Monthly Archives: January 2016

Motivated To Fail?

We tend to view motivation from a positive perspective; motivated pupils work harder than unmotivated ones, display higher levels of persistence (or ‘grit’, if we insist on using the current preferred terminology) and are more likely to meet or even exceed their achievement goals.

Unfortunately, some types of motivation can also have negative consequences. Self-handicapping is one way – those pre-emptive excuses people use to explain away their failure (I’ve discussed self-handicapping at length in the past). In this post I want to discuss another consequence of students’ fear of failure and the two related motivational strategies that arise from it: Defensive Pessimism and Defensive Optimism.

Why would students want to fail anyway?

Students don’t want to fail; however many are more worried about safeguarding their self-esteem and self-worth than they are with achieving academically. Young people (especially teenagers and young adults) are fearful of looking unintelligent in front of their peers (and their teachers) leading to attempts to ensure that a situation never arises when others might think them ‘stupid’.

In a very rudimentary way, we can view these choices in the form of a Failure Matrix (below). As can be seen, the most effective way to safeguard self-esteem is to withhold effort, hence, some students might be motivated to fail rather than motivated to succeed.


Defensive Pessimism: Aiming Low

Defensive pessimism involves the holding of unrealistically low expectations of tasks involving formal evaluation, such as an exam or a homework that will be given a grade. If we hold low expectations of our own performance then these beliefs cushion us against anxiety by creating unrealistic targets for ourselves – it’s not as far to fall when we fail (and a cause celebration when we do well). We turn a failure into a success in our own minds.

Defensive pessimism can manifest itself in several ways, such as telling yourself and others that you are going to fail the test even though past experience suggests that failure is far from inevitable. While some may think of this as reasonable strategy, unconsciously there is a real danger that this type of behaviour will reduce motivation and engagement due to the complex relationship between our thoughts and our behaviours, in other words, we end up convincing ourselves that failure is the most likely outcome even though we have displayed a history of success. If we lower the bar, we make failure less likely (in our own eyes at least) which in turn lifts some of the anxiety associated with the fear of failure.

Aiming for failure allows us to revel in success, even if that success is below expectations. Students aim lower than their academic history suggests, for example aiming for a grade C when all indications suggest that an A or a B is a more likely outcome.

Defensive Optimism: Aiming Too High.

While defensive pessimism leads to students pitching themselves below their ability, defensive optimism exists at the other end of this continuum.

Defensive optimists set unrealistically high goals and expectations for themselves even though past experience and evidence suggests that they are unlikely to reach these levels. Students who are predicted D’s and E’s, for example, might set their sites on an A despite having only achieved D’s in tests and other assessed work. They may also choose to embark on subjects at higher levels despite only mediocre success at lower levels. We often find this during the transition from GCSE’s to A-levels and, although many schools will discourage or bar some students from taking certain subjects at a higher level, others have more flexible entry requirements. A student who has only managed D’s in science subjects might then wish to take A-levels in Physics and Chemistry even though prior attainment in these subjects has been low. This often leads to students struggling and eventually leaving the course.

Schools, therefore, need to be careful in assessing students in terms of prior attainment and ensuring that minimum standards are upheld. Teachers want students to remain optimistic about their chances of success and realistic optimism should be encouraged, however, defensive optimism doesn’t represent a realistic approach due to the evidence for success being absent.

Defensive optimists display certain behaviours that betray their thoughts. These might include:

  • Striving towards an A grade when previous assessments have placed them closer to a D.
  • Choosing books, texts of other information that are far beyond their capabilities in terms of their previous attainment. For example, our struggling Physics student might select a textbook aimed at first year undergraduate students.

The problem here is not the optimism but the unrealistic nature of the optimism. Certainly, students should be encouraged to aim high but also encouraged to aim within realistic parameters. Rather than aiming for an A (when the current level is closer to a D) students should be encouraged to aim for the mid-range and rise in increments once evidence is able to support higher expectations.

It seems logical that students might downplay their ability in an attempt to feel good about a lower grade (Defensive Pessimism), but why would a student over-estimate their ability?

