Author Archives: Marc

Site News

In preparation for the new year, I am in the process of migrating this blog to a new site, The Emotional Learner.

As a result, I won’t be updating here but will continue to publish a variety of articles on the new site.

Thank you for your continued support of Psych(ed) and I hope to see you soon over at The Emotional Learner.



Some Thoughts On Breaking The Rules

I don’t write much about classroom behaviour, or rather, I don’t write much explicitly about classroom behaviour. In fact, this post is more about behaviour in general, with some comments on behaviour in schools, so please don’t assume that I’m setting myself up as a behaviour guru (there are far too many of those already).

I suppose I’m more interested in why people break rules than thinking up ways to make them obey rules. This might seem like a topsy-turvy way to approach it, but then, I’m a psychologist and my brain has an annoying habit of working in a topsy-turvy and often chaotic way (as anyone who’s seen me present at a teaching event will know).

On the surface, controlling people’s behaviour seems fairly simple: produce a set of guidelines for acceptable behaviour, punish those who break the rules and (in some cases) reward those who follow them. The punishments (let’s call them sanctions because it sounds more pleasant) will prevent people from breaking the rules, so, if we execute people for committing murder, nobody will murder, right? Okay, that was perhaps a slightly extreme and somewhat silly example, but hopefully, you get my point.

And the point is that some people will still break the rules despite the sanctions – this is the bit that interests me. We can relate such behaviour to society as a whole or micro-environments such as schools or individual classrooms, but ultimately the end results are the same – some break rules, others don’t, most fall somewhere in the middle.

We can explain such behaviour in simple classical behaviourists terms. If every time you speak, I hit you with a big stick you will either a) stop speaking or b) develop a very nasty tick every time you speak (in anticipation of being hit with a big stick). Please bear in mind that this in no way implies that I believe in controlling behaviour by hitting people with big sticks – I just want to make that point perfectly clear.

We could take a more operant approach. Offering rewards for good behaviour and sanctions for bad might work better. Indeed, research has found that rewarding good behaviour can, in some cases, be more productive than punishing bad behaviour. This is all well and good, so long as rewards are used strategically and not offered on a whim. One school I worked at used a system of Positive Discipline where pupils would get stamps in their planners for good behaviour (many schools operate a similar system). However, management decreed that stamps should be awarded for simply turning up to the lesson, undermining the whole concept.

Of course, there are more sophisticated approaches to human behaviour. Bandura’s Social Learning Theory suggests that we learn by observing how others are rewarded or punished; Robert Cialdini suggests that we take cues from others, so if we are unsure of the correct behaviour, we look around and see what others are doing first (so-called Social Proof Theory). This is most apparent in the case of pluralistic ignorance, where, faced with a potential emergency, we first take our cue from those around us. Do they think it’s an emergency? If not, we won’t do anything to help (like phone the fire brigade).

Indeed, Cialdini believes others play a major role in shaping a person’s behaviour through a number of concepts including reciprocity, consistency, liking and authority.

Obedience to authority has been tested consistently since Milgram’s early and now infamous work. What we often fail to realise, however, is that obedience has also been found to be both culturally and historically influenced (Milgram’s original findings were most likely influenced by the Communist witch hunts that the US was still recovering from at the time). Also, rates of obedience fell when the experiment was transferred from the hallowed halls of Yale University to an old office block downtown – so the environment plays a role.

What is interesting about the Milgram experiments (to me anyway) are the reasons why some people disobeyed the instructions of the authority figure while the majority continued to carry out an act they found morally repugnant.

The most plausible explanation is a psychological concept known as reactance, first proposed by Jack Brehm in his 1966 book A theory of psychological reactance. Reactance theory suggests that when we feel that our freedoms are in some being infringed upon, we react with hostility – telling us not to do something compels us to do it. This might go some way to explaining why authoritarian practices are ultimately unsustainable. For example, studies have linked rigid, authoritarian parenting styles to everything from depression and obesity to drug addiction and academic underachievement.

