Category Archives: Education

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.

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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.

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’.

Self-determination in the Classroom.

boredstudent

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

The need for competence:

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

The need for relatedness:

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

The need for autonomy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feel the FEAR!

peanutbutterI haven’t commented much on the whole ‘child mental health’ crisis thing, neither have I said anything about parents keeping their kids off school due the ‘stress’ caused by standardised testing. To be honest I’m fairly agnostic about the whole situation plus I’m certainly not experienced enough in mental health to make any judgements (I leave that to those who are equally inexperienced but more vocal in their gibberish).

Despite this I do have a few observations knocking around in by brain that are fairly desperate to escape, so by way of relieving myself of these burdensome gremlins I’ve decided to break my silence and try and write some kind commentary, a kind of outpouring of gunk.

1. Anxiety is real and it’s not the same as getting worried or nervous.

I get nervous when I have to sit an exam, attend an interview or give a presentation. Being nervous doesn’t even compare to when I’m in the throes of proper anxiety; exams and interviews don’t cause these episodes, in fact they’re often caused by an accumulation of little things.

Anxiety can be caused by anything and anxiety disorders can relate to anything from dogs to getting peanut butter stuck to the roof of ones mouth (it’s called  arachibutyrophobia) – phobias are anxiety disorders (as are conditions such as OCD). They are irrational and illogical but that doesn’t make them any less terrifying. Someone (I honestly can’t recall who) tweeted some time ago asking if maths anxiety is just anxiety. Well, of course it is, but often anxieties are directed towards a certain thing – this is what makes them phobias if they’re extreme enough.

There is, therefore, no reason why people can’t be test or exam phobic (or at least test anxious). The question is more about how many young people actually suffer from it – my guess would be very few; they are mistaking being nervous with being anxious and therefore stressed (‘stress’ seems to be used as catch all these days). This makes it incredibly difficult to separate those in desperate need of help and those who are actually just a bit worried.

2. Who is stressed: Child, Teacher or Parent?

This questions has really been bouncing around my head of late. I recall asking my son if he was nervous about his year 6 SAT’s a few year ago. We hadn’t really discussed SAT’s but I was aware of other parents getting all worked up and worrying that their kids were suffering from stress (while at the same time insisting that they practice, practice, practice). My own son was pretty chilled but did think that his teacher was stressed out. My strategy (basically ignoring the whole thing) seemed to work – he did incredibly well in his SAT’s but, please, don’t take parenting advice from me – it will only end in tears.

We all want the best for our kids and we want to protect them as much as we can. I can’t help thinking, however, that we often transfer our own anxieties on to them – maybe there’s a parent mental health crisis – our desire to protect is negatively impacting on the wellbeing of our children.

3. Schools don’t really know how to deal with anxiety.

The last school I worked at would allow anxious students to sit their exams in small groups and away from the main exam hall (I’m not sure if they still do this). Each year the small groups got bigger. From a psychological perspective this strategy makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, especially as many of the students were unable to identify what it was about the exam that triggered their anxiety (and I suspect, in many circumstances, students were mistaking nerves for anxiety). Other schools might use relaxation training or mindfulness but I have my doubts about both as universally appropriate.

Ironically, one strategy that will probably work is to test more (not less). One of the problems with exams is that they represent an unusual situation and, generally speaking, human beings are never that keen on rarely experienced situations. Regular low stakes testing is not only good for the memory but it should also work for test anxiety by normalising the test environment. In psychological terms this is known as the FEAR (Face Everything And Recover) strategy – make low stakes testing the daily norm and gradually raise the stakes. High stakes testing is here to stay so we’re better off dealing with that rather than engaging in a fruitless attempt to get rid of it.

(There are other useful strategies but I’m not going to list them now).