This is indeed a curious thing, after all, isn’t the defensive optimist simply setting themselves up for a fall? The most probable explanation for such a destructive strategy involves our thinking about short and long-term goals and the perception of time, as well as failure and academic insecurity. The fear of failure problem can easily be resolved – simply refuse to accept failure as a possibility, even when evidence suggests that our belief in success is so far removed from the evidence. If students refuse to accept the evidence of failure as a possible outcome, then the beliefs created by such a refusal protects them from the anxiety and fear associated with failure – at least in the short-term.

Defensive optimism can also be used as a way of excusing poor performance by blaming their high expectations rather than accepting that it was down to ability or effort. Explaining away poor performance by accepting that your expectations were too high doesn’t necessarily represent an attack on self-worth.

An awareness of the motives behind withholding effort is as important as the awareness of motives related to the desire to succeed. As educators we have tendency to view motivation as positive while assuming some students are unmotivated rather than motivated to fail.


Creating The Perfect Child.

I took my son to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Saturday. I recall seeing the first one in London when I was young. It was 1977 and Simon Scott (the boy who lived next door to me when I was a ‘southerner’ – we used to call him Simon Snot) had invited a few of us to the cinema for his birthday. I was hooked immediately, but the thought of this gleaming white army of Stormtroopers, bred to carry out every order (no matter how heinous) unnerved me a little. Times move on and in The Force Awakens we learn that the ‘new style’ Stormtroopers go through some kind of programming to turn them into these efficient killing machines. Sometimes, however, the programming ‘doesn’t take’.

While sitting in my seat, Ethan making as much noise as he possibly could with nothing more than a bag of Haribo, my mind momentarily leaped into my mental DeLorean, engaged the flux capacitor and took a quick trip back to the release of the Sutton Trust report ‘A Winning Personality’. Could we really ‘programme’ children to be more efficient, more agreeable and higher achieving? More than that, could we programme them to be better citizens, unquestioning and less rebellious?

Just think, we could take the most desirable character traits and, through education, implant them into school children. It doesn’t matter that psychologists can’t really agree on whether there are 3, 5 or even 16 personality dimensions just as long as we have the ones that society deems most useful. If the programming doesn’t take first time then we can just send them back for reprogramming.

Creating the perfect child would be easy.

We need them to be resilient and gritty (because we’re all agreed on what that means, right?); we want them to be honest and kind (OK, I know that lying is an important part of the developmental process but lets pretend we don’t know that); we also need them to be good citizens and never question government policy or the mainstream media (that will prevent them from becoming radicalised); oh, and we need them to read the Daily Mail so that they can get a fair and honest view of what’s important in the world. It might also be useful if we convince them that there’s a terrorist under every bed (or in the wardrobe – either will do) oh, and the fear of veils – easily done with a bit of classical conditioning (it’s worked pretty well for the PM).

Finally, the ability to sit through an entire film without talking and without making annoying noises with packets of sweets.

What if these traits aren’t suited to certain roles in society?

OK, so we might have to re-programme some with less desirable traits: Surgeons and CEO’s score highly on tests used to identify psychopaths so we might have to allow some of the children to torture small furry animals (we’ll leave that to the biology teachers). But what about other occupations? We still need manual labourers and they might require slightly different traits.

Oh, this is getting complicated.

It might be easier all round if we do away with natural human reproduction, we can then just grow the children in vats and programme them in batches. They can be raised in special units because parents don’t know how to raise kids anyway!

Perhaps we could even do away with names (because kids have silly names these days) and just use the Greek alphabet.


The Up Side Of Being Down

Let’s be honest, sometimes there is nothing worse than having to be around happy people, especially if those people insist on telling us to ‘cheer up’ or (god forbid) to ‘turn that frown upside-down’ (and please don’t tell me how many muscles it takes to frown).

Despite some suggestions that happy children learn more effectively, the evidence remains pretty weak. Emotions are more complex and we can rarely apply such simple rules. Emotions ebb and flow and teenagers are especially prone to seemingly irrational emotional explosions and deep dark troughs of despair. While depression is often debilitating and should be identified early and treated appropriately, bouts of ‘low mood’ are rarely damaging and often fleeting.

I therefore dedicate this short post to those out there who revel in their occasional bouts of miserableness and offer some interesting trivia about this highly misunderstood emotion.