When people are given choices (or, at least, the illusion of choice) they feel more in control of their actions. Of course, our choices will always be limited by societal norms, pressures and rules. We can see this at a micro-level where motivation levels increase in classrooms where teachers are autonomy-supportive (a building block of Ryan and Deci’s Self-determination theory) but also in less authoritarian nations with lower crime rates and higher quality of life.

The suggestion often made that punishments or sanctions work is simply inaccurate and assumes that human beings are simple stimulus-response machines, a view that was overturned in psychology decades ago. Certainly, our behaviour can be easily manipulated by those who know how to manipulate us (you never get a good deal on a used car, no matter how much you believe the salesperson), but at least we feel that we have a choice in buying the car in the first place.

Surely the answer to the behaviour problem in more multifaceted than some would have us believe. It should certainly not be guided by ideology or politics, but by a critical and balanced review of the evidence. Sanctions and rewards are useful, but also is imbuing people with a sense of autonomy and purpose, of cultivating the individual and allowing voices to be heard.

Are We Taking Mental Health In Schools Seriously?

Mental health is a serious issue, both in schools and in wider society. Despite this seriousness, however, economic austerity has led to reductions in mental health provision, the consequences of which might take some time to become fully apparent.

The mental health of our children is part of both the general concern and an area that is deeply intertwined with other factors including, it has been argued, the nature of high stakes exams that place greater pressure on young people. Others claim that the issue of children’s declining mental health has been over-hyped; that so-called concept creep has led to normal human behaviours being associated with mental health problems.

We could also argue that the gradual lifting of mental health stigma has encouraged young people to speak out when previously they would have remained silent. What these positions contest to is that the whole issue surrounding mental health is a complex one and, like any complex issue, people will hold many opinions. Nevertheless, there does appear to be some evidence suggesting a link between mental health and school exclusions, indicating that schools are still unable to deal successfully with complex behavioural issues.

Those who support the view that a mental health crisis exists in our school have proposed a number of solutions, from mental health first aiders to the latest intervention where the ‘best’ teachers will be trained as mental health experts.

The suggestion that these best teachers should be trained as experts in mental health sits uncomfortably with me, partly due to the vague notions of best and expert (why should the best teachers make good mental health experts?).

Psychological health and wellbeing represent a complex world of diagnosis, treatment and differing opinions of what constitutes a psychological disorder. A little under two years ago I was ‘given’ a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder when prior to this the diagnosis had always been depression. When I was a teenager I suffered from near-crippling insomnia, resulting in my first course of tranquillizers and a significant time away from school (I was thirteen at the time). There was no diagnosis to speak of, just a ten-minute conversation with my GP, who asked if there was anything troubling me. I recall replying ‘not particularly’, a response that perhaps appears dismissive, but to reply ‘actually, everything troubles me,’ would have seemed equally so.

When I was in my early teens, these feelings led me to become withdrawn, self-medicating by means of ‘zoning out’, sinking deep into daydreams, allowing my mind to wander far away from the classroom – an environment I increasingly perceived as hostile. My final couple of years at school saw a change in my behaviour, I countered the hostility by becoming hostile and, as a result, spent a great deal of time in detention or on suspension. Both strategies are maladaptive, but at the time I don’t think my teachers had any idea that such behaviours could, in some circumstances, be an indication of some deeper issue.

I could try and explain my behaviour in a number of ways; from a brain that views all situations as a threat, to the result of a childhood spent moving from one country or town to another, never settling anywhere for more than a year (during my childhood I attended seven primary schools and three secondary schools). Perhaps my behaviour lay in my genes? My Dad suffered from depression (undiagnosed for most of his life), but he would self-medicate by drinking, a behaviour that would lead to his death at the age of only fifty-seven.

My point is that our psychological wellbeing is highly complex and symptoms often contradictory. For example, I have little problem with public speaking but I have been known to suffer from anxiety attacks when the phone rings; I can stand in front of a classroom full of kids, but don’t ask me to attend a staff get-together (although I suspect I’m not alone here). Even with a background in psychology and a number of qualifications in counselling, I still wouldn’t describe myself as a mental health expert; I’d rather leave that description for those who have spent years in training, including supervision and personal therapy; people working within professional guidelines adopted by official bodies.

