Applying Attribution Theory To The Classroom

Attribution theory is a psychological concept about how people explain the causes of an event or behaviour.

When we experience desirable and undesirable outcomes (such as success and failure) we can attribute the cause to something specific which in turn can lead to increased or decreased motivational behaviour.

As Fritz Heider stated, we are all ‘naïve psychologists’ with he innate desire to understand the causes of our behaviours and their outcomes.

When people experience a particular outcome, attributions help them to understand what caused the event so that if the outcome was desirable they can do their best to experience it again(in other words, the event becomes a positively reinforced) . Alternatively, if the event is unpleasant or undesirable they can try to avoid the behaviour that caused it.

These attributions help to shape our emotional and behavioural responses to situations.

Locus of Causality.

Attributions are classified along a dimension known as the locus of causality from internal to external. If we attribute behaviour to an internal locus of causality we assume that outcomes resulted from something within us; if we attribute the outcomes to an external locus of causality we view it as caused by something outside ourselves.

Stable and Unstable

Attributions are also classified in terms of stability, from stable to unstable. Stable causes are those that are difficult to change such as intelligence; unstable causes can be changed. For example, a student might fail a test because they didn’t put enough effort into preparation. Effort, therefore, is an unstable cause of the failure (it can be changed), intelligence, however, is often thought of as stable (it doesn’t change).

If our student attributes lack of intelligence to their failure they are more likely to believe that they cannot improve. Whether the student views their failure as either stable of unstable will then affect future expectations.

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The Problem with Attributions.

The problem is that attributions don’t always accurately represent reality. Our student might, for example, attribute their failure to stable factors (intelligence) when in reality failure was caused by lack of effort (and unstable factor). This is what is known as a biased attributional style and this can lead to the increased likelihood that the student will succumb to false attributions.

Attributional style can have a major impact on motivation and attainiment because the way we attribute cause affects future expectations. Researchers have identified three specific attributional styles: Optimistic, Pessimistic and Hostile.

Optimistic.

A person holding a optimistic attributional style will attribute negative outcomes to external events and positive outcomes to internal events. This is known as a self-serving attributional style. A student, therefore, will attribute failure on an exam to something outside of themselves; perhaps the exam paper was extraordinary hard that year or the teacher hadn’t covered the content in enough depth. Success, on the other hand, would be attributed to their own effort, superior preparation and stable measures such as innate intelligence.

Pessimistic.

A person holding a pessimistic attributional style will tend towards explaining negative outcomes in terms of internal and stable factors. A student who fails an exam, therefore, would attribute their failure to something about themselves and to something they couldn’t change (such as their level of intelligence). In the event of success they would attribute the outcome to something external and unstable such as luck.

Hostile.

A hostile attributional style tends towards blaming external factors for undesirable outcomes. This blame can manifest itself in hostility towards the external entity seen to be responsible. Our student, therefore, might become hostile towards a teacher they believe is responsible for their failure.

Attributions and Learned Helplessness.

Research into learned helplessness indicates that when people suffer repeated failure or punishments they eventually become passive and unmotivated. Studies conducted by Carol Dweck also found that children who fail to complete a difficult task become reluctant to engage in easy tasks presented later. This is because they have formed an expectation of failure through their attributional process. Helplessness becomes a learned response and even when individuals are presented with a way out, they rarely take it.

Learned Helplessness in the Classroom.

School policies, the behaviour of school leaders and individual teachers can all lead to students feeling that success in unobtainable, especially if effort is not appropriately recognised. Such behaviours create a feeling that nothing the student does will ever lead to success and motivation and engagement decrease. Furthermore, teachers and school leaders who insist that the success of students is wholly a result of teaching and school policies are in danger of encouraging learned helplessness in their students. This behaviour, if adopted by school leaders, can also demotivate teachers in the same way.

From a wider perspective, schools that insist on implementing out dated or ineffective procedures may also find that teachers display little urgency or interest in their work. For example, the many teaching strategies that have found to be highly erroneous (such as learning styles) are often well known by classroom teachers for their lack of empirical support yet are still favoured by school leaders. Teachers who understand this are less likely to engage in such practices (for good reason) but might also lose motivation for other aspects of the job.

Similarly, school leaders who take the credit for success, undermine teacher confidence and fail to recognise the hard work of their staff, risk nurturing learned helplessness in their workforce.

The way in which people attribute the causes of events, therefore, impact on their motivation and self-belief based on their expectations of how future events will turn out. Those students who explain their failures in terms of internal and stable factors will view the future in the same way as the present; as that nothing they do will make any difference. Success is dismissed as luck and effort rejected.

