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

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

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



Self-determination in the Classroom.


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.

#Nurture 1516 (Gratitude).

Reading last year’s Nurture post made me wonder if the point at which I now find myself was in some way pre-determined; a rehearsal for what was to come. The goals I set myself last year have partially been met (more than can be said for my performance management objectives), in that I’ve made those all-important decisions. This year, my Nurture post is going to focus mainly on what I am grateful for, rather than dwelling on circumstances beyond my control.

I was very lucky to have been given the opportunity to speak at three amazing events in 2015 and I am grateful to Mark Healy (@cijane02) for inviting me to do so. We presented at Northern Rocks and ResearchED Scotland together and I went solo at the ResearchED National Conference in September. I am grateful to all those who came and listened and to those who spoke so kindly about what they had taken from our talks.

Summer 2015 was incredible but things came crashing down as September ran into October. I have documented my experiences elsewhere and I shan’t repeat them here, suffice to day that it rapidly became clear that my psychological and physical self wasn’t coping so well with the rapid changes taking place in my professional life. Last year I wrote that I needed to stop worrying so much but now I have to concede that a failed in this. By November I had resigned from my job and worry had turned to chronic anxiety, lying awake at 3am and wondering what the future had in store, finally succumbing to pills that sent me to sleep but left me experiencing the daylight world through a dense fog.

It’s easy to feel alone in such circumstances and one Sunday morning I sat down and wrote about my experiences and why I had chosen to leave teaching. The reaction to my resulting blog post was astonishing (I believe I can ‘blame’ Nick Rose (@Nick_J_Rose) for that). I am so grateful to all those who commented and Tweeted (far too many to mention – sorry) and those who sent personal messages of advice and support.

But Twitter can also be a terrifying place and at times I think we all need to escape it for a while. I spent a week away from Twitter in December, engaging in a bloody cull of those I followed. To be honest I can’t recall why or who but if you ended up being a victim of the massacre I can only apologise. I’ll no doubt end up following you again when I work out exactly who was culled.

When Twitter is supportive it’s an amazing place. I am particularly grateful to those who forced me to think more critically about what I was doing and why I was doing it: Alex Quigley (@HuntingEnglish), Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit), Helene Galdin-O’Shea (@hgaldinoshea) and Bill Lord (@Joga5) to name just a few. I’m also grateful to the small number of colleagues at my (former) school who understood my decision and supported me in it.

I will always view my students as the main victims of my decision. I am grateful that they don’t (all) hate me for leaving them half way through the year and for the kind wishes (and alcohol) they bestowed upon me on that final day – I will miss them terribly. Also to ex-pupils Rachel and Tom who turned up on the morning of my last day and stayed with me until I went home.

Despite it all, I remain grateful to my former school, an amazingly warm and close community, having to cope in very difficult circumstances and with new management. There is no ill will (honestly) and I truly wish them the best for the future.

Most of all I am so grateful to Kieran (@Ezzy_Moon)  who always seems to know when I hit rock bottom. Whether it’s messages of support, Skype chats that last all afternoon or the phone call to ask if I’m OK, she has become a true friend. I hope I can remain worthy of her friendship.

The Future:

Our lives are a work in progress, with many bumps and diversions on the way. My family is “little and broken but still good”* – things never quite work out the way we planned do they? I’m lucky to have an amazing son who, at just 14, has his head screwed on so much tighter than I do – his mum would have been so proud of him.

I declared last year that I would write more and I have done so, with articles in publications from the The Psychologist to the TES (with more scheduled for 2016). I’m also working on that book and contributing chapters to another.

I’m staying connected to education and I’ll be attending Northern Rocks in 2016 for what looks like a great line-up and ResearchED York at Huntington School in July should also be fantastic. These will probably be the only events I attend over the next year for many reasons. Other opportunities are knocking, but a little too quietly for my liking, so I’ll have to knock back louder or join the night shift at Morrisons.