This final point, for me, is also a cause for concern. Any training offered to teachers will never compare to the training provided to mental health professionals. At best, teachers might be able to identify possible mental health issues and refer pupils on. Some pupils might be more comfortable approaching specific teachers, but these teachers won’t necessarily be the ones allocated the role of MH expert. What teachers do need are explicit and formal procedures for when a pupil displays or admits to having problems. Thankfully, many pupils will seek help without us; over the years I have had pupils approach me to say that they have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety and that their GP had suggested informing their teachers. I don’t know if this is standard practice (I’m not an expert) but these pupils were always sixth form students, some of whom are perhaps mature enough to identify changes in their own behaviour. Most teachers, I would suspect, have their own anecdotes and reflections on mental health, but even the best teachers must also be able to recognise when they are out of their depth.

As was pointed out to me, teachers are, of course, more than just teachers; they are musicians, physicists, chemists, athletes, administrators and even psychologists, but these roles are generally part of their much wider remit as educators, there is little chance of any conflict of interest arising. To expect teachers, even specially trained ones, to divide their time between such vital tasks, is to demean both.

And this leads me on to another concern. If the rise of mental health issues amongst young people is (at least in part) due to the pressures inherent in the current educational environment, will not mental health always play second fiddle to academic achievement? Of course, the two are linked, but I have known schools where the duties of the SENCO have come second to his or her primary role as a teacher.

While I applaud the steps many are proposing, the use of teachers to help solve the problem seems to me to be failing to take mental health seriously and failing to recognise its complexity. The use of Mental Health First Aiders (a proposal that, I think, came from Natasha Devon, the government’s children’s mental health champion until it was discovered that her views were incompatible with those of her employer) would certainly be a good start, so long as teachers understand that their role is limited. Other areas such as Coaching Psychology (a relatively new field) has also shown promise in some sectors.

As for a long term manageable solution, I have little to offer other than an overhaul of mental health provision for young people. The problem is that governments of all colours rarely think so far ahead, preferring quick fixes that lead to political point scoring rather than any real change.

I realise that this is a contentious issue and one that requires some serious joined up thinking if any real resolution is possible. Ultimately, however, it all boils down to the welfare of our children – and what could be more important than that?

Psychology and Education: It’s Good To Be Critical.

Psychology is still a very young discipline and one fraught with competing theories, multiple paradigms and methodological problems. It’s also become very popular with teachers, especially with those who are eager to understand how psychology can be used in their own practice.

This interest has led to a flurry of Edu-bloggers and Tweeters taking up the mantle of advising others on how they might go about applying psychology to their classrooms. Often, these amateur psychologists use the knowledge they have gained through reading or attending conferences to engage others and further the knowledge of others.

What I have noticed, however, is that many are so taken by what they have learned that they become uncritical of the information they have acquired. They may be approaching psychology from a cognitive perspective or from any one of the other paradigms available, without applying any kind of critical gaze. When others read these blog posts or engage in online discussion, they often assimilate the information in an equally uncritical way.

If you study psychology formally (as an undergraduate of even an A level student) criticality becomes vital. All paradigms (from Freudian Psychodynamics through to Behavioural, Cognitive, Evolutionary and everything in between) are assessed for their validity and relevance. Indeed, this criticality and understanding of competing paradigms are necessary for a Psychology degree course to be accredited by the British Psychological Society – the first step on a long road to becoming a Chartered Psychologist.

Take, for example, cognitive psychology. We can learn a great deal from studies within this paradigm, especially as it applies to education (cognitive psychology is also the current dominant paradigm). Nevertheless, studies into memory and other cognitive processes are often conducted in highly controlled artificial environments with many of the participants drawn from the psychology undergraduate population. This means that such studies suffer from both low ecological validity (results can’t necessarily be applied to the real world) and sample bias. A 2010 study found that 96 percent of participants in psychology studies represented only 12 percent of the world’s population, while others have found that a large percentage of studies rely solely on student samples (a detail that is often omitted from the published paper). This also raises concerns over the use of non-naïve participants. It’s easier for more knowledgeable participants to second guess the purpose of the study and alter their behaviour according (generally referred to as demand characterises).

