Rethinking Positive Thinking, in Life and Education

I (Clive) know that self-help books are not everyone’s cup of tea, but given the interest in well-being these days (see Clare’s February 6 posting) they appear to have an important place. Recently I came across a rather impressive one called Rethinking Positive Thinking (Current/Penguin, 2014) by psychologist Gabriele Oettingen.

Oettingen agrees that learning to think positively is essential, but feels that writers on the selfiesubject have gone too far. Just focusing on the positive can result in frustration, failure, and un-happiness. As the saying goes, perfection is the enemy of the good. She recommends instead what she calls “mental contrasting,” which involves thinking about both the positive and the negative aspects of a situation, and of life in general.

As well as being helpful at a personal level, Oettingen’s approach seems to me to have application to teaching and teacher education. It supports being realistic about the challenges of teaching – and so not caught off guard by them, as many beginning teachers are – while also reminding ourselves of its many satisfactions and rewards. It calls into question over-the-top government and school district “targets” that promise to “transform” schooling, if only teachers would adopt the latest set of edicts. Mental contrasting can keep us aware of what we need to work on in teaching while taking comfort in the current successes of the profession.

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