Robert was just released from prison after 10 years of incarceration. The day after his release, he showed up as a student in my class. I liked him from the first day that we met and gave him lots of time and attention. Within three weeks, he was back in prison. I don’t know why. I do know that I lose up to half of all my at-risk students each semester.
How is it that someone as smart as Robert can be so unreachable? Is he unique? What prevents people like Robert from learning? After spending considerable time and energy researching this problem, I landed on the study of the self-awareness process. If we believe in the concept of lifelong learning and development, then we must acknowledge the value of self-awareness as an important precursor to learning effectiveness.
Although definitions vary, self-awareness is generally seen as an inwardly focused evaluative process in which individuals use reflection to make self-comparisons to reality and the feedback of others. The goal of the self-awareness process is to create better self-knowledge, make adjustments and improvements, and accommodate for weaknesses. The self-awareness process brings into question one’s identity by allowing one to compare themselves to others and their feedback in a new way. This form of comparison is seen as allowing evaluation of alternatives, identification of problems and progress towards goals. Sharon Merriman of the University of Georgia, Athens, has described the self-aware adult learner as one who:
- has an independent self-concept;
- can direct their own learning;
- has accumulated a reservoir of life experiences that can be a resource;
- has learning needs closely related to changing social roles;
- is problem-centered and interested in immediate application of knowledge; and
- is internally motivated, rather than externally, to learn.
Without self-awareness skills, thinking can be distorted by self-deception—a thought process that can lead someone to be misinformed and cause them to miscommunicate, mislearn and misinform others. Self-deception can be described as a skewing of our cognitive awareness in order to find a way to avoid pain and anxiety, a way to cope with life’s frustrations, and make sense out of events that are incongruous. This manifests as discrepancies between espoused and actual behavior and often leads to feedback-avoiding behavior, which can negatively impact the way evidence is gathered, conclusions are reached and lessons are learned. Most of us are subject to self-deception from time to time.
The development of a therapy, method or strategy to mitigate the negative effects of self-deception is of great need to my clients and students. As a college professor, it has been my experience that a lack of self-awareness process skills inhibits or prevents learning just as the lack of self-awareness process skills prevents leaders from seeing and solving problems. The lack of the self-awareness process in learners can create an inability to form relationships with peers and an unrealistic view of the self is often part of the student persona. When applicable, I add a self-awareness process exercise into my syllabus. At most, I have scheduled private one-on-one meetings with the most serious offenders to discuss issues that might connect them to the self-awareness process and hope that this meeting acts as a springboard to students finding their own way toward success.
It doesn’t matter what the topic is, Ann has the answer. She has an answer and she is always right. Because she knows a lot, she is constantly giving out information. Ann desperately wants people to learn from what she knows and believes that her advice and information are the reason for her team’s success. Ann is not aware of the reaction of her peers on the receiving end. Her classmates know that they have to pretend to listen to her and then go off and do what they feel is best which is often something different.
If we are not skilled in self-awareness processing or if we are operating in denial, we cannot effectively learn about ourselves and our own personal needs, strengths and weaknesses. Lifelong learning and development depends on accurate and meaningful knowledge about us as individuals. A lack of this knowledge can be devastating to our learning process and outcomes. The self-awareness process may provide individuals with greater control over events in their lives. The process is found to be important in “meaning-making” and is a critical concern for both education and leadership scholars and practitioners. Some refer to self-awareness, reflection and strategic thinking as metacognitive skills that make an impact on student learning, requiring the ability to access prior knowledge in order to synthesize information, correct misconceptions, ask questions and draw inferences. Self-awareness becomes the most important construct in emotional intelligence. Additional research reveals self-awareness as a tool to combat complexity and chaos in contemporary society. Other scholars apply self-awareness to the authentic leader/follower theoretical framework and process. Many emphasize self-awareness along with trust and engagement in producing more authentic leaders from authentic followers.
Robert was a victim of self-deception. From a learning perspective, the self-awareness process or the lack thereof is an issue of significance on a large scale. Self-deception can impede personal learning, and create barriers, as it becomes a barrier to the self-awareness process. Many students are too entrenched in what Columbia University’s Jack Mezirow refers to as “habits of mind” to see their own self-deception and blocks to self-awareness.
Self-awareness results in implicitly creating a feedback loop that is critical to monitoring and controlling behavior. This runs deep into our identity, allowing sensitive and appropriate reaction to the perceptions of others. Self-awareness theory suggests that individuals who are more cognizant of how they are perceived by others are better at incorporating information from others into their self-appraisals and, ultimately, into their behavior. Leaders are more effective when they demonstrate that they are receptive to feedback from others.
Students often deal with the same self-deception problem. Because self-deception blocks the self-awareness process it is repeatedly a surprise to them that their problems and ultimately their solutions start with them.
In general, people dealing with self-awareness problems blame others around them for things that go wrong and block their awareness of their own responsibility for the problems they face, thus preventing solutions or progress. That problem with the assignment or lack of focus, the poor grade or lack of understanding in class needs to be, at least in part, the responsibility of the student.
Robert was never able to admit to his disconnect with the outside world and eventually committed another offense. As the years go by and self-deception takes over, he will have less and less chance to reach reasonable and expected goals.
Patricia Steiner is an international business advisor, college professor and doctoral student at Northeastern University. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The author thanks Peter Feig.