TITLE: How can we help students overcome "naturalness bias"? AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 27, 2017 1:36 PM DESC: ----- BODY: In Leadership as a Performing Art, Ed Batista discusses, among other things, a "naturalness bias" that humans have when evaluating one another. Naturalness is "a preference for abilities and talents that we perceive as innate over those that appear to derive from effort and experience". Even when people express a preference for hard work and experience, they tend to judge more positively people who seem to be operating on natural skill and talent. As Batista notes, this bias affects not only how we evaluate others but also how we evaluate ourselves. As I read this article, I could not help but think about how students who are new to programming and to computer science often react to their own struggles in an introductory CS course. These thoughts reached a crescendo when I came to these words:
One commonly-held perspective is that our authentic self is something that exists fully formed within us, and we discover its nature through experiences that feel more (or less) natural to us. We equate authenticity with comfort, and so if something makes us feel uncomfortable or self-conscious, then it is de facto inauthentic, which means we need not persist at it (or are relieved of our responsibility to try). But an alternative view is that our authentic self is something that we create over time, and we play an active role in its development through experiences that may feel uncomfortable or unnatural, particularly at first. As INSEAD professor of organizational behavior Herminia Ibarra wrote in The Authenticity Paradox in 2015,
Because going against our natural inclinations can make us feel like impostors, we tend to latch on to authenticity as an excuse for sticking with what's comfortable... By viewing ourselves as works-in-progress and evolving our professional identities through trial and error, we can develop a personal style that feels right to us and suits our organizations' changing needs. That takes courage, because learning, by definition, starts with unnatural and often superficial behaviors that can make us feel calculating instead of genuine and spontaneous. But the only way to avoid being pigeonholed and ultimately become better leaders is to do the things that a rigidly authentic sense of self would keep us from doing.
So many CS students and even computing professionals report suffering from impostor syndrome, sometimes precisely because they compare their internal struggles to learn with what appears to be the natural ability of their colleagues. But, as Ibarra says, learning, by definition, starts with the unnatural. To be uncomfortable is, in one sense, to be in a position to learn. How might we teachers of computer science help our students overcome the naturalness bias they unwittingly apply when evaluating their own work and progress? We need strategies to help students see that CS is something we do, not something we are. You can feel uncomfortable and still be authentic. This distinction is at the foundation of Batista's advice to leaders and, I think, at the foundation of good advice to students. When students can distinguish between their behavior and their identity, they are able to manage more effectively the expectations they have of their own work. I hope to put what I learned in this article to good use both for my students and myself. It might help me be more honest -- and generous -- to myself when evaluating my performance as a teacher and an administrator, and more deliberate in how I try to get better. -----