Finally, human beings are pretty resilient – let’s face it, we’ve survived this long against the odds. If there is a child mental health crisis it’s only because incidents of psychological distress have increased world-wide and across all age groups – just because big humans act in a certain way it doesn’t mean little humans shouldn’t. You can accuse Big Pharma of wanting to medicate the planet but I would rather think that it’s to do with the normalisation of abnormal behaviour and better diagnosis of mental illness than a global conspiracy.

As I said, just some thoughts. Feel free to disagree and I’ll feel free to ignore you. I’ll leave you with my quote of the day from Tim O’Brien:

When someone feels overwhelmed or engulfed by life’s challenges a kind word or an act of kindness from others will travel a long way.

Some fairly interesting stuff about boredom.

“Boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself.”

~ Søren Kierkegaard

Coworkers Getting BoredSome philosophers have much to say about boredom. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer didn’t really think much of it; “…for every human life,” he wrote in 1818, “is tossed backwards and forwards between pain and boredom”. Schopenhauer saw boredom as suffering, a reminder of the ultimate meaningless of human existence. To be fair to the gloomy Arthur, I have spent many hours of my life sat in meetings, pondering the meaning of life and reminding myself that with every tick of the clock I am one second closer to death. I think I have a propensity towards boredom, or at least a malfunctioning attention system (having checked my emails once and Twitter twice since I began writing this paragraph). Perhaps, as Kierkegaard suggests, I’m just refusing to be myself; sitting in mind-numbing meetings rather than getting up and leaving (which is usually what I really want to do). Many of us find boredom almost physically painful and even when we are engaged in an activity our minds begin to wander. We daydream; we ‘zone out’ and we flit from one activity to another. If, as adults, we find it painful to sit through meaningless meetings and as teachers we begin to nod off during a presentation on training day, then should we be critical of our pupils when they behave in a similar way? Should we make lessons lively and entertaining in order to ‘engage’? Furthermore, do we really understand the reasons why pupils get bored in the first place?

Organisational Psychologist Cynthia Fisher describes boredom as:

“an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a persuasive lack of interest and difficulty concentrating on the current activity”,

while psychologist Mark Leary offers a more concise definition:

“an affective experience associated with cognitive attentional processes”.

Both these definitions adequately describe my feelings of being bored, but suggest little about the motivational aspects of boredom – in that when I’m bored I feel a desire to escape the boredom by doing something (even if I don’t do anything) and the near tangible pain it appears to cause me. I recall sitting in a meeting that was scheduled to last one hour even though there wasn’t enough content to keep anyone there for that long (in fact I recall sitting in a great many meetings like this). As the seconds ticked by my mind began to wonder, resting upon all the work I had to do and becoming more and more anxious at the realisation that I was wasting valuable time. I doodled in my planner, checked my phone several times, closed my eyes for a few moments, I looked at my watch, the clock on the wall and the watch on the wrist of the person seated next to me. I could feel my heart rate quickening and palms becoming clammy as the stress response began to kick in – my pain was real; I was bored to the point of anxiety, I wanted to escape but protocol decreed that the meeting must last one hour, no more and no less. In fact, boredom can even cause us to inflict pain on ourselves. In a recent study Chantal Nederkoorn and her colleagues actually found that people would inflict painful electric shocks on themselves in order to relieve the symptoms of boredom. While I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a meeting that has inflicted so much psychological pain on me that I would want to inflict physical pain on myself, I’ve never had the equipment to do so. Perhaps I would given the opportunity.

Reinhard Pekrun feels my pain. The University of Munich psychologist defines boredom as:

“an affective state composed of unpleasant feelings, lack of stimulation and low physiological arousal.”

This pretty much sums up my experience although I would suggest that, at times, my arousal is high (I want to get out of that meeting!). Pekrun’s interest in boredom is also a little different from Fisher and Leary in that Pekrun is specifically interested in how boredom manifests itself in the classroom settings. Boredom, and people’s propensity towards it, has been linked to academic underachievement. Boredom also appears to be associated with other non-academic behaviours such as depression, anger, impulsivity and even pathological gambling and bad driving. While gambling and bad driving are unlikely to impact academic achievement, depression, anger and impulsivity might. According to Eric Dahlen of the University of Mississippi, boredom predicts a propensity to experience anger and also to display maladaptive anger expression, aggression and deficits in anger control. This suggests that boredom could lead to some behaviours teachers witness in the classroom, especially from those students who display higher levels of aggression and poor emotional regulation.

