Author Archives: Marc

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.

attstyle

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’.