The black dot in the white square

When I was training to teach, one of the techniques I was taught was to remember the black dot in the white square. In teacher training terms, the black dot represented the disruptive, naughty or badly behaved student in the class. When you look at the class, the temptation for the teacher is to focus on that badly behaved student, and not spend enough time and attention on the white square, which represents all the other well-behaved, hard-working, positive students in the room. Of course, poor behaviour needs to be dealt with, but it’s far better to reinforce and celebrate the vast majority of students who are doing exactly what they should. Far better to be emphasising the positives by saying “thank you for listening, well done for being ready to learn, thank you for putting your hand up and waiting,” than to be constantly nagging at the negatives.

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The black dot in the white square: our attention is drawn to the negative (the black dot) at the expense of recognising the positive (the white square). Image via TeacherHead

I have used this technique throughout my teaching, always seeking to accentuate the positive and ensure that those who are doing the right thing get more attention and time than those who are doing the wrong thing. It’s not always easy, but it’s always worth it.

More recently, I have been thinking about the tendency to focus on the black dot and forget the white square beyond teaching. When something goes wrong, it’s easy and tempting to fixate on that blemish or blot and see it as the whole story, to feel that everything is bad just because of that one thing that hasn’t gone to plan. At times like these, I remember that was seems like a catastrophe is just a black dot in the white square, and take a step back. I look around at all the many, many things that are going right; the positives, the successes and the promise.

Although that black dot is still there, still frustrating, still upsetting, it is in perspective – it isn’t the whole story. One problem, or even a series of them, doesn’t define the whole; there is always something to celebrate.

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