it will; but if they can dismiss these negative emotions and focus on how they can put their best work forward (the kind that demonstrates the best of their ability at the time) then there is no way in which they can not succeed.

Today I finish with some words from Marcus Aurelius:

Concentrate every minute like a Roman-like a man-on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can-if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop being hypocritical, self-centered, irritable. You see how few things you have to do to live a satisfying and reverent life? If you can manage this, that’s all even the gods can ask of you.

If anyone can refute me- show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective- I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.

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