Alternatively, those who view failure in terms of unstable factors (for example, lack of effort rather than lack of intelligence) are better equipped to view failure and setback as things to be overcome.

10 Ways Emotions Influence Learning (and vice versa)

 

“Studies often emphasize performance changes and ignore the subjectively much more striking changes in mood and memory that accompany performance” ~ Sarah-Jayne Blackmore & Uta Frith.

child-boy-blowing-dandelion-plantThe quote is from The Learning Brain, authored by two giants of psychology and cognitive science over a decade ago. During the intervening years, educators have discovered cognitive psychology (or more specially, memory) but are yet to realise the potential of understanding the ways in which emotions – or rather ‘affective experiences’ – interact and influence learning.

 

As Blakemore and Frith continue:

“Memories often involve emotion and emotion often involves memory”.

It’s also more than just memory or anxiety but, rather, a vast combination of affective and cognitive states that can both help and hinder.

For example

1. Anxiety can enhance cognitive performance; too much can inhibit working memory function.

2. Anxiety can result in silence as well as screaming.

3. Boredom can result in a sensation resembling physical pain or depression, impacting                   behaviour and attention, but can also enhance creativity.

4. Curiosity can light the spark of interest, but interest needs to be sustained in order to                   encourage intrinsic motivation. We can, however, use extrinsic rewards to internalise                     motivation, making it more effective.

5. Fear of failure can motivate but can also reduce levels of resilience and academic buoyancy in     the absence of support and guidance.

6. The development of the teenage brain can result in higher levels of risk-taking – but not in           the classroom (which is one reason why many teens are reluctant to engage verbally in                 lessons).

7. Brain pathways that are used to consolidate and recall information interact with those                  responsible for emotion and emotional memories.

8. Being happy doesn’t necessarily lead to higher academic achievement, and can actually                inhibit certain cognitive functions.

9. Self-esteem does not directly influence academic achievement, but academic self-concept           does.

10. The ability to regulate emotions positively impacts academic achievement, but is an ability            that develops as the brain matures.

We understand more about how emotions impact learning and cognition than ever before, yet we often retain a very narrow understanding of what we mean by emotions, especially in learning environments.

Cognition is only part of the story.

For a more detailed discussion of some of these topics visit The Emotional Learner.

 

 

Could Lessons In Personality Help Teens Cope With Social Stressors?

personalityA new study from David Yeager suggests that teaching teenagers about social and personality traits could help them cope with certain social challenges such as bullying, which in turn could help with stress and lead to higher academic achievement.

Peer groups are vitally important to adolescents, much more so than for adults. While adults aren’t always worried about not fitting in with their peer group, teenagers possess a heightened desire to be accepted by and into the group. Social exclusion causes them anxiety which can in turn impact young people’s wellbeing and academic achievement. Teenagers cause no end of frustration for teachers and parents due to their change in behaviour when they have been excluded from a friendship group, and while we might comfort them there is little that can be done to calm the anxiety exclusion can cause. This anxiety (or the attempt to prevent it) coupled with a brain unable to inhibit risk taking, means that teenagers are highly influenced by the group they are worried about being excluded from. The transition from primary school to high school can be particularly difficult.

According to Yeager:

Adolescents are very focused on peer social hierarchy and status, and when they transition into high school, they are put into a situation where they have to figure out where they stand. Often, teenagers think if it’s going to be hard now, it’s going to be hard forever. That’s stressful for them.

Yeager suggest that teaching students that socially relevant traits are malleable, rather than fixed, can make them feel better prepared to face social challengers as opposed to viewing them as threats and thinking of them as lasting realities. Yeager’s research (to be published in Psychological Science) used two double-blind studies to monitor teenagers physiological responses to stress and how the lessons in personality could improve cognitive, physiological and behavioural responses to stressful situations as well as academic performance.

In the first study, Yeager and his team monitored cardiovascular responses as sixty teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 prepared and delivered a short speech on what makes people popular before completing a series of maths equations. Prior to undertaking the task, half of the teenagers were told that people and their socially relevant traits were changeable. Those teenagers who were exposed to this idea reported feeling less threatened by the task, exhibited higher cardiac efficiency and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They also performed better on speeches and the maths problems.

In the second study, 205 ninth grade students were tracked throughout the school year. Half of the sample received lessons on the idea that people could change (the intervention group). The students were asked to complete daily diaries where they reported all the stressful things that had happened to them, were asked how much they could deal with the stressors noted in the diaries and provided samples of saliva to measure the levels of stress hormones. Those students in the intervention group coped better on the days where they reported more stressors and were also exhibiting higher Grade Point Averages than their peers seven months later.