Many studies don’t travel well from the laboratory to the classroom. For example, Dweck’s work on Growth Mindsets fails to support her earlier findings when they are introduced into a real world environment. However, with such a widely known theory, it remains difficult to find any genuinely naïve participants, certainly within the teaching profession.

What about genes? Surely this is proper science that can’t be disputed? The more recent discipline of behavioural genetics certainly shows promise but also prompts controversy. Much of the controversy concerns the equally controversial construct of general intelligence, or G, (measured as IQ). Statistically, there is little doubt that IQ correlates highly with a large number of positive outcomes. Children of high IQ parents are more likely to have similar IQ’s to their parents (even when raised outside the family) and studies using identical twins support the genetic link, yet the concordance rates are never 100 percent, indeed, they range from about 40 percent up to about 80 percent in some studies. It’s difficult to argue with the statistics, however, those who wholeheartedly support the genetic basis of intelligence are often also those who are highly critical of correlational studies – it’s often their first point of criticism – correlation doesn’t imply causation. Indeed, G itself is a correlation, prompting some to argue that IQ is merely a reification, something that has been made concrete even though it should only exist in abstraction.

Whether we support the existence of a genetic basis of intelligence or not (and I must admit that I don’t doubt the findings), without applying a critical gaze we are in danger of omitting important aspects.

Genes do interact with the environment through what is known as genotype-environment correlation, the view that both the environment and our individual genotype interact in different ways. These correlations can be passive (for example, low achieving/low aspiring parents will pass both their genes and their attitude to education on to their children – providing them with a home life which is educationally uninspiring). Correlations can also be evocative whereby certain behaviours are promoted through the child’s genetic predispositions. Finally, such a correlation can be active in that the child actively seeks out opportunities and challenges based on their genetic predisposition (see Plomin and Asbury for a much deeper discussion on this). Such considerations are often conspicuously absent from blog posts, perhaps as a way of supporting a personal ideology, but most likely through a lack of criticality, understanding or simply not reading widely enough.

On a superficial level, even the amateur psychologist understands that there are multiple, often competing paradigms in psychology. While learning tends to be cognitive based, behaviour management is often behaviourist in nature, differing little from the early studies of Pavlov, Watson and Skinner, where teachers are urged to keep order through simple methods of reward and punishment. The potential problem here is that we ignore the ever present social processes taking place, the kids who will endure the sanction because of the belief that they will win points from within their peer group, or emotional aspects where students employ defensive tactics as a way of coping with anxiety or other psychological problems.

Curiously, in a bid to become more critical, many teachers appear to be becoming less so, accepting what they are told by self-styled educational gurus or accepting only the evidence that supports their own view. Unfortunately, Twitter is a poor platform for wider debate and few minds have been changed in 140 characters.

The Introvert in the Classroom.

In a world full of noise the quiet ones often get left behind, their voices drowned out by the cacophony of braver, bolder and more confident children. In a culture where extroversion appears so highly valued, it is all too easy to neglect the introverts, viewing them as merely shy and in need of encouragement in order to be coaxed out of their shell. Those teachers who see introversion as something to be fixed are in danger of stifling the talents of the less vocal pupils in their class. Introverts are often more creative and think more deeply and emotively than their extrovert classmates, teachers who are able to understand the nature of introversion are more equipped to help the quiet ones to achieve and to release their full potential.

Introversion is what in known as a personality trait. Generally speaking, a trait is a habitual pattern of thought, behaviour and emotion that remains relatively stable over time. This suggests that the behaviour you see in a toddler will be equally visible in later life, although research is beginning to find that certain traits can change with growing age and maturity. Brent Roberts and Wendy Delvecchio of the University of Tulsa found that the consistency of personality increases up to the age of about 30 then stabilises between 50 and 70 (Roberts & DelVecchio, 2000). Research conducted by Avshalom Caspi found similar results (Caspi, 2000).

