Monthly Archives: December 2015

#Nurture 1516 (Gratitude).

Reading last year’s Nurture post made me wonder if the point at which I now find myself was in some way pre-determined; a rehearsal for what was to come. The goals I set myself last year have partially been met (more than can be said for my performance management objectives), in that I’ve made those all-important decisions. This year, my Nurture post is going to focus mainly on what I am grateful for, rather than dwelling on circumstances beyond my control.

I was very lucky to have been given the opportunity to speak at three amazing events in 2015 and I am grateful to Mark Healy (@cijane02) for inviting me to do so. We presented at Northern Rocks and ResearchED Scotland together and I went solo at the ResearchED National Conference in September. I am grateful to all those who came and listened and to those who spoke so kindly about what they had taken from our talks.

Summer 2015 was incredible but things came crashing down as September ran into October. I have documented my experiences elsewhere and I shan’t repeat them here, suffice to day that it rapidly became clear that my psychological and physical self wasn’t coping so well with the rapid changes taking place in my professional life. Last year I wrote that I needed to stop worrying so much but now I have to concede that a failed in this. By November I had resigned from my job and worry had turned to chronic anxiety, lying awake at 3am and wondering what the future had in store, finally succumbing to pills that sent me to sleep but left me experiencing the daylight world through a dense fog.

It’s easy to feel alone in such circumstances and one Sunday morning I sat down and wrote about my experiences and why I had chosen to leave teaching. The reaction to my resulting blog post was astonishing (I believe I can ‘blame’ Nick Rose (@Nick_J_Rose) for that). I am so grateful to all those who commented and Tweeted (far too many to mention – sorry) and those who sent personal messages of advice and support.

But Twitter can also be a terrifying place and at times I think we all need to escape it for a while. I spent a week away from Twitter in December, engaging in a bloody cull of those I followed. To be honest I can’t recall why or who but if you ended up being a victim of the massacre I can only apologise. I’ll no doubt end up following you again when I work out exactly who was culled.

When Twitter is supportive it’s an amazing place. I am particularly grateful to those who forced me to think more critically about what I was doing and why I was doing it: Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish), Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit), Helene Galdin-O’Shea (@hgaldinoshea) and Bill Lord (@Joga5) to name just a few. I’m also grateful to the small number of colleagues at my (former) school who understood my decision and supported me in it.

I will always view my students as the main victims of my decision. I am grateful that they don’t (all) hate me for leaving them half way through the year and for the kind wishes (and alcohol) they bestowed upon me on that final day – I will miss them terribly. Also to ex-pupils Rachel and Tom who turned up on the morning of my last day and stayed with me until I went home.

Despite it all, I remain grateful to my former school, an amazingly warm and close community, having to cope in very difficult circumstances and with new management. There is no ill will (honestly) and I truly wish them the best for the future.

Most of all I am so grateful to Kieran (@Ezzy_Moon)  who always seems to know when I hit rock bottom. Whether it’s messages of support, Skype chats that last all afternoon or the phone call to ask if I’m OK, she has become a true friend. I hope I can remain worthy of her friendship.

The Future:

Our lives are a work in progress, with many bumps and diversions on the way. My family is “little and broken but still good”* – things never quite work out the way we planned do they? I’m lucky to have an amazing son who, at just 14, has his head screwed on so much tighter than I do – his mum would have been so proud of him.

I declared last year that I would write more and I have done so, with articles in publications from the The Psychologist to the TES (with more scheduled for 2016). I’m also working on that book and contributing chapters to another.

I’m staying connected to education and I’ll be attending Northern Rocks in 2016 for what looks like a great line-up and ResearchED York at Huntington School in July should also be fantastic. These will probably be the only events I attend over the next year for many reasons. Other opportunities are knocking, but a little too quietly for my liking, so I’ll have to knock back louder or join the night shift at Morrisons.

Will I return to teaching? I’m still agonising over this question. I’m seeing so many people being destroyed by the profession that it makes a return less likely (a former student of mine left teaching on the same day as I did – we really can’t afford to keep losing these people). I hope to visit different types of schools over the next year to get a better idea of how differently things can be done and I’m also hoping to run some workshops and training sessions as part of a new venture with some amazing people.

No matter how harsh our lives can be, there is plenty of room to be grateful. So many of the people I am grateful to I hardly know – some I have never even met face-to-face! I think this says so much about teaching as a profession: that the confusion and pain felt by one is so often shared by and with many others.