The study builds on work by Carol Dweck and other self-theorists whose research indicates that by exposing students to messages surrounding change and adaptation, it is possible to help them cope with stress, raise levels of resilience and obtain higher academic success. Although Yeager stresses that such psychological interventions don’t represent ‘magic bullets’ but can be seen as a ‘progressive step forward in the research process of addressing the wider public health issue of teenage stress’.

Mental Health, Concept Creep and Moral Panic.

mental-healthI don’t tend to read ‘columns’; I find them opinionated and often lacking in substance (a bit like a discussion on Twitter or some of my blogs). However, I was directed to a recent piece by Tom Bennett in the TES on mental health.

Now, I think I’ve made it clear in the past that I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the current debate surrounding the existence or otherwise of a child mental health crisis. This isn’t to say that I’m uncomfortable commenting on mental health, it’s just that the changing landscape of diagnosis and classification along with the controversies surrounding the latest diagnostic criteria mean that I just don’t know what to think. Nevertheless, here I am commenting on that very topic.

Bennett, behaviour advisor to the government and director of IdeologyED ResearchED, makes a number of pertinent points, some of which I alluded to in a blog post back in May. The most important point is that mental health is something that we need to get right – it’s far too important to fuck up.

But a moral panic helps no-one, least of all those vulnerable young people who need help most.

The point, I think, that we both agree on is that child mental health and it’s relationship to education policy is creating a moral panic rather than a need to establish the facts. Debra Kidd, in her recent blog ‘No Mental Health Crisis?’ makes a brave and valiant attempt to support the crisis hypothesis, but Kidd (like Bennett and like me) isn’t a mental health professional – we are amateur observers who interpret the findings and read the reports from altered perspectives.

In a recent paper Psychologist Nick Haslam makes some important observations related to this  (Haslam, 2016). Haslam suggests that society is taking psychological concepts and applying them erroneously to normative human behaviours; everyday ‘worry’ becomes pathologised as ‘anxiety disorder’, sadness as ‘depression’. So-called ‘concept creep’ works on a number of levels, reshaping society and creating more sensitive populations who must, in some way, be protected from everyday horrors; the need for resilience has replaced ordinary courage.

One worrying observation is that mental health appears to be populated by non-professionals, especially when it comes to child mental health and mental health in schools. The appointment of the recently deposed ‘Mental Health Champion for Schools’ Natasha Devon is perhaps one such example. Devon’s intentions are certainly laudable and the bravery with which she has taken on such a dispassionate and emotionally barren government is, in my mind, worthy of praise. Whether her knowledge of the complexity of mental illness, it’s diagnosis, classification and treatment is strong enough to warrant her influence, however, remains questionable.

So who do we listen to?

This is a major problem. There are a number of individuals on the speaker circuit who advise on mental health issues and have published books on how to respond to mental health problems in schools. Many aren’t mental health professionals and it is obvious that some have only a passing understanding of the psychology behind mental health and the complexities of diagnosis and classification. I recently received feedback from a publisher on a manuscript I’m currently circulating about the role of emotions on learning. To be clear, the manuscript details normative functions, the way they impact learning and how teachers can work with them. There is a chapter on anxiety but, again, in terms of everyday processes rather than extreme circumstances. The publisher liked the idea but insisted that I include more extreme behaviours (they actually singled out suicidal tendencies). I could have complied and perhaps even been looking at publication, but such areas are far beyond my knowledge and expertise, so I declined and submitted elsewhere. There is certainly a desire for such publications – I would argue against a need for them however, especially when written by amateur observers.

As I (and Bennett) have said, we need to get mental health right and we need to receive the right information from the right people. There will always be controversies and I suspect that it will be some time before we manage to reconcile the medical model of mental health (with its emphasis on neurochemical and genetic explanations) with more nurture related and environmental theories. Teachers aren’t mental health professionals and the danger is that those most in need of help get lost in the moral panic.

References and Further Reading:

Haslam, N. (2016). Concept creep: psychology’s expanding concepts of harm and pathology. Psychological Inquiry. 27 (1). p.pp. 1–17.

How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm, The Atlantic.

Self-determination in the Classroom.

boredstudent

Edward Deci and Richard Ryan view motivation in terms of different types, and like earlier researchers stress the importance of intrinsic motivators over extrinsic ones. They suggest that people have three basic psychological needs.

