Category Archives: Psychology

Does An Engaged Brain Always Learn Best?

Teachers strive to ensure that pupils are engaged, don’t they?

I chose to look at engagement for my Masters dissertation several years ago and quickly concluded that engagement is a vey complex topic, but we can define it generally as:

The degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.

-The Glossary Of Education Reform-

It can also represent wider aspects:

Participation in educationally effective practices, both inside and outside the classroom, which leads to a range of measurable outcomes

– Kuh et al., 2007 –

Definitions aside, all teachers have their own ideas of what engagement actually looks like in the classroom. Teachers can also be informed that they ‘engaged the class well’ or ‘not all pupils were engaged’ or even ‘little Billy was staring into space over in the corner.’ I’ll put to one side the question surrounding the ability of observers to observe for a moment.

(I often wonder what would happen if staff meetings were observed – I must spend around 80 percent of my time staring out of the window or checking Twitter).

I’ll come back to Billy, sitting in the corner, staring into space and obviously not engaged.

The common sense assumption is this: When we are doing nothing, the brain is in some kind of stand-by mode waiting for stimuli and that when we have something to do the brain works harder. This makes complete sense and suggests that a hard working, engaged classroom is a learning classroom.

The thing is, the resting brain is far from inactive. In fact, it’s remarkably active. Brain imaging studies have found consistent levels of activation in certain regions of the brain collectively known as the default mode network. The default mode network has been linked to instances of daydreaming and mindwandering, suggesting that daydreaming could be our default mode of thought.

Experience sampling studies suggest that people might even spend as much time daydreaming as they do sleeping.

So perhaps Billy is daydreaming? Even if he is, he’s still wasting valuable learning time.

Perhaps not.

If we spend around about the same time daydreaming as we do sleeping, then daydreaming (like sleep) must serve some purpose; it must not only be normal but also essential and have some kind of evolutionary value.

During periods of distraction, we loosen our thought processes in order to find solutions to problems using previously unexplored options. Daydreaming can allow us to reach more creative conclusions by facilitating a period of incubation.

Daydreaming also enhances our sense of identity, often through what cognitive scientists call ‘Future Orientated Cognition’ – we recall our past and envisage what our futures might be like or imagine alternative scenarios dependent upon the choices we make. Interestingly (and incredibly sad at the same time) people with dementia are unable to daydream and to forecast the future due to damage to the default mode network.

Back to Billy…

So is Billy disengaged or has he defaulted to daydreaming mode? If he is daydreaming then is his brain busy processing the information from the lesson or planning his weekend on the Xbox?

We don’t always know what engagement looks like and we can’t make judgements based on information hidden from us. Engagement takes many forms and doesn’t always look the same. Mental ‘down-time’ certainly isn’t popular in teaching – imagine an Ofsted inspector entering a classroom during a daydreaming activity! Nevertheless, disengagement might actually make the brain work harder.


Kuh, G.D. (2007) How to Help Students Achieve. Chronicle of Higher Education. 53 (41), B12–13.


Promoting ‘Extrovert Traits’ will only Marginalise Introverted Pupils.

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

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

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

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

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

Does this make me a bad person?

Does this make me dysfunctional person?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should Teachers Be ‘Psychologically Literate’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For example, many research studies into memory:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just 5 minutes.

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

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

The way we categorise time.

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

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

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

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

Change the way you categorise time.

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

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

I WILL keep you posted on how it all goes…

In the meantime, the following books might prove useful:

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

3 Social Psychological Interventions that just might work.

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

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

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

1. Role Model Exposure.

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

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

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

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

2. Reappraisal

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

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

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

3. Possible Selves.

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

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

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

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

Why do so many teachers find cognitive psychology so attractive?

Over the past couple of years teachers have been discovering cognitive psychology, often viewing it as that long-awaited silver bullet that holds the secrets to unending learning. It’s an interesting phenomenon, more so because those who appear most enthusiastic are also those who reject or are highly critical of earlier psychological research by the likes of Lev Vygotsky and Jean Piaget, while academic psychologists continue to re-evaluate and extend such work in the light of more recent research.

So is this enthusiasm for cognitive psychology warranted or even helpful? Carl Hendrick (@C_Hendrick) recently tweeted his concern.

Personally I do understand why cognitive psychology (as opposed to behavioural, psychodynamic, social or more biologically influenced psychology) is so attractive to teachers.

First of all, cognitive psychology offers something relevant. Not only does it remain the dominant paradigm in psychology, it also offers useful solutions to the problem of learning. The fact the majority of interested teachers see cognitive psychology as being about memory doesn’t pose that much of a problem despite the approach encompassing a wide range of processes.

Cognitive psychology is also science based. There is a strong connection between cognitive psychology and biology and cognitive scientists in general are in agreement with biologists. Furthermore, cognitive psychologists are gradually moving towards neuroscience as way of gathering more evidence to support theories that have been supported in experimental conditions.

Cognitive psychology is empirical. Studies are conducted in highly controlled conditions in an attempt to establish causation. Theories are supported through replication, just like any other scientific theory, and further evidence is added to support previous conclusions. Models are constructed from the data and amended when further data is made available and those that can’t be supported are (usually) rejected. Some models, therefore, (such as Working Memory) are dynamic, shifting in response to new data, similar to models explaining evolution or the formation of the universe. To suggest that cognitive psychology isn’t empirical is too misunderstand the nature of science inquiry.