So are bored students simply not interested? Thomas Götz of the University of Konstanz, Germany thinks not. A lack of interest is neutral in that is doesn’t cause any emotional pain or discomfort whereas boredom can be emotionally distressing. They also have different motivational consequences; a student who lacks interest neither wishes to engage in an activity nor do they wish to avoid it, whereas, a bored student will feel compelled to escape the situation. Such behaviour led the late Daniel Berlyne to suggest that boredom results from high (not low) arousal. The behaviours arising from boredom, such as restlessness, agitation and emotional upset, motivates the individual to escape, perhaps by misbehaving, falling asleep or daydreaming. The classroom represents a closed system (there is no physical escape) whereas if you or I are at home and bored we could go for a walk or a drive or engage in other activities beyond our four walls.

Boredom, therefore, represents an academic emotion; an emotion that is tied to learning situations and achievement related activities. Common sense informs us that bored students aren’t learning efficiently because they aren’t fully engaged with the activities of the subject. However, there might be many reasons why pupils get bored and these reasons often differ between student and teacher. If you are a teacher you might have specific ideas about what creates boredom in your classroom; perhaps it’s certain topics within the subject that are boring or perhaps the delivery.

Elena Daschmann along with Thomas Götz and Robert Stupinsky were also interested in any differences between why teachers thought their students were bored and the explanations from the students themselves. They administered open-ended questionnaires to 111 grade nine students and conducted semi-structured interviews with 117 grade nine teachers in German schools, about what led to students’ boredom. Results overlapped somewhat, for example the relevance of the subject or the content of the specific topic. Some students directed the cause of their boredom to other students (others in the class being ‘too loud’, for example) while teachers suggested the size of the class had an impact. Some were unrelated to school (‘I was in a bad mood because of a boy,’ was one response) so perhaps we need to acknowledge that students bring their own baggage with them and that this can impact behaviour inside the classroom. The main reason for boredom cited by student was the continual monotony of the scheme, the going over of content everyday. Teachers, however, thought that boredom arose when pupils were over-challenged with ‘a nut that they can’t crack’ or under-challenged because the teacher was going over material the students felt they already knew.

However, the most startling difference was that while students identified the teacher as a source of boredom, the teachers themselves never did; ‘When the teacher is as boring as a sleeping pill,’ was one comment. Teachers therefore might have a reasonably good idea of the specific things that make their students bored, even though they don’t appear to see themselves as a source of the boredom. With such a small sample, it’s difficult to see if these results are universal but they do provide some indication about the disparity of boredom beliefs and the way in which multiple personal and public elements can feed it.

While the results described above are quite specific, more general models of boredom have been proposed:

Cynthia Fisher has proposed a three-pronged model based on aspects outside and within the individual and the fit between the two. Certain antecedents of boredom, suggests Fisher, lie outside the person, for example the task or the environmental conditions, while others inhabit the person. Aspects within the person are perhaps more complex but would certainly include personality. Genetic components unrelated to personality also play a role, specifically those related to academic achievement such as intelligence (as measured in terms of IQ). The third antecedent involves the fit between the external component and internal component. The fit is important because you need to gauge the complexity of the task with the ability of the individual to complete it; if the task is too hard then the student will feel overwhelmed, too easy and they will feel under-challenged.