Caspi followed a group of children from age three up to the age of twenty-one and found that three-year-olds who were viewed as uncontrollable grew up to be impulsive, unreliable and antisocial and that those children viewed as inhibited displayed higher levels of depression, were more likely to be unassertive and had fewer sources of social support later on in life.

However, a more recent longitudinal study found no correlation between personality measures taken at 14 and again at 77 (but see Christian Jarrett’s discussion of these findings here).

Nevertheless, psychologists who study personality are in general agreement that there are five specific personality traits, imaginatively known as the Big 5 (or the Five Factor Model). Introversion doesn’t appear as a specific trait but, rather, as the undesirable opposite of extroversion. See the table below.

Brain studies have identified small but significant differences between extroverts and introverts, particularly in those regions of the brain concerned with attention. Generally speaking, while extrovert’s brains are designed to focus outwards, introverts have a tendency to focus inwards, so the child in the classroom who appears to be daydreaming is more likely to be running things through in his or her mind; weighing up possible solutions and reaching creative conclusions. It’s not all positive, however; results from eye-tracking studies have found that shyness has a negative impact on word learning in very young children.

Schools can be stressful places for many children but introverted children appear to be more affected by busy, noisy classrooms than those children displaying more extroverted personality traits. For an introverted child, the classroom provokes anxiety and social encounters can prove exhausting. Introverts are not anti-social, despite often appearing as such; rather, they are over-vigilant, resulting in a tendency to approach new people, places and events with extreme caution. Meeting new children for the first time or being placed in a group with unfamiliar faces can cause anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed, ultimately resulting in further withdrawal. Novel situations are often approached cautiously, sometimes leading to the child appearing as if disengaged. Even though introversion doesn’t necessarily reflect lack of confidence, teachers and other education professions can help those introverted children to achieve without trying to turn them into extroverts – a strategy that will ultimately fail.

The sensitive nature of introverts often means that their self-esteem is more fragile; unfortunately they are also better skilled at picking up cues related to disapproval, such as a frustrated sigh, an angry facial expression or subtle criticism, resulting in further withdrawal. The introverted child might also react badly to being labelled as ‘shy’, with all its negative connotations – the introvert is fully aware that introversion is in no way synonymous with shyness.

Certain classroom techniques that involve children working in groups can be a nightmare for introverted children; furthermore, they gain less from such strategies than more extroverted pupils. Introverts prefer to be one of the early guests at any party and become anxious when forced to join a pre-existing group.

Pair work is therefore preferable in the early stages; pairs can be joined later to form larger groups, so that less dominant voices can get a chance to be heard and grow in confidence.

Helping introverted children to cope with novel situations will eventually lead to fewer anxious reactions to new environments. Children new to your class or school will want to understand the rules as well as the practical elements of their surroundings, such where the toilets are; they will try and work these things out for themselves (because that’s what introverts do) but by making them explicitly clear there’s less for them to worry about.

The existence of introversion (like any personality trait) is somewhat of a contested issue, with some denying the very existence of personality traits outright. The discussion perhaps really lies with the consistency and stability of these traits, for example, people display certain traits in specific situations (children might be introverts in the classroom but livewires in the playground when they are with their friends). Additionally, teenagers are often reluctant to speak out in lessons, which can create the impression of introversion. However, teenagers might be risk-takers in some environments and not in others (they don’t tend to take risks in the classroom and speaking out or attempting to ask and answer questions is viewed as taking a risk to many teens).

Nevertheless, those students who do display behaviour related to introversion, can benefit from a slightly different approach than those who appear more lively.

Have the Right Hijacked Teaching?

