More Connections to Seligman’s ABCs with “D” for Distancing and (Gentle) Disputation

How practicing “D” for Distancing and (gentle) Disputation can help us grow more resilient. (Also, some quick thoughts about focused and effective approaches to distance learning.)

Distancing is hard…

With our current school closures, I most miss opportunities in my high school English courses to interact with students through thoughtful and often spontaneous face-to-face discussions about ways they are learning, growing, and trying to flourish. (In second place, I miss having face-to-face discussions with my colleagues about these experiences.) It’s about this time of year that many of my seniors become both nostalgic and wise about their previous adverse experiences with schooling, relationships, responsibilities, and small-town life. 

Despite their frequent complaints about not having enough to do in a small-town community or about the difficulties of daily routines, many students start to admit that they will miss these experiences. (A few students in earlier high school grades have recently shared that they are missing school–and that’s after a little over a week’s time away.) 

With seniors, a few students also make comments about how “younger” people lack experience and insight. Even in their hyper world of smartphones and other gadgets, high school seniors find ways to make social commentary along the lines of, “I can’t believe these younger kids. They spend all this time texting or playing video games. Why, when I was their age, I got kicked out of the house and told to go play with my friends.” 

I think these moments of student reflection and expression reflect growth skills that relate well to Martin Seligman’s ABCs, especially in the area of “D” for distancing and disputation. Here’s a Brief Recap of Seligman’s ABCs from Learned Optimism that I noted in my last post: 

  • A=for Adversity 
  • B=for Belief
  • C=for Consequences of beliefs
  • D=for Disputation of false and unhealthy beliefs
  • E=for Energization

I’m increasingly interested in applications of Seligman’s distancing and disputation skills for both social-emotional and academic learning. I’m finding that well-tested psychological research and practice developed over several decades suggest that cognitive learning should continually guide* social-emotional learning (*not replace). Ranging from Seligman’s earlier work to more recent arguments from neuroscience psychology, much evidence suggests that cognitive skills play a central role in developing social-emotional well-being. 

In his chapter from Learned Optimism on “The Optimistic Life,” Seligman directs readers to consider ways that they can argue against their own unhelpful and untrue belief patterns in order to positively change their negative experiences of emotions. In ways that remind me of teaching students to develop effective spoken and written academic arguments, Seligman directs his readers to use disputation strategies that include considerations of evidence, alternatives, implications, and usefulness. 

Such strategies can be practiced by students (and adults) to argue against internal catastrophic and totalizing thinking patterns (such as “I’m an idiot,” “I’m a failure,” “I can’t do anything right,” and “Everybody hates me.”). Like many life skills, disputation requires practice and experimentation over time to be effective. 

The disputation strategies relate back to belief habits that Seligman calls “explanatory styles” as found in his research on pessimism and optimism. In the “Explaining Misfortune” chapter, he unpacks three dimensions of explanatory styles: 

  • Permanence
  • Pervasiveness
  • Personalization

Each of these dimensions invites more discussion in future postings, but suffice it to say for now that they represent trends in a person’s interpretations for positive or negative emotional experience:

  • Permanence: How long? 
  • Pervasiveness: How widespread?
  • Personalization: Who is responsible?

Awareness of these dimensions of our inner-life is essential for strategically stepping back from or distancing oneself from one’s own emotional experience, and that distancing skill serves as a prerequisite to effective disputation, which can then lead to growth and change. 

As an academic side note, the distorted messages that Seligman invites his readers to notice and dispute are similar to what other psychologists have identified as cognitive distortions. Additionally, cognitive distortions bear striking similarities to the features of logical fallacies that are typically explored in academic courses that teach logic or critical thinking. (In case you want to nerd out on this connection, check out William Irwin and Gregory Bassham’s “Depression, Informal Fallacies, and. Cognitive Therapy: The Critical Thinking Cure?”)

The overlap between academic and social-emotional learning in this area is particularly promising and will likely invite a future post that focuses on some very interesting and effective applications for the classroom as well as personal and public life. 

I can imagine some colleagues asserting that we should focus more on recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and neuroscience that have developed since Seligman’s 1960’s research insights and his 1990’s publication. However, I’m tending to find increased verification, with minor qualifications, of Seligman and other cognitively-focused psychologists who developed similar approaches such as Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  Furthermore, we need to focus in on time-tested, tried-and-true theories to help guide us through and filter the overwhelming glut of seemingly good ideas for learning and living that we face today. So, going back to the ABCs of any given topic is a helpful strategy for wisdom and discernment.