So, is cognitive psychology the silver bullet?

No, and this is what teachers need to be aware of.

Studies using experimental methods normally take place in highly controlled environments (and some might not even involve humans). Artificial situations can cause problems when they involve human beings because sometimes humans don’t behave in the way we want them to.

For example, participants often display what is known as demand characteristics, that is, they alter their behaviour because of the situation. They might try to ‘please’ the researcher by second-guessing the nature of the study and acting accordingly. Alternatively they might just want to ‘mess it up’ – particularly if the study involves young people.

Related to this is the problem of generalizability. Can we assume that the behaviour in the experimental situation will be mirrored in, say, a classroom situation?

Samples are often biased. There is some concern that many studies use undergraduate psychology students as participants, which in turn could increase the possibility of demand characteristics. Furthermore, researchers eager to support their hypothesis might consciously or unconsciously manipulate the situation in order to get the ‘right’ results, or even reject any outliers in the data (a technique known as p hacking). This isn’t unique to psychology, but it remains something to be aware of.

Finally, keeping up with advances is cognitive psychology could, in itself, become a full-time occupation – just look at the number of papers published each year into memory, not to mention the number of academic journals dedicated to it.

My concern isn’t that teachers are enthusiastic (any promotion of psychology, in all its guises, can only be a good thing) but that some teachers are unquestioningly enthusiastic and others are vehemently apposed to any evidence-based approach (in the same way that many are taking sides in the pointless ‘progressive vs. whatever the other side is today’ debate).

So “is this enthusiasm for cognitive psychology warranted or even helpful?”

Warranted? I think it is because cognitive psychology can inform our teaching. In essence, it’s useful.

Helpful? No, not if it polarizes opinion and ignores all other fruitful avenues.

How to create a helpless student

Roo Stenning (@therealmrroo) recently directed me to a 2014 blog post from John Tomsett (@johntomsett), relating to the psychological phenomenon known as ‘learned helplessness’. Interestingly, I’d been thinking about this particular concept for a while and had even swapped a couple of tweets concerning its nature with John’s partner in crime Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish).LH1

John suggested that teachers might be responsible for instilling feelings of helplessness in students by inundating them revision sessions, catch-up lessons and other interventions. My own interpretation is similar (although primarily related to day-to-day resilience) in that we often create an environment of over-dependence where our students become unable to consider ways in which they can contribute to their own learning in the absence of outside assistance.

So what is learned helplessness?

The term ‘learned helplessness’ was coined by American psychologist Martin Seligman in the late 1960’s. Seligman discovered that dogs that had been subjected to inescapable pain (administered through electric shocks) would later accept their fate even when given a means of escape. Seligman’s work, although ethically questionable, went on to inform much of our current understanding of the nature of depression – when bad things keep happening to us, we eventually give up searching for the good and, instead, accept our ‘fate’.

Are our students helpless?

It might seem like a bit of leap from depression to the classroom, but such behaviourist assumptions can be applied to student motivation. Take, for example, the student who consistently performs badly on tests – bad results become the norm and no end of interventions will alter these negative attributions – they were a failure yesterday, they are a failure today and they will still be failure tomorrow. In such circumstances, the student learns that nothing they do can change the situation; there is little point in engaging in interventions and little point in revising for exams. There are, of course, many complex variables at play here and we can’t reject the influence of other factors such as poverty, gender and an individuals propensity towards self-handicapping.

Tied up within the learned helplessness construct is the issue of dependency. As teachers we have a tendency to claim that we are in the business of creating ‘independent learners’ yet in reality we appear to practice the opposite. Take, for example, my recent conversation with a year 13 student attending a revision session for AS re-sits.

Student: “Sir, can you do us a list of all the studies that we need to know for the exam?”

Me: “Couldn’t you do that yourself as part of your revision?”

Student: “Oh yes, never thought of that”.

By the time our students begin their A-levels they have become dependent on us as teachers – they no longer know how to be independent learners and no end of badgering will make a difference – dependency is something they have learned and learned well. Take away the interventions, the revision classes and, dare I say, the ‘spoon feeding’ and they become lost in an unknown wilderness with no map to guide them home.

So what can be done?

This is a very difficult question. In the mad scramble to ensure exam success, there is a tendency to increase dependency. I currently run several ‘interventions’ each week, the contents of which involve coaching students on how to answer exam questions. Those who fail to attend are the most likely to harbour feelings of helplessness (‘what’s the point of attending if I’m just going to fail anyway’) and there is always the faint whiff of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Behavioural psychology and the principles underlying behavioural economics might have a role to play here (as might some of the principles from positive psychology – Seligman’s more recent endeavour). There is also certainly a role for established models of motivation and self-regulation (think Self-Determination Theory).

What is evident is that there can be no quick fix. Dependency and learned helplessness form over time and alter an individual’s cognitive set. The trick is to ensure that the school environment promotes independence and self-regulation rather than stifling it. How we do this is the big question. The question really needs to be asked and the answer thoroughly investigated.