The need for competence:

Our desire to control or master the environment and outcomes. People want to know how things are going to turn out and they want to know the results or consequences of their own actions.

The need for relatedness:

Our desire to interact with, be connected to and experience caring for other people. Everything we do in some way concerns others and our actions impact on those around us. Through this need to build up a sense of belonging develops the feeling that we are part of a wider world beyond the limits of ourselves.

The need for autonomy:

The urge to be causal agents and have full volition and choice over what we do. If autonomous motivation concerns choice, then controlled motivation relates to the lack of choice. Ryan and Deci describe it as ‘behaving with the experience of pressure or demand towards specific outcomes that come from forces perceived to be external to the self’. Autonomy, however, does not necessarily mean acting independently; it merely means acting with choice, so it can mean acting alone but also acting interdependently with others.

The main premise of Ryan and Deci’s theory involves the role of self-determining factors (hence their theory is known as ‘self-determination theory’ or SDT). SDT is a theory of human motivation, emotion and development concerned with factors related to assimilative and growth orientated processes in people. The theory’s primary concern is with the factors that promote or prevent people from intrinsically engaging in positive behaviours.

In order to be intrinsically engaged we need to feel that our actions are based on choice and free will, even if such feelings are illusionary. Motivation, therefore, becomes intricately entwined with emotional states such as interest curiosity and boredom. How motivated we are is often related to how we feel; whether a task bores us, excites us or sends us into a state of anxiety or helplessness. Yet, motivation isn’t just about internal states – environments play a major role.

The interpersonal climate of the classroom, for example, can have a major impact on motivation, especially motivation of the intrinsic kind. Teachers, classrooms and schools all differ in terms of the control they use. Some might be highly controlling, relying heavily on the absolute authority of teachers over pupils, strictly adhered to rules of behaviour and consistent and heavily relied on extrinsic reward and punishment procedures. Others might be more liberal in their approach towards control, allowing students a greater say in how and what they learn, implementing more restorative behaviour management policies and more flexible classroom rules. Schools represent complex systems and some might require more stringent behaviour management policies than others. A greater emphasis on rules doesn’t always have to mean a more controlling environment.

The emphasis here is on the nature of control. Highly controlled classroom environments undermine intrinsic motivation while autonomy supportive classrooms nurture it. This doesn’t mean that extrinsic reward systems don’t work in the classroom – they often do, so long as the interpersonal classroom context remains informational and supportive rather than critical and authoritarian. Conversely, positive feedback given in a controlling context will also tend to decrease intrinsic motivation. Classroom environments that encourage autonomy (autonomy-supportive) lead to greater learning and performance outcomes than controlling styles and there is ample evidence that suggests that practices and policies that rely on motivating pupils through sanctions, rewards and evaluations (and other forms of coercion and manipulation) undermine quality student engagement.

While controlling environments often stifle motivation, autonomy-supportive classrooms that foster interest, value and volition encourage greater persistence and better quality engagement and learning. Autonomy and competence are essential to the maintenance of intrinsic motivation – it’s difficult to find an activity either exciting or enjoyable if we feel we have little control over what we are doing. In his 1968 book ‘Human Causality’, educational psychologist Richard deCharms described this as our ‘internal perceived locus of causality’, meaning an experience that emanates from within ourselves rather than from any external source (our perceived locus of causality can be both internal and external). Intrinsic motivation, therefore, represents a locus of causality that is internal, although there it often occurs on a continuum.

Students must feel both autonomous and confident if they are to sustain intrinsic motivation so that a student who feels competent but feels that they have little or no autonomy will be unable to maintain intrinsic motivation.

Teacher and classroom style is often a prickly subject and is often dictated by personal ideology. Authoritarian teachers maintain that an approach that insists on things being done correctly, that students should be told what to do and use a number of controlling strategies lead to more manageable classrooms and more positive outcomes in terms of exam results.

Others emphasise the importance of allowing students to be more self-directed, to learn from their own successes and failures and to solve problems for themselves and, although I have known teachers at both extremes, the majority of teachers fall somewhere between them. There is a growing view in education that there exists a uniform way of teaching and that as long as these skills can be taught to teachers outcomes will improve. However, many of these skills appear authoritarian in nature (even going as far as punishing students for failing to track the teacher’s movements). Unfortunately for us, authoritarian teaching styles appear to do little in terms of intrinsic motivation and related educational outcomes. Early research conducted by Edward Deci found that in classrooms where teachers were more autonomy-supportive, students tended to be more intrinsically motivated, displaying behaviours such as curiosity, a preference towards challenge and greater mastery orientations. They also felt more competent in their schoolwork and had higher levels of self-esteem.

