Reality v Perception

Thirty years ago I was discussing a classroom management issue with an experienced school counsellor.  She pulled out her pad and outlined an interaction model which I have not forgotten.  It looked like the diagram above and works as follows.  We all perceive reality differently, based on our personal histories, and those perceptions invoke feelings, which give rise to thoughts, which become behaviors. I don’t know how this would be evaluated by psychologists today, but for me there were three major lessons.  First, we cannot change reality, but we can change our perception of reality.   Secondly, feelings precede thoughts, not vice-versa.  And thirdly, if we want to change behavior, we need to change perceptions. 

 

Two non-honey bee examples.  In the world of alcoholism, an abuser may be  well and truly addicted, evident to all who interact with him or her, but as long as that person is in denial (ie. his or her perception is “I have this under control,”) long term changes in behavior are impossible.  Those who speak at AA meetings open with, “Hi, I’m …. and I’m an alcoholic,” which in all probability is a radically different perception to the one they had before they entered the program. 

 

I was late into the computer world, and these machines have long been items of intimidation for me.  Essentially I use mine as little more than a sophisticated typewriter, and  experience real anxiety when I have to download an app, up-grade a program, or, heaven forbid, contact tech support for guidance.  My perceptions were formed in the days of floppy discs, when one mistake could erase everything irretrievably, or so I believed.  The (mis)perception led to feelings of anxiety, which led to thoughts of loss, which still restrict my creative ventures on the computer. 

 

My two step-sons, by comparison,  use theirs for a variety of sophisticated and creative uses, and it is their first  go-to tool, whereas our grandchildren, the eldest of whom is now 12, are fearless and much of what they do on the family computer is beyond my comprehension.  On a recent FaceTime conversation with Nora - a way of staying connected during this time of physical isolation - she caused various icons to move across the screen as we talked (a ‘butterfly’ to settle on her nose, for example)  much to my consternation and distraction but without any break in the conversation on her part. 

 

Incidentally, I still use a flip phone and don’t posses a smart phone.  My rationale is that I’ve survived for more than seven decades without having a computer on my wrist, and my telephone is specifically for communication purposes.  But in my heart-of-hearts there is probably a deep seated fear of having to interact daily with a complex machine, and, I have to say, with a screen that is much too small for me to read comfortably.  So even today my behavior is determined by perceptions created decades ago, and I rationalize them away. It may also be that I have witnessed far too often the consumate distraction of people on their phones; the preservation of my powers of observation are too precious for me to join their ranks. 

 

Imagine that the ‘reality’ is a honey bee working a flower for pollen  or nectar.  The perception of one person, based on old messages gotten from well-meaning protectors, is that the bee wants to sting her.  The immediate feeling is fear, the thought is escape, and the behavior is to move away as quickly as possible. 

 

The second person watching the same flower is acutely aware of both the defensive nature of honey bees and the process of pollination.  Her feelings are of fascination and amazement, her thoughts are of the importance every bee makes  to the quality of our environment, and she draws ever closer to the flower so she can see in greater detail.

 

The same reality and two different behaviors.   We cannot change the reality of bees and pollination,  but we can change how the public perceives it.  There are two ways to do this, as best I can see. The first is through education, particularly of the younger generation.  I am invariably delighted when, looking at an observation hive with a group of first or second graders, I hear some astute observations.  “How do you know so much about honey bees?” I ask?  “A beekeeper came to our classroom,” invariably is the response. 

 

Unfortunately we are unlikely to re-educate the older generations  - their paradigm is set.  Going back to the same  observation hive, but this time with adults, some are clearly anxious.  After outlining the behaviors of the bees and describing the purpose of an observation hive, I invite those who were anxious to come closer and witness firsthand what is happening behind the glass. In most cases they laugh anxiously and decline, clearly not convinced. 

 

There are exceptions of course.  At that first bee class most of the participants are on tenterhooks about their initial interaction with the girls themselves.  The instructor takes the cover off of a hive and some of the students immediately step forward  - they are the ones most likely to continue in the long term.  At the end of the class, when asked about their level of anxiety, most laugh and comment on how much lower it is than when they arrived. 

 

So we cannot re-educate most of the public but we can change their perception about something else - the wisdom of the bees. One does not have to interact intimately with honey bees themselves in order to appreciate the fact that they don’t just build hives,  they build communities, using processes that are interactive, harmonious, productive and based on the long term. This was explored by Rudolph Steiner in the 1920’s, by the social psychologist Michael O’Malley in 2010, and of course most famously by Tom Seeley in The Wisdom of the Hive in 1996.  Seeley uses bees to investigate a challenge faced by all highly cooperative groups - how to allocate their members among tasks so that more urgent needs are met before less urgent ones, and of coordinating individual actions into a coherent whole.

 

So, what was the original classroom issue that initiated this debate?  In 1991 began teaching 9th and 10th grade at a private boys school in Baltimore.  One class in particular - relatively small in size and intellectually capable - was proving difficult  to manage, especially in the period immediately after the lunch break.  One Friday, when I found them particularly disrespectful, I packed up my bag five minutes early and walked out of the classroom. This, I thought, would send a message, and it gave me the weekend to come up with an action plan. 

 

The following Monday, I began by commenting on my early departure the previous lesson.  They hadn’t even noticed!  I explained that I felt disregarded and minimized, and they were genuinely shocked.  My perception of the reality was radically different to theirs. I went on to describe how this was our classroom, not mine, and challenged them to work in small groups and come up with their understanding of the ideal learning environment.  I did the same.

 

By the end of the week we had a covenant of the desired aims and methods of our classroom, with consequences if any part of it was broken.  When it appeared on the classroom wall, signed by all of us, other classes wanted one too.  Overnight this class changed their behavior, I enjoyed my interactions with them, and was able to explore topics and issues  that would have been unthinkable beforehand. 

 

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