Look after each other, be nice and have a wonderful 2016.

*Congratulations to those who can spot the reference.

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Character and the ‘Creeping Militarisation’ of Education.

I’ve never been conformable with the idea of character education and, to be honest, I could never quite put my finger on why. I remain a little confused about the UK government’s almost missionary zeal surrounding the view that character should be taught in our schools and that such interventions should be encompassed within the sphere of ‘British values’, as if such values are unique to the British.

Even more mind-boggling to me is what appears to be the association of character education and British values with the military, such as the use of former military personnel as a way of ‘teaching’ resilience and the spread of army cadet units within mainstream schools. This reminds me of those military schools in the United States (although my only understanding of these is informed through TV and film, think the 1981 film Taps) where teenagers are taught discipline and the expert use of an M16. Respect for our military is important, but I can’t help feeling that there is a much bigger agenda at play here, one that makes me feel more uncomfortable as each day passes.

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Certainly, it’s important to ensure that our children are safe and don’t become embroiled in dangerous extremism (whether it be from religious fundamentalism or far-right hate groups), but at the same time we shouldn’t be discouraging them from voicing their opinions, including their objection to and criticism of government policy and media spin.

In a recent leaflet produced by Camden Safeguarding Children Board entitled ‘Keeping Children and Young people Safe from Radicalisation and Extremism: A Guide for Parents and Carers’, we are asked to look out for signs of extremism in our children such as ‘A mistrust of mainstream media reports’ and appearing ‘angry at government policies, especially foreign policy’. To be honest, I frequently feel very angry regarding government foreign policy because it really does appear to have a tendency to destabilise regions and make things a whole lot worse. Does this mean that if I watch a Noam Chomsky video on YouTube I can expect a knock on the door from MI5? Incidentally, the latest ‘Character Matters’ campaign from the Jubilee Centre immediately makes me think about a recruitment drive for the security services.

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I’m not the only one who feels a little unnerved by these events. Quakers have been doing a pretty job on the character front since the 17th century, and their recent short film ‘The Unseen March’ represents an excellent summary of many of their concerns (accurate or otherwise). Of course, Quakers are pacifists so their views on military conflict are informed by their religious beliefs, nevertheless, their concerns over the ‘normalisation of war’ and the creeping military ethos in schools are both valid and shared by Quakers and non-Quakers alike. Their claim is that the growing militarisation of education represents two forms of recruitment: the recruitment of teenagers into the armed forces and the recruitment of wider society to be ‘war ready’. Ultimately, these subtle and not-so-subtle psychological nudges could result in a society where people no longer protest or criticise for fear of being labelled as extremists and ‘terrorist sympathisers’.

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While our security is paramount, the methods used to ensure it must be open to criticism and debate and young people must be allowed to engage in such debates without being labelled extremist. History has taught us that it is often the dissenters who force society to change for the better and that the young are often the drivers of such change.

While perhaps it’s too strong to claim that we are sleepwalking into some nightmarish dystopia where free speech is violently curtailed, there does appear to be an uncomfortable psychological drive to get our young people to tow the line, or else.

3 Social Psychological Interventions that just might work.

Without a doubt, cognition forms the bedrock of learning. Sure, we can learn basic things through classical and operant conditioning but these are unlikely to lead to the depth of learning required for complex mental skills.  There are, however, methods that help support these cognitive processes or mitigate the impact of extraneous factors.

Learning is a cognitive, social and emotional process and concentrating on any single component negates the complexity of the process. While the cognitive aspects of learning are well documented and are broadly understood, the social and emotional aspects are far more complex and nuanced.

Social Psychology is a bit of minefield for several reasons (and it’s taken a pounding in recent years due issues of replication). For this reason we must remain cautious (although we must remain cautious of all research). The following social psychological interventions are interesting if nothing else and might even work.

1. Role Model Exposure.

Role models are powerful things and the research often draws on well-established constructs such as conformity and compliance. Interestingly, people who know that a member of their group (such as race or gender) has succeeded in a particular domain are much less likely to buy into the stereotypes that suggest that the groups’ ability in that domain is impaired.

To illustrate, Marx and Roman (2002) found that women taking a maths test, which was supervised by a woman known to be a maths expert, performed better and reported higher levels of self-esteem. In another study (Marx, Stapel and Muller, 2005) female students performed better when taking a maths test after reading a newspaper article about a female student who excelled in maths. Other studies have found that role models can combat stereotype threat, although some such as the “Obama Effect” have failed to replicate.