[Disclaimer: Some of the studies quoted aren’t that convincing but, then again, neither are the majority of those espousing the cognitive benefits of happiness]

1. Happy People Are Lazy Thinkers.

Happy people tend to rely on superficial strategies in order to collect information from the outside world and are more likely to employ stereotypes than their unhappy counterparts.

Christian Unkelbach conducted an experiment using a ‘shoot ‘em up’ computer game where participants were told to shoot characters carrying guns. The interesting part of the experiment was that some of the characters were wearing turbans (displaying the stereotypical image of Muslim). Happy people were more likely to shoot the characters wearing turbans (even if they were unarmed) than less happy individuals. Apart from revealing some very sad truths about the destructive nature of stereotyping, the so-called ‘Turban Effect’ also suggests that people who display higher levels of positive affect are less likely too judge the situation in any real depth, unconsciously choosing instead to activate stereotypes stored in long-term memory, fuelled by current events and media representations.

2. Sadness Enhances Memory.

Research conducted by Elizabeth Kensinger, a psychology professor at Boston College, discovered that negative life events are remembered better than positive ones, suggesting that negative affect actually enhances memory. Joseph Forgas, a psychologist at the University of New South Wales, asked people to recall items they had seen in a shop. In the first condition the task was carried out on one of those grey rainy days when most of us feel a little bit down and perhaps even in a bit of a bad mood. In the second condition, and in an identical situation, the task was carried out on a bright sunny day. Forgas found that the rainy day condition resulted in a larger recall tally and that memories for items were in much greater detail than the same task carried out on a sunny day. The suggestion is that while positive mood impairs memory, negative affect somehow enhances it. Convinced? No, me neither. Perhaps the participants in the second condition were just eager to get out into the sun and enjoy the good weather, impairing their attention and making them impatient?

3. Sad People Are Less Influenced By Misleading Information.

Participants were shown a photograph of either a car crash or a wedding. Later on the same participants were asked to recall either a happy memory or a sad memory from their past in order to shift their mood into either negative or positive affect. They were then asked a series of questions about the photographs, including some misleading information (for example, asking about an object that didn’t appear in the photograph). It was discovered that those participants who had recalled a negative memory from their past (the negative-affect group) were better able to recall the original details and were much less likely to be influenced by the misleading information. Participants in the positive-affect group, on the other hand, were much more likely to recall details that had been contaminated with the false information.

4. Sad People Are More Motivated.

The problem with happiness is that it makes us too comfortable; we strive for it and (some of us) eventually reach our destination only to find that it’s so damn good that we want things to stay exactly how they are. Becoming settled in the status quo means that there is little motivation to move on, in fact, moving on might lead to less happiness. Sad people, on the other hand, have something to strive for and aim towards: that small but personally significant achievement that lifts the spirit for a moment, filling us with good vibes and a more acute feeling of self-worth. Happy people have no real need to deal with challenge in their environment while those with a more negative mood are more motivated to challenge themselves and push for change in order to lift their mood.

In another study conducted by Forgas, participants watched either a happy film or sad film and were then given a demanding cognitive task to complete. The task included a number of questions that had no time limit, so participants could spend as long on them as they wished. They were then assessed on total time spent on the questions, the number of correct answers and the number of questions attempted. Those participants who watched the happy film (let’s call them the ‘happy group’) spent less time on the questions, attempted fewer questions and received a lower score than the ‘sad group’. It seems that people are less motivated to exert effort if they are already experiencing a positive mood, those with a more negative mood, however, have more to gain from persevering in terms of elevating their negative affect.

So next time you’re in a low mood and that annoyingly bubbly person invades your precious space in an attempt to cheer you up, remember that you brain is working more productively than a head full of fairies and unicorns.

Promoting ‘Extrovert Traits’ will only Marginalise Introverted Pupils.

I felt compelled to respond to the nonsense that I woke up to this morning, so this post has been rather hastily put together and does get a bit ranty!

The latest report from the Sutton Trust, ‘A Winning Personality’ (using data from the BBC’s Big Personality Test) has found that those individuals who display personality traits associated with extroversion are more likely to come from privileged backgrounds and be in higher earning occupations. The suggestion is that if we ‘teach’ these traits we can somehow mitigate the impact of social deprivation.

