The Psychology of Distance in Our Classrooms

Have you ever enthusiastically agreed to an after-school commitment weeks in advance only to absolutely dread it as it nears? Have you seen students’ eyes go wide when they hear your first name? Have you heard students who groan through your science class declare with total sincerity that they’ll be neurosurgeons? These are all effects of the psychology of distance and can be hugely beneficial to teachers when they understand and consciously implement the principles in their classes.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review introduced this perspective to me on the practical, psychological effects of spacial, temporal, social and experiential distance. I found myself laughing and shaking my head in turn as the ideas resonated so well with my own classroom experience. And that’s an example of the psychology of distance right there! I just illustrated my reaction to the article. So despite being physically far away from you, the reader, I bridged that spacial distance by attempting to close my social distance and bring this discussion out of the abstract.

Leaders who recognize and understand the effects of psychological distance and then use two specific strategies to reduce—or sometimes increase—it can improve their outcomes in many different professional scenarios. (HBR.org)

Social Distance

To help assert authority, we keep social distance from our students. They don’t use our first names. This distance often keeps teachers as a sort of abstraction to students. It’s like we’re not totally human. They’re surprised when they see us in a supermarket. And we cultivate that. Social distance can be critical in maintaining leadership.

We also manipulate social distance between students. Sharing personal stories allows students to feel less distant from each other. When temporal distance is a problem and students are procrastinating assignments, we can use group work and the social proximity therein to increase students’ participation.

Spacial Distance

When social distance may be impairing communication and we’re concerned students aren’t confiding in us, often teachers will close spacial distance to compensate. We’ll crouch down near their desks to talk with them at eye level. On the other end of that spectrum, when the class is becoming too relaxed, we can walk over to the front of the class and resume our social distance by asserting a spacial distance.

In my first year of teaching, I took frequent walks while trying to manage stress. I figured the benefit was just cardiovascular. But I was also managing my spacial distance from my work and allowing myself a reprieve. We can use these effects to incredible gain.

Experiential Distance

When reading Shakespeare with your class, the struggles with interpreting the language can be a significant barrier to comprehension. Teachers often compensate for this by taking advantage of experiential distance. Before approaching the practical application of the text, students predict where the story will go and what will happen. Momentum is built from an abstract discussion. That groundwork can help when the experiential distance is closed and it’s time to read.

I often use experiential distance when coaching teachers. I’ll be working with a teacher that’s getting amazing results with the free version of ExitTicket and she thinks the premium version would work well for the whole school.  There’s often a social distance that makes it uncomfortable to approach their principal about the idea. So by reviewing the discussion points in the abstract first, building confidence before ever recommending a discussion with their principal, I’ve been employing experiential distance.

Temporal Distance

Teachers give incremental deadlines on major projects because of the all-too-familiar effects of temporal distance. Next week’s deadline seems like forever. In the article, Rebecca Hamilton describes a surprising result when adults are shown pictures of themselves that have been aged: People start saving more for retirement. So when you’re trying to get students in the habit of reducing the temporal distance between them and their deadlines, try role-playing exercises. What will they feel like on the morning of the big test? What will they eat for breakfast? What will they tell their parents after the test?

Increasing temporal distance can have benefits too. It allows us to set more ambitious goals. We can overcome the stress of immediate deadlines by keeping a perspective of long-term satisfaction. In many ways, it is the heart of what a teacher does.

What do you think? How do teachers employ -or how could they employ- the types of psychological distance in their classes?