The scourge of motivational posters and the problem with pop psychology in the classroom

Fifteen years ago I watched David Brent give this masterclass in motivation. This was before I started teaching, and when I entered the profession I was horrified to learn that this kind of stuff appeared to be embedded in so much of education from the Monday morning assembly to the top-down CPD session. I remember attending a leadership training day that featured one bit that was almost word for word, a carbon copy of the hotel role-play scene where Brent ‘fazes’ the trainer.

Nowhere is this pseudo-profundity more alive today than in social media, and the weapon of choice for this kind of stuff is the motivational poster. More than ever, we seem to be drowning under a tidal wave of guff exhorting both pupil and teacher to ‘reach for the stars’ and ‘be all that you can be.’ While seemingly benign and well intentioned, these missives in mediocrity signal a larger shift towards the trivial and sit alongside a set of approaches that may well be doing more harm than good.

Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindsets is often mentioned in relation to interventions aimed at shifting student self perception but like a lot of promising areas, the transition from research to practice is often a dysfunctional one. The hallways of many schools are now festooned with the obligatory mindset motivational posters and “failure walls” (Always wondered about these, they’re like a 12 step recovery programme with 11 steps missing) with whole school assemblies exhorting kids to embrace failure and choose a more positive mindset, often reductively misrepresented as “you can achieve anything if you believe.”

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This type of stuff is obviously well intentioned but beyond symbolising a culture that privileges the media-soundbite over critical reflection, it does I think signify an increasing shift towards psychological interventions aimed at changing student self perception and represents a somewhat base and quite reductive approach to an extremely complex set of issues. Done well, certain interventions can be highly effective as in the case of coaching or the aforementioned promising field of Growth Mindsets. However, done poorly they can be not only confusing for students, but can take up valuable time and resources for things that might actually improve student self perception in a far more powerful way. On a more serious level, Nick Rose has written about the worrying rise of soft psychotherapy in schools and warns that these interventions may be poor substitutions for woefully inadequate mental health provision for children.

There are two central issues with these generalised attempts at trying to manipulate student’s perception of themselves. Firstly, student self-concept is both multi-dimensional and hierarchal. (Marsh et al.,1983; Muijs 1997) A student might have a very positive concept of self in English but a very negative one in Maths. Secondly student self concept is both academic and non-academic and can be broadly categorised into seven subareas such as physical ability/appearance and peer relations as well as academic ability (Shavelson, 1986.) So tying to