Cross-cultural evaluations appear to support this. Wendy Grolnick and Richard Ryan found that evaluative pressure undermined students’ intrinsic motivation and their school performance in the USA while Kage and Namiki obtained similar results with Japanese students. Additional cross-cultural studies have found that interest is enhanced for lessons where the teacher is autonomy-supportive but diminished when the teacher is more controlling.

The hypothesis has also been tested in various subject domains. Martyn Standage of the University of Bath compared student and teacher ratings of autonomy, autonomy-support, confidence, relatedness and self-determined motivation in physical education. Standage found that perceived autonomy-support was associated with higher levels of autonomous self-regulation, including intrinsic motivation and these, in turn, were associated with greater effort and persistence.

These and other studies are suggestive of a number of important points.

1. Teacher orientation and certain aspects of the learning task play a role in the development of intrinsic motivation. Teachers perceived as autonomous-supportive nurture students higher in intrinsic motivation than those teachers with more authoritarian styles – and this remains consistent across cultures.

2. Where children are high in intrinsic motivation and are taught in environments that support autonomy, they display a tendency towards better learning, especially on tasks requiring conceptual understanding.

3. The way in which teachers introduce learning tasks is important in that when tasks promote the basic psychological needs of autonomy and competence they allow for greater intrinsic motivation and deeper learning. If these basic psychological needs are not met, intrinsic motivation and achievement suffer.

The Other Side of Resilience.

camusDespite the plethora of interventions designed to raise levels of resilience (and the accompanying publications) we rarely stop to ask ourselves if attempts to make young people more resilient is even a good idea, let alone necessary. Can resilience ever be a bad thing? One would think not, after all, being more resilient allows us to bounce back from adversity and to keep going when things get tough, right?

Research into resilience has a short but rather intensive history, ranging from investigations into the way people recover from extreme trauma to how children from deprived backgrounds overcome their problems and flourish despite adversity.

One such series of studies, conducted in the 1970’s by Lawrence Hinkle, investigated the susceptibility of individuals to coronary heart disease. Hinkle found that there were a small number of individuals who could live through major changes in relationships, deprivations and dislocations and display little if any overt evidence of illness. The resilience they displayed was associated with two factors:

1. They had no history of pre-existing susceptibilities

2. They displayed certain personality characteristics that ‘insulated’ them from detrimental life experiences

In particular,

The healthiest members of the samples displayed little psychological reaction to events and situations which caused profound negative reactions in other members of the group. Life events such as the loss of a spouse produced no profound lasting reaction.

More importantly, many:

Displayed a distinct awareness of their own limitations and their psychological needs

Avoided situations that would make demands on them if they felt that they could not, or did not want to meet, these demands

For example, they might refuse a promotion because they didn’t want the extra responsibility and because money and prestige were of little importance to them.

Hinkle described many of the these individuals as having…

an almost sociopathic flavour… typical of so-called ‘invulnerables’… displaying characteristics of some kind of narcissistic disorder.

E. James Anthony calls this type of behaviour as the ‘Meursault Phenomenon’ after the protagonist of Albert Camus’ novel ‘The Outsider’. Meursault is a passive and detached observer of life who displays a flat level of affect even in response to the death of his mother; relationships mean nothing to him, nothing is either better or worse than anything else and his strategic selfishness is based on his convenience and the comfort of his ‘self’ (what psychologists of the psychodynamic persuasion would call ‘rational egoism’).

Meursault sustains his resilience by not engaging himself in the wider world and appears, according to Anthony, to be employing a strategy of defensive distancing that insulates him from all the ‘disturbing psychosocial impingements’ that exist in the environment, resulting in a kind of ‘psychoimmunization’.

From where such characteristics might arise is unclear but there is certainly a biological component. For example, highly resilient members of the US Special Forces have been found to have unusually high levels of a chemical known as neuropeptide Y that appears to protect them against PTSD and bestows higher levels of psychological resilience. However, like many studies of this kind, the direction of causality is more difficult to establish.

Increasing resilience in individuals is certainly a positive move, but resilience in the absence of human values and a strong moral compass could do more harm than good. Furthermore, the jury is still out on the whether or not resilience can be taught or if it arises through life experience or exists innately at a biological level. Ultimately, resilience exists in all of us and this is why we survive. Tinkering with the unknown on such a large scale and involving so many potentially vulnerable young people in often highly unregulated pseudo-scientific experiments could prove damaging at worse and pointless at best.