Best Role Models: Those people who play up their own early struggles and stress the view that struggle is part of life.

Worst Role Models: Those people believed to be naturally gifted or succeed through talent rather than persistence.

2. Reappraisal

I’ve written before about how anxiety can negatively impact learning and cause students to perform badly in high stakes exams even when they know the material. It has been suggested that students can regulate negative emotions and free up cognitive resources by writing about their fears (see also ‘Learning and emotions: It’s not all about the positive’). Research found that giving students a free writing test about a specific upcoming stressor (i.e. an exam) allowed them to ‘process’ fears relating to it. This technique is quite common in many psychological therapies, especially those concerned with anxiety.

In one study students were given the opportunity to write about their fears prior to a final examination. Grades increased, on average, from a B- to a B+.

The benefits of written reappraisal most likely arise through the anxiety reduction process. However, while most students will find the writing tasks beneficial, there is always the possibility that others could find the activity itself anxiety provoking.

3. Possible Selves.

In the process of forming their own identities, adolescents may think about their ‘possible selves’ as part of this process.  Thinking about attaining a positive possible self has been linked to greater wellbeing and higher levels of persistence.

If students are able to think about the kind of person they want to be in the future, they are more likely to consider the relevance of what they are currently learning. Combining this with goal setting or personal bests can help to manage future objectives.

Caution: While the possible selves hypothesis has been linked to higher levels of wellbeing, failure to attain that ‘ideal’ has also been linked to depression, perhaps due to the discrepancy between actual and ideal self. However, if these selves can be made to co-exist, they may be of some benefit.

Spitzer, B & Aronson, J (2015) Minding and mending the gap: Social psychological interventions to reduce educational disparities British Journal of Educational Psychology 85, p. 1 – 18

The Myth of the Invulnerable Child

Somewhere there exists a paper by an M. Pines entitled ‘In Praise of the Invulnerables’. It was published in the APA Monitor in 1975 and is probably sitting silently on some dusty shelf in some darkBroken-Doll corner of an academic library. I know it exists because pretty much every academic paper I’ve read on resilience cites it (and I’ve read a great many papers of this kind). The interesting thing about this paper is that both the title and the content appear to suggest that early resilience researchers saw the ability to thrive in the face of severe adversity as something almost magical; a superhuman quality that only the most blessed are bestowed with. It’s an interesting paper because decades of research into resilience have found such claims to be false.

Another of these early researchers was a British psychoanalyst named Elwyn James Anthony (or just James Anthony). Anthony was very much old school psychology, having worked with the likes of Jean Piaget, Anna Freud and John Bowlby – all highly influential in their own right and within their own time.

In order to explain the nature of resilience, Anthony used the metaphor of the three dolls that goes something like this:

I have three dolls: One is made of glass, one of plastic and another of steel. I also have a hammer. If I strike the glass doll with my hammer it will shatter; if I strike the plastic doll it will be severely scarred but not broken, but if I strike the steel doll with my hammer it will emerge relatively unscathed.

The suggestion here is that it is something about the individual that ‘makes’ them invulnerable, something innate and trait-like, something superhero-like that resides deep inside the strands of DNA. However, subsequent investigations have also found this metaphor to be lacking.

The language we use has also changed. Researchers now use the term resilience rather the ‘invulnerable’ because scientific research, by its very nature, leads to greater understanding which, in turn, leads to the casting aside of that which was once deemed ‘true’. To be a good researcher one needs to be able to understand that what is deemed correct today faces the possibility of being overturned tomorrow.

Indeed, Michael Rutter found that resistance to stress is relative, not absolute and that the basis of resistance is both constitutional and environmental – no child (or person) is invulnerable, but they are more or less resilient dependant upon the circumstances. The degree of resistance varies over time and according to life circumstances. Such advancements in research led Ann Masten to describe this ability as ‘Ordinary Magic’ – as simply a natural response to changing circumstances where several factors (both internal and external) combine to produce the illusion of invulnerability.

There is little we can do regarding constitutional factors (and those who say we can have grossly misunderstood the process or are trying to sell you snake oil). Viewing resilience as a trait is problematic as it suggests that we can’t make someone more resilient. Nevertheless, if resilience is both constitutional and environmental then we should be able to manipulate the environment in order to encourage and nurture resilience. The bottom line is that to encourage resilience, look to the environment not to the individual.