Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Curriculum Resource: Introducing Personality Testing to Middle Schoolers

A friend and I are co-teaching a class at our coop on Psychology for middle schoolers/early high schoolers.  Today I was introducing the topic of Personality Testing; to be specific, I was starting to discuss the use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is generally regarded as the most widely-used personality assessment test.  The official figures say that two million people take the test each year, and that number is probably increased multiple times by those who take non-official assessments out of books or websites.

In my professional life, I have done a lot of work with adults in using MBTI.  However, I must confess I have never used it with such a young age group.  However, I decided to start with the same quote I hav always used to introduce personality assessment to adults.  It is an edited quoted from Fyodor Dostoevsky's very thought-provoking work, Notes from the Underground:
Now I ask you: what can be expected of man...? Shower upon him every earthly blessing, drown him in a sea of happiness, so that nothing but bubbles of bliss can be seen on the surface; give him economic prosperity, such that he should have nothing else to do but sleep, eat cakes and busy himself with the continuation of his species, and even then out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity,... simply in order to prove to himself...that men still are men and not the keys of a piano.... And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. ... If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated--chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point! I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!
This quote, like most of Notes from the Underground, is quite dense, so it make take several times of reading it through to really get what he is saying.

The tweens/teens read it through with a good bit of giggling, as they were amused by the idea of eating nothing but cakes (quite a different nutritional message then they usually hear...but, of course, Dostoevsky was not refering to nutrition) and somewhat scintillated  by the phrase "busy himself with the continuation of the species."   Several claimed that they had no idea what the quote meant, but some others rephrased it as stating that people will do anything to avoid being manipulated (which is a pretty good distillation of the passage).  This generated a good discussion about how people hate to be controlled or put into boxes, and the sometimes extreme measures we will go to in order to avoid that happening (this could be one interpretation of why Adam and Eve chose to eat the apple that expelled them from paradise).

Several students volunteered examples of things they or someone they had done simply to defy expectations.  I offered a story from my childhood memories.  One time when my family and I were going to that great Washington DC area ice cream establishment, Giffords Ice Cream, my brothers were teasing me about how I was going to get Swiss Chocolate ice cream because that was what I ALWAYS got.  And that might have been bad enough, but one brother said, "Well, she has to get chocolate, because girls ALWAYS choose chocolate."  Well, that was it!  No way I could get chocolate now--I had to take a feminist stand!  So I got coconut ice cream instead.  Now, Gifford's coconut ice cream is really, really good--but honestly, I really wanted the Swiss Chocolate instead.

So this story illustrates several valuable points about personality work:
1.  We have recurring personality patterns
2.  Other people pick up those personality patterns
3.  People make predictions based on those personality patterns
4.  Even though we have a tendency towards a recurring pattern, we can always make a different choice.
5.  If we feel we are being too boxed in by other people (or even by ourselves) by our past patterns, we may strike out and do something completely different, even if we end up suffering from that decision.  But we would rather give up our good than, as Dostoevsky says, think of ourselves as a piano key being played by some outside power.

So even thought the crowd was young, this quote sparked a good discussion.  It was particularly important for these young people, I thought, because last week most of the said they wanted to take the class so that they could control, manipulate, or predict other people in their lives.  I suggested that a more powerful way to look at this was as a means to understand ourselves and others, rather than to control or predict them.  I'm not sure we've convinced them of the value of understanding yet.  But I think we've begun to expose them to the inherent difficulties in trying to control others.

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