Will I return to teaching? I’m still agonising over this question. I’m seeing so many people being destroyed by the profession that it makes a return less likely (a former student of mine left teaching on the same day as I did – we really can’t afford to keep losing these people). I hope to visit different types of schools over the next year to get a better idea of how differently things can be done and I’m also hoping to run some workshops and training sessions as part of a new venture with some amazing people.

No matter how harsh our lives can be, there is plenty of room to be grateful. So many of the people I am grateful to I hardly know – some I have never even met face-to-face! I think this says so much about teaching as a profession: that the confusion and pain felt by one is so often shared by and with many others.

Look after each other, be nice and have a wonderful 2016.

*Congratulations to those who can spot the reference.

#Nurture 1415

I’m not one to share personal experiences, either on or off-line, but having read Mark Healy’s Nurture 1415 post (which in turn prompted me to read a few others) I have decided to break the habitRiver and offer some reflections on the past year and hopes for 2015. It’s certainly been a year of ups and downs, questionings and pondering.

The Past 12 months.

1. I began teaching in 2004, so 2014 was a particular milestone. To be honest I never really thought I’d make it to 10 years – I did give up once, but it only lasted three months before I felt compelled to return. Like many teachers, I’m always on the verge of packing it in, but I suspect I will lose more than I gain if I did.

2. Milestones often lead to reflection and the resurfacing of memories (no matter how distorted and reconstructed). 2004 was also the year my partner of 15 years (and the mother of our son) was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour. She survived into 2005 so 2015 will also mark ten years since I became a single father to a 4-year-old child. My son is now thirteen and recalls his mother in fragmented images and isolated emotions. Now and again we look through photographs so that he can be reminded of the wonderful person she was, knowing that he will never be able to experience the warmth of her love and her absolute devotion to her son. I am thankful that he has grown into a warm and compassionate human being.

3. Many changes have taken place at work over the last few months, at times leading me to question my ability as a teacher. New management structures, new SLT and an interim Head have led to rapid change. While change itself is something a cope fairly well with, a constant emphasis on progress and the constant procession of ‘visitors’ to my classroom (SLT, line manager, governors and LEA ‘advisors’), many of whom inform me that my students aren’t making enough progress, ultimately leads to a general feeling that what I was once considered good at, is now simply not good enough.

4. In an attempt to escape (just for a while) I have become more and more dedicated to my PhD studies at York. I am incredibly lucky to have a supervisor who is supportive and appears to understand the pressures placed upon part-time postgraduate researchers. At times it feels like one step forward and two steps back but inch by inch I appear to be making progress.

The next 12 months.

1. I need to reduce worry. I am a classic ‘guilty teacher’, always with the nagging feeling that I ‘must’ be working. I spent Christmas Day and Boxing Day with family, only to wake up this morning with the feeling that I needed to get on with some work. I am sure that anxiety will eventually kill me if I don’t do something about it soon, and while I manage to keep the black dog at bay most of the time, the anxiety is ever-present.

2. I need to become a physical as well as on-line presence. I hide in cyberspace and rarely attend events that force me to converse in the real world. In 2014 I did attempt to change that – I attended the IEE Conference at York University and the ResearchED event at York. In 2015 I will be at Northern Rocks. However, I have also cancelled other events this year after ‘bottling it’!

3. I need to write. This is a compulsion I have had since childhood and it’s never really gone away. I have files filled with writings and I’m always working on ‘that’ book (or several of them). I can spend days staring at a blank page and then suddenly write non-stop for hours – unfortunately, this often means that I end up with lots of ‘bits of things’ – I think I might have it as my epitaph – ‘He wrote bits of things’.

4. I need to spend more time with my son before he begins to see me as an embarrassment. I bought him a camera for Christmas and we spent most of Boxing Day walking along isolated tracks and through woods so that he could take photographs. We were exhausted by the time we got home but it was certainly one of my happiest days of 2014.