I read with interest Daisy Norfolk’s recent blog post Tiger Teachers or simply the Fearsome Far-Right? in which she likens some elements of the teacher Twitterati to Nigel Farage and the rise of the far-right. Norfolk is a vocal critic of some of the more influential voices who cut their teeth in the Twittersphere and rapidly branched out into the real world. Vehemently opposed to the authoritarian methods employed by Michaela Community School, a London free school, Norfolk appears to have become even more critical following the publication of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way, edited by headteacher Katharine Birbalsingh and including chapters written by staff at the school. The school (and the promotional book) have been lauded by many of the influential teacher folk on Twitter.

The claim Norfolk makes is that support for Michaela and the growth of far-right ideology amongst the more vocal teachers on Twitter, is comparable with the rise of right-wing sentiment in the UK and the wider landscape. This is certainly a interesting suggestion, and one that perhaps warrants further investigation.

I must confess to having not read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers, nor have I visited Michaela Community School, so I’ll try to avoid criticism of either. The only caveat, perhaps, is to comment on the title of the book, which early on struck me as controversial in its own right. The title is obviously taken from Amy Chua’s equally controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, espousing the authoritarian parenting style adopted by many parents in parts of East, South and Southeast Asia. Tiger mothering has been found to be beneficial for academic and professional success but damaging for mental health. For example, children raised in such a way are more likely to suffer from depression and addiction later in life and have higher rates of suicide. However, not all suffer and many flourish. Children respond in different ways to different parenting styles – I suspect this would be the same where teaching is concerned (but that’s an extrapolation of what we understand from parenting studies, not from teaching). My personal opinion would be that the title was chosen in order to be controversial and controversy is a good promotional tool.

But does an authoritarian ideology make you an agent of the far-right? Furthermore, can we equate this to the rise of Farage, Le Pen, Wilders and their fascist chums? The work of Theodore Adorno would certainly suggest that we can. Adorno proposed the idea of an authoritarian personality, characterised by the tendency towards hostility, dislike of lower status individuals, the need to control others and a rigid and inflexible belief system. He measured this using what he called the F-Scale (F for fascist). People develop an authoritarian personality, he claimed, partly by being raised by authoritarian parents.

Adorno’s theory of authoritarian personality is flawed on a number of levels, but does raise a number of interesting questions. The most recent and the most comprehensive analysis of the EU referendum result published by NatCen points to a country not divided by left versus right but by liberal versus authoritarian, in an adoption of the so-called culture wars that developed in the United States in the early 2000’s and has culminated in the election of Donald Trump (a battle based on identify and values rather than political allegiance).

Authoritarianism is, of course, a poor solution in the long term. Such regimes lack staying power because people don’t like their freedom to be undermined. David Cameron telling people to vote remain will have led some undecided voters to do the opposite because they wanted the freedom to make their own decisions (a psychological phenomenon known as reactance). The more authoritarian the approach, the bigger the backlash.

Societal differences are often played out on social media and I think Twitter is perhaps the best example. The authoritarian voice appears much louder than the liberal voice on Twitter and I don’t really know why this is the case; perhaps authoritarians are just more attracted to Twitter? It would also appear to me that those teachers labelling themselves as traditionalist are more likely to adhere to authoritarian values than so-called progressives. The added problem is that Twitter, while great for sharing ideas, is a poor platform for debate (140 characters just isn’t enough) and often results in ridicule and ritualised humiliation of the individual who dares to oppose the more powerful voices (many of us have been on both sides of this at one time or another and I’ll admit to tweeting nasty things in order to feel like one of the gang). An added complication is that some appear to use Twitter for self-promotion or to gain favour from the more influential teachers and semi-teachers (I have known some leave Twitter both permanently and temporarily for this reason). Farage is a chancer, a political opportunist, and there are many like him on Twitter.

I feel Norfolk’s anger and frustration. I venture onto Twitter with much more trepidation and caution than I once did – I must have a thin skin. The problem with this is that Twitter rapidly becomes nothing more than an echo chamber for the back-slapping brigade and the self-promotion clan and any kind of useful debate dies out completely. Of course, very few teachers use Twitter and I suspect few have heard of Michaela Community School, so in the end, the echo chamber is quite small with little real influence.

I suspect this situation, like European fascism, will run its course.

But that’s a very liberal way to look at things.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.