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Curating Metacognitive Conversations to Address Imposter Syndrome

We pedagogues are ambassadors of student learning needs. We strive for excellence, but I ask, an excellence according to whom? To a student suffering from imposter syndrome, what is the canonical definition of excellence? The invitation to learn should be one of joyous welcome. Why does it require the homogenization of what are by very definition, multiplicitous learning needs? In not curating lessons towards individual learning needs, we have instead created the very simulacrum of a classroom. These beautiful minds; these beautiful jewels. Why are they banished from the invitation to learn?

Imposter syndrome can be described as feeling profoundly inauthentic in one’s mastered skillset, exhaustingly invalidating any positive self-dialogue about skill mastery. If it is not directly addressed or listened to, it will reflect upon itself endlessly, until the only semblance the learner has left is a simulacrum of what they thought they were.  I know the inner space well and thoughts that supernovae into fractal labyrinths of absolute anti-worth. There is no beginning in that space. To achieve coherence in thinking, we must strive for coherence in mental dialogues positively reflecting skill sets. We want a springtime in our heads, not a winter pedagogy which fails individuality. 

I contend that we pedagogues are symptomologists, focusing on abstracting the symptoms of poor performance, rather than directly addressing the causes such as imposter syndrome due to learning-needs dismissal. Perhaps we are losing the very excellence we are seeking, by losing brilliant individuals who are doubting their skill sets. What would it take to amplify the many incarnations of multi-modal variations in thinking, towards making our classroom a student-facing community of care? I propose that frosting our lessons with metacognitive conversations allows us to explore the science of learning while holding the space of all learning needs from a space of apprenticed empowerment. 

The point is our pedagogy is antiphrastical if we are not supporting students' learning needs. Students who are being taught in ways that are 100% against their learning needs are not actually learning the material deeply and are missing the critical thinking components of learning. Metacognitive conversation is an evidenced-based formalism for exploring a student's learning needs to curate a student-facing pedagogy by allowing conversations curated toward those learning needs. If students do not know how they learn, they are condemned to a rote learning, which doubles the imposter syndrome on two fronts: the front of external worth and the front of inner well being. If we continually strive towards an excellence which fails wellness checks, which leaves behind the nonlinear thinkers and those who think in pictures, I ask again to whom are we excellent?

I hear it all of the time from students in my mathematics classes. The black hole feelings of self-doubt and worth issues amplify through the structure of a timed exam and lead to poor exam performance. A cycle of negative motivation continues. I am told students are lacking the mathematical prerequisites to properly master any problem-solving rubric. But what if the cause was other than mathematical lack? What if students were never truly apprenticed into the disciplinary ways of reading texts? Of course there will be problems self-assessing any question if students’ very sense of self is spectral, or what is worse, simulacral; if students could never properly read the question if, for instance, mathematics and literature were taught as disjoint incarnations of reading comprehension.  

Imposter syndrome is like a mineralogical impurity which endlessly reflects across the diamond of self-worth. I propose that evidenced-based metacognitive techniques can softly yet directly address imposter syndrome. Metacognitive conversations are portals into the critical space of information storage and recollection. With the use of metacognitive techniques, we can revitalize the magical space of creativity from which we learn and make new knowledge. Metacognitive techniques help us to polish the diamond in the mind, the diamond which stores all retained knowledge. Impurities in the diamond, like mineralogical impurities, will endlessly reflect, leaving us never able to directly address the main impurity of imposter syndrome. 

What possible pedagogical restructuring could allow students the space to fail and to succeed, simultaneously, else they succeed technically and fail their own inner space? Why do our grading rubrics never self-assess the student’s ability to self-assess and to be fearless in the face of productive failure?  Let us attempt an exploration of a connection between poor reading comprehension and imposter syndrome. The very act of observing takes information and cross-references it with the prior constellations of learning in the mind. Through the use of creative curiosity, we are able to create more constellations and unify them into a moduli space of constellations, forming a solid network for recollection.  This is one possible explanation for how the expert effortlessly recalls. Once a subject is taught in accordance with a learning need, there is a harmony that develops so that constellations can form, which form the base of future connections. In the absence of any harmony in cross-referencing, or if the constellations are simulacral, new neural connections cannot be made. How is it even possible to grade a student in this condition, when their learning need has not been met, nor even attempted to be met? 

Let us not fail the nonlinear thinkers and those who identify as creatives. Let us strive towards amplifying variations in thinking, interdisciplinary solution-based thinking and may we dynamically infuse empathy into our academic excellence via metacognitive conversations. 


About the author:  Shanna Dobson is an NSF Mathematical Sciences Graduate Research Fellow, UCR Distinguished Chancellor Fellow, Associate Member of the Sigma Xi Scientific Research Honor Society, USC CUE & CETL Faculty Equity Fellow, author, and mathematics faculty at California State University and ArtCenter College of Design.