For more recent connections to inner-disputation strategies, I especially recommend starting with Jeffery Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding’s You Are Not Your Brain, which picks up strategies similar to the ABC approach, extends and qualifies ways to use such strategies, and anchors the strategies in modern neuroscience. Additionally, Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind makes a good case for how badly modern college-age students need remediation with these sort of cognitive and emotional skills in order to function well and eventually flourish. Maybe we high school educators can use and integrate ABC-style resources to help our students flourish as resilient learners and citizens.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to gently encourage my seniors, who are understandably disappointed about sports, activities, and other gatherings being cancelled. A few decades of teaching have helped me appreciate the benefits of these social experiences despite our manic tendency to over-schedule them. In terms of personal growth, I hope my senior students can see the larger potential for this very weird year as part of the larger story about an overall flourishing life, built by growing through this current adversity. I’ve shared with a few students about the uniqueness of this time and what stories they’ll likely be able to share in the future about their experiences. 

Perhaps one day most of my students can be like my amazingly resilient mother-in-law Gerry who recently celebrated her 90th birthday. When she was young, she was quarantined for weeks due to a scarlet fever outbreak.

Still, distancing is hard…  

A Few Closing Notes on My Challenges and Strategies for Dealing with the Distancing 

    I’ve had to wrestle with my own negative emotions as I realize how much I miss the daily face-to-face interactions with students and colleagues (Temperamentally, I lean towards introversion, but this is way too extreme). The time away has helped me realize many good things about getting to teach in a small school. Email and a few brief interactions at the grocery store have been especially encouraging.

Many leaders have talked about the school closures as a totally different state of education, and I find myself partly agreeing. Yes, it is different with the extreme distancing. But no, it is not totally different because in the last few years, I’ve increasingly integrated technology to assist in providing support to students who are often gone for half or more of a typical school week due to athletics and activities. My students are used to daily Google Classroom connections and the occasional essay revision due for (This does not mean that they’ve all mastered the personal discipline of effectively and efficiently working on this work!) I’ve also used Flipgrid as a resource where students can record and review their improvised presentations and this time of distancing looks good for further use of the tool.

Getting focused on essentials is more important than ever. As we get flooded by the carts of potential technology resources for distance learning, we need to keep the horse of focused principles at the forefront. If you need good references to help you get focused during this time, I highly recommend Mike Schmoker’s Focus and Dave Stuart’s These Six Things. Basically, imitate these educators’ approaches by taking time to think–with the computer turned off–about what your 3-5 core principles of learning are. Articulate those principles so that they fit with your previous uses of content and learning activities that you know are most valuable in your classroom. Make those principles your guiding coordinates for the last quarter of the school year, and THEN search for the relevant technology resources that can serve those essentials, which will thereby help your students achieve core learning as well as possible.

So, with my own focus fairly clear, I am most interested in quickly developing simple and effective ways to have students able to interact via debate and discussion resources. A partial fix is to have them reply to each other’s postings in Google Classroom using some basic discussion moves such as those found in They Say / I Say or in Dave Stuart’s “Paraphrase Plus” approach. 

A few tools that I’m currently exploring to help develop discussion and debate in our distance format include the following: 

    It looks like CollegeBoard is providing free study sessions for AP English and other subjects this week, so that may prove helpful this year along with the existing AP Classroom resources. (As I’m finishing up this post, I can say that the AP English Literature session underway about poetry is excellent and offers thoughtful approaches to understanding and appreciating poetry.)


Invitation to Reflect: 

  1. What thoughts or situations have been hardest for you to distance yourself from? 
  2. Do you tend to recognize and dispute (or dismiss) inner cognitive distortions effectively? 
  3. How does your talk to yourself compare to the way you talk to others who are wrestling with cognitive distortions? 
  4. Do you tend to integrate or separate cognitive/academic learning and social-emotional learning? 
  5. What are the 3-5 core principles to guide your learning and teaching activities?

For Further Reading and Reflection: 

*Learned Optimism, by Martin Seligman

*“The Coddling of the American,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt (Especially relevant are Chapter two on “The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning…” and “Appendix 1: How to Do CBT.”

*You Are Not Your Brain, by Jeffery Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding

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