Pekrun’s Control Value Theory also relates to both subjective and environmental factors. Boredom arises through the interplay between certain external determinants (such as quality of teaching) and individual internal appraisals. Learning environments are approached through aspects of personal control and subjective evaluation. For example, if teaching quality is poor and the students feel that they have little personal control of the situation, plus the student feels the task has little value, is meaningless or irrelevant to their needs the likelihood that they will be bored is increased. On the other hand, if the quality of teaching is high and the instructions are clear (the students have some kind of control) then whether or not the students become bored will be the result of perceived value and meaning of the task. In the study described above, one comment from a student was ‘I think German is the most pointless subject in general’, meaning that even if instruction and teaching were excellent, the perceived value of the subject was low and this was the antecedent of the boredom the student experienced. Unfortunately, this would imply that some subjects, or topics within subjects, would always be boring to some students, no matter how much of cabaret teachers try to stage.

Ultimately, teachers can circumvent boredom by ensuring that students are challenged, but not overly so. But teachers also need to take into account that you just can’t please some people.

Self-esteem and Academic Achievement

If sources are to be trusted, there is a mental health crisis in our schools at present. I’m not sure of how accurate these claims are or if we are indeed witnessing the ‘emotionalisation’ of education. Nick Haslam, a psychologist at the University of Melbourne does suggest that psychological concepts are being expanded so that they encompass broader areas; certain behaviours are becoming ‘pathologised’: Fear of maths becomes ‘math anxiety’ and fear of taking tests becomes ‘test anxiety’, while the NUS has banned clapping in an attempt to prevent trauma (clapping anxiety?). Of course, such anxieties are real to the individual and can be reduced through support, but whether such ‘concept creep’ is desirable is yet to be seen.

There also exists the misguided notion that raising self-esteem in young people can somehow protect them from further psychological distress and raise academic attainment. But high self-esteem can have a dark side. Roy Baumeister found that the most aggressive people tend towards high levels of self-esteem, suggesting that violence becomes more likely when other people and situations contradict a persons highly favourable view of themselves. Very high levels of self-esteem might also lead to arrogance and fragile self-concept. This results in such individuals being easily threatened and more likely to use violence in order to protect their fragile and inflated sense of self-worth. People high in self-esteem often have a mistaken impression of themselves and are more likely to claim to be more likeable and attractive, to have better relationships and to make better impressions on people than those with low self-esteem. Objective measures however, appear to cast doubt on these beliefs, leading Baumeister to conclude that ‘narcissists can be charming as first, but tend to alienate others eventually’.

There are certainly benefits to having high levels of self-esteem. Self-esteem is strongly correlated with happiness, although without a clearly established causation. What this means is that there is no way to confirm that the high levels of self-esteem cause people to be happier. It could be that happy people develop higher levels of self-esteem or that other factors indirectly lead to higher levels of happiness. It is clear, however, that low self-esteem is related to depression and stress, but the direction remains unclear. High levels of self-esteem have also been shown to foster experimentation among children, leading to an increase in risky behaviours such as smoking, drinking, drug taking and underage sex. However, high self-esteem does reduce the risk of bulimia in females.

Self-esteem doesn’t impact academic performance.

While some studies have identified a link between high self-esteem and academic attainment, correlations have been modest at best. High self-esteem, therefore, appears to have little impact on academic outcomes but findings do suggest that high levels of self-esteem emerge from good school performance. Furthermore, efforts to boost the self-esteem of school pupils have not resulted in improvements in academic performance and, in some cases, have been found to be counterproductive. Similar results have been found in adults, in that job performance is sometimes related to self-esteem but such correlations vary widely and, again, direction of causality hasn’t been reliably established. Certainly, high levels of occupational success may boost self-esteem.

It would appear, therefore, that while self-esteem is related to some positive outcomes, there is little to suggest that students with high self-esteem do any better academically than those with low self-esteem. This is not to say that schools should abandon such notions, but that interventions should be directed towards well-being rather than that formal academic outcomes. Harter suggests that scholastic competence can be seen as a specific type of self-esteem that might be better placed as a means of investigating the role of self-theories on academic outcomes. A more developed concept similar to that proposed by Harter is that of ‘academic self-concept’, of which I have written previously.