5. I need to make decisions. I need to have a serious chat with myself about the future, while at the same time ensuring that I don’t make any decisions that I’ll regret. Teaching is the biggest question of all – in the words of The Clash – “Should I stay or should I go?” I know that I am the only one who can make that decision but I also know that if someone were to offer me a part-time lecturing job I’d be gone in a flash. Then again, aren’t we all waiting for someone to offer us that ‘dream job’? I also need to admit to myself that I would miss teaching deeply – or rather I would miss the interaction with my pupils, the banter and the delight at seeing them succeed and knowing that I had a part to play in their futures.

So this is a little part of my life and this was perhaps one of the most difficult blog posts I have ever written. I suppose a new year is a time for opportunity, for starting over and quiet reflection. Thank-you for reading.

Questioning the stability of academic buoyancy.

Back in October I conducted a small-scale exploratory study into three constructs (academic self-concept, academic buoyancy and implicit theories of intelligence). You can read the details here. A few weeks ago I asked the same students toStressed-Student complete the questionnaires again to confirm that these constructs remain stable over time. I was particularly interested in academic buoyancy (day-to-day resilience) due to the forthcoming AS exams. What I wanted to confirm was that those students who considered themselves resilient at time 1 (October 2013) still considered themselves resilient at time 2 (May 2014). This would be measured using the Academic Buoyancy Scale (Martin and Marsh, 2007), a four-item measure of academic buoyancy (AB) that has proved reliable over time and within different settings.

Let’s get some of the problems with the ‘study’ out of the way now.

At time 1, the sample consisted of 41 year 12 students. At time 2, and due to a number of factors (including subject/school drop-out and a lower volunteer rate) this had dropped to 27. The final sample is therefore very low and is far from representative.

The sample is small and unrepresentative – predominantly white, middle-class and with a higher percentage of female participants.

However, as this was an exploratory study, I was looking for general patterns needed to establish possible further avenues of investigation.

Ethical Issues.

The study was conducted in line with ethical procedures of the University of York. Participants were volunteers and gave informed written consent (all participants were over the age of 16). They had the right to withdraw from the study as any time (including the withdrawal of their data).

What did the data show?

Data analysis was conducted using the R statistical package. The results of the t-test found a significant difference between AB at time 1 and AB at time 2 (p<0.01). Further analysis found an effect size of 0.675. If we apply Cohen’s (1988) conventions for effect size, we also find a highly significant difference between time 1 and time 2 (so we can be pretty confident that timing was a major factor).

What does all this mean?

Results would suggest that AB isn’t stable and is mitigated by other factors. The timing of the second data collection activity (a week before the start of AS exams) could play a role in the difference between the two sets of scores, begging the question “Do students feel less confident about their abilities at different times?” Outcome measures (in the form of AS results) can be examined in August and could (but only ‘could’) yield more information.

Where now?

The plan now is to use experience-sampling methods (ESM) to collect data on a number of factors ‘as they happen’. The problem with much of the research into academic buoyancy is that participants are asked to complete measures in isolation (i.e. “I am good at dealing with setbacks”). ESM allows for participants to think about these measures in a more realistic and moment-by-moment way via electronic ‘prompts’ sent to mobile devices. ESM tends to result in large data sets, dependent upon the number of prompts and length of the study, so sample sizes can be smaller (and, for practical reasons, need to be). An additional possibility would be to supplement the ESM data with a end of day/end of week questionnaire to investigate the difference between immediate and retrospective self-assessments.

What’s the point?

Emotion appears to impact on learning. Research has suggested that factors such as self-concept, boredom, anxiety and resilience can have both positive and negative effects on academic outcomes, as well as cognitive functions like attention. Understanding the nature of these factors could help to develop interventions to stabilise some of them. Emotion impacts on cognition, for example, stress can heighten recall to a point but too much anxiety leads to inaccurate recall. The so-called Yerkes-Dodson suggests that performance increases as physiological and mental arousal increases to an optimum level, at which point cognitive functions begin to decline. Although the Yerkes-Dodson law in somewhat dated, more recent research appears to support its validity.

In a system where more and more of our young people are suffering from heightened levels of anxiety (the reason for which is highly debatable), examining their daily classroom lives can be provide rich data into how, when and why they do and do not learn.