(For the moment we’ll put to one side the radical idea that working harder to reduce social deprivation might be a more practical idea. We’ll also put to one side the argument that those from privileged backgrounds have a number of advantages over the rest of us that don’t involve personality. We’ll also put to one side the criticisms of the Big 5 theory of personality and personality theory in general. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the whole cause-effect-correlation-causation argument).

Now, I’ll admit that I haven’t had the opportunity to read the report yet so feel free to attack me in the comments (or if you prefer to attack me on Twitter, use my Twitter handle so I can at least respond or call in the cavalry).

First, a confession: I’m an introvert (more specifically I’m an INFP if you’re into that sort of witchcraft). I display classic introvert traits so in the language of personality theory I have this big label that tells me I’m an introvert. That’s fine; I don’t feel marginalised or oppressed just because there are people around me with bigger, bolder personalities. I listen rather than talk; I rarely (if ever) try to be the centre of attention; I’m not good at working in groups (unless I know the people first) and, although I do like to socialise, I’m more than content by myself or with small groups of close friends (I’m very low maintenance at dinner parties).

Does this make me a bad person?

Does this make me dysfunctional person?

Is this a fatal error in my personality that requires fixing?

These are the thoughts that ran through my mind when I read the different media reports this morning. I’m comfortable in my own skin, but that feeling comes with age. When I was a child I hated being called shy, with all its negative connotations. I hated it when people said that I needed to be ‘brought out of my shell’ (I like my shell – it’s warm and cosy in here). I tried at times to be more of an extrovert but the task was exhausting and trying to be somebody you’re not really does take its toll.

Young people often feel marginalised for many different reasons and being a teenager is fraught with the complex task of self-building. Adding personality to the mix is simply making a complex situation even more so and suggesting that a child can have the wrong personality will simply marginalise those who are unable to conform to the extrovert ideal. Teaching extrovert traits is unlikely to work anyway. The most likely outcome is compliance (pretending to be an extrovert) rather than internalisation (actually becoming an extrovert) and we know how damaging it can be to pretend to be something you’re not. I could begin a rant about character education here but I’ll leave that for another time.

How can we tell young people to ‘be themselves’ while at the same time suggesting that their personality is in someway defective?

And why do we always use earnings as a measure of success anyway? Surely there are many ways to be successful?

I’m hoping that this whole idea will just fade away but, then again, there are plenty of equally bad ideas in education that seem to be sticking around much longer than they deserve to.

5 Books

There are a few book lists out at the moment. This isn’t a you must read list like some of the others out there, but rather a list of just 5 books that I have found to be both interesting and informative (I’ll leave it up to the intelligence of the reader to decide how useful they are).

Fifteen Thousand Hours

Michael Rutter, Barbara Maughan, Peter Mortimore, Janet Ouston (1979; 1994)

I thought I’d begin with the oldest. This classic text from the UK’s first ever Professor of child psychiatry, Sir Michael Rutter, was first published in 1979 (I picked up a second-hand 1994 edition for a very reasonable price) but still packs a punch in terms of its astonishing research credentials.

The title represents the average number of hour’s children spent in school at the time and followed the progress of over 2000 pupils from twelve secondary schools in inner London throughout their entire secondary education. The study collected data from areas including attendance, exam results, behaviour in school and ‘delinquency’ outside school, identifying patterns of progress that could be viewed from a longitudinal perspective and compared between schools and between different groups of pupils within schools.

While many of the schools served areas of chronic disadvantage, the study highlighted how many served as a positive influence on pupils in terms of their development, thus proving an environment that was capable of nurturing resilience and longer-term academic success.

This is a fascinating read and as relevant today as it was at the time of its first publication.

Self-theories (Essays in Social Psychology)

Carol S. Dweck (2000)

Before ‘Mindsets’ there was ‘Self-Theories’, documenting in detail the studies that led to Dweck’s influential take on implicit theories of intelligence. Although the theory has taken a bit of pasting recently (most notably from Dweck herself), going back to the original research will hopefully allow educators to view it in a more favourable light.

