There is a simple way to keep from learning.  Just blame someone else for the problems we encounter.  If we blame the principal, the students, their parents, the media, the president, video games, or some other popular scapegoat, we can easily avoid learning by accepting no personal responsibility when reality falls way short of our goals. No need to learn anything here. I had nothing to do with it.

The temptation to blame is hard to resist.  When students do not respond as we had hoped. When a class falls flat.  When students don’t care about content that we love. When they don’t get what we are teaching. When they don’t understand. When they fail. If we believe that we are the reason why they fail, the emotional pain can be intense.

As human beings we are wired to avoid pain. In this context, one way we do this, often unconsciously, is to look elsewhere for reasons why a problem exists. Kegan and Lahey call this a language of blaming. I think this is a natural reaction to pain. The trouble is that when we identify the source of the problem as being outside of us, and therefore not our responsibility, we lose an important opportunity to learn.

An alternative is the language of personal responsibility, whereby we recognize that we are at least a part of the problem.  Kegan and Lahey write: “There are very few situations in our adult lives where we do not have at least some hand in things being as they are.”

In their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, the authors include a simple table, which I’ve recreated below, that illustrates the differences between a language of blame and a language of personal responsibility.

What To Do


Resisting the temptation to blame and recognizing that we are at least a part of a problem opens us to learning.   “Some problems,” Kegan and Lahey explain, “are actually lessons, stories to learn from.”  How we solve our problems can be a complex and nuanced process, but by resisting the temptation to blame, we stay open to stories that can teach us a lot, and the more we learn, the better we are able to help our students learn.