The Learning Brain

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Uta Frith (2005)

Blakemore’s work into the teenage brain has moved on considerably since the publication of The Learning Brain but it still provides fascinating insights into the often-unfathomable world of neuroscience. Along with Uta Frith, a veritable giant of developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience, Blakemore has produced a highly readable account of a highly complex subject. With chapters on literacy, numeracy and the complexities of learning and memory, the authors discuss how the brain attempts to make sense of the learning environment.

However, don’t expect too many concrete answers; neuroscience is a developing discipline and we still know very little about how to successfully apply the research to the classroom, despite what some might claim.

Making Minds

Paul Kelley (2008)

Paul Kelley was doing evidence informed education long before it became fashionable. As head teacher at Monkseaton High School, Kelley partnered up with neuroscientist Russell Foster in an attempt to disseminate the latest research findings and try to implement them at Monkseaton.

From later start times in order to accommodate teenagers circadian rhythms and the use of ‘spaced-learning’ to embed knowledge, to architectural design and the use of technology, Kelley turned his school into a laboratory in order to test the findings from the latest research, despite considerable opposition at times.

Making Minds represents Kelley’s vision of a system based on evidence and free from the shackles of government interference. Agree with him or not, he remains one of the early pioneers of a movement that has been gaining ground ever since.

Building Classroom Success: Eliminating Academic Fear and Failure

Andrew Martin (2010)

Martin is Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of New South Wales, a prolific researcher and responsible (along with Herbert Marsh) with coining the term ‘academic buoyancy’.

Building Classroom Success looks at the construct known as academic self-concept and how students’ desire to avoid failure is deeply rooted in the way in which they view themselves as learners. With a wealth of practical information from destructive self-handicapping to using personal best goals to enhance motivation, this is the only book on my list that doesn’t include details of research, even though everything in it is based on Martin’s own extensive research catalogue.

Should Teachers Be ‘Psychologically Literate’?

A few years ago I reviewed ‘The Psychologically Literate Citizen’ for The Psychologist (the monthly publication of the British Psychological Society). In part I wrote:

“The editors of this interesting work have gathered together a diverse collection of articles by international researchers and writers in to examine the question of what must be taught to our students in order to ensure they are psychologically literate. By bringing a global perspective to the problem, they have produced a rather fascinating picture of where psychology currently stands and how it could move forward under a common vision”.

At the time, the phrase ‘Psychologically Literate’ was one I was only vaguely familiar with, however, about a year later I was involved in a BPS working group into the future of A-level Psychology where the phrase was used again.

This got me thinking about the extent to which teachers need to be psychologically literate and what psychological knowledge (if any) teachers would benefit from. Many teacher-bloggers are fast becoming amateur cognitive psychologists and I’ve read some great blog posts on topics that have been my bread and butter for the best part of two decades, so much so in fact that I refrain from blogging about many of these topics myself.

The majority of people become psychologically literate through academic study. The British Psychological Society retains what is known as a ‘watching brief’ over A-level Psychology (they advise but have no real input) whereas the majority of undergraduate psychology degrees are BPS accredited, meaning that they provide the foundation for graduates to work towards chartered status (the BPS hold the Royal Charter and therefore remain the only organisation that can award ‘Chartered Psychologist’ status – although the title ‘Psychologist’ remains unprotected). Undergraduate degrees in Psychology, therefore, need to include certain components deemed necessary by the BPS for psychological literacy.

Many teachers are psychologically aware, at least in terms of cognitive psychology (if you’ve read Dan Willingham’s ‘Why Don’t Students Like School’ you’ll have a basic grounding in cognitive psychology). However, psychology is much more than cognition and there is always the danger that it will take precedent over other possible fruitful areas such as developmental, behavioural, social and the complex interplay between cognition and emotion.

To be psychologically literate is also to be research literate, and again many teachers are becoming more skilled at spotting the weaknesses in educational and psychological research.

For example, many research studies into memory:

  • Are conducted using undergraduate psychology students (even though many published papers omit this and other details), leading to the possibility that participants will second guess the nature of the study and alter their behaviour accordingly.
  • Are carried out in highly controlled and artificial environments (thus lowering the chance that any results can be applied to real-world situations such as classrooms).
  • Look for general rules, thereby downplaying or ignoring individual differences.

There are ways of mitigating these problems, for example psychologists have used case studies of individuals whose memory has been impaired through disease or brain damage. While case studies provide incredibly detailed and rich data (much more so than laboratory experiments) they concern themselves with a single individual so cannot reach general conclusions.

While many teacher-bloggers are well aware of these and other problems, others lack the psychological literacy (and often the research literacy) to successfully critically evaluate many research studies. There is much more to critical analysis than sample size and at times the study may in fact warrant a smaller number of participants. One example might be a longitudinal study using a method such as experience sampling, which can produce huge data sets with a much lower number of participants. In this case, the researcher might be looking for variations at multiple time points rather than at two time points or between groups.

The possible danger here is that we employ strategies that looked great in the controlled conditions of the laboratory but simply don’t work in the classroom (or don’t work for the majority of students) and we start to kid ourselves that it works because that’s what this study or that study tells us.

I’m still pondering over whether teachers should be psychologically literate at all. If we conclude that they should be, then what do they need to know in order to make them so? If we conclude that there is no need, then should they refrain from employing psychological techniques in the classroom?

I’ll Do It Tomorrow… A Life Of Procrastination.

“Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”  – Mark Twain.

I’m a dreadful procrastinator, so on the first day of the New Year I have decided to sit down and write about procrastination in a vain attempt to cure myself of this damaging affliction (to be honest, I’ve been intending to write this post for a while).

It turns out that procrastination is a highly complex human behaviour with a number of possible causes, including:

  • Fear of failure
  • Perfectionism
  • Low levels of self-control
  • The inability to break things down into smaller parts (more on this later)
  • A tendency towards boredom
  • The feeling that life is just too short to worried about that kind of stuff

Whatever the cause, procrastination affects people in different ways and for me it’s a constant source of anxiety – this might sound odd, but as I said earlier, procrastination is highly complex human behaviour.

Just 5 minutes.

What I have found is that once I start a task I’m more likely to finish it whereas putting off the start either means it can take months or (more often) never gets done at all. According to the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the prospect of starting any activity can cause a certain amount of anxiety (perhaps related to some of the causes mentioned previously) but once the activity is completed we experience a sense of closure and our mind, once again, begins to relax. It’s most likely the case that procrastination is the result of viewing the activity as something we are unable to cope with and the first step to overcoming this feeling is to simply start the activity.

Once we begin an activity there is a sense that it needs to be completed; that we need to experience that closure and because of this need, our desire to complete increases. You might only intend to spend five minutes on the activity, but once you start the chances are that you will complete it.

The way we categorise time.

There is a tendency for us to categorise time as either ‘present’ or ‘future’ and this can have a very interesting impact on how we deal with goals and objectives.

If a deadline is in the present (e.g. this needs to be done by 3pm today) we tend to start the task immediately. However, if the deadline is further away we think of it in terms of the future and mentally place it into the ‘someday’ box.

Research has found that the way we categorise time is both inaccurate and illogical. For example, if a deadline crosses a calendar year we tend to place the activity in the ‘future’ category and put it off until later. However, when the deadline is within the same calendar year we place it into the ‘present’ category – even if the time given to complete the activity is the same, so if you have a three month deadline that ends in January you are less likely to complete the activity than if the three month deadline ended in November.

In a similar way, setting a deadline that exceeds seven days places the time for completion into the future (following week) category while keeping it within a seven day period places the activity into the present.

Change the way you categorise time.

  1. Chunk your tasks: Often we view tasks as just too big so we place them into the ‘future’ category. Breaking goals down into more manageable chunks ensures that they stay ‘present’ with a higher likelihood that they will get done.
  2. Create target deadlines: Set time limits within the present, even if the ultimate goal lies in the future.
  3. Immediate behavioural change: Create positive habits such as ‘I will write for thirty minutes every day’ and set yourself a specific time if you can (e.g. ‘I will go for a run every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 5pm’). It’s amazing how quickly you feel compelled to complete the task once you’ve set a day and a time.

I’m going to try out these strategies and see if I can be more productive in 2016. This isn’t a New Year’s resolution because I don’t do those and is more about necessity that desire.

I WILL keep you posted on how it all goes…

In the meantime, the following books might prove useful:

Piers Steele The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done
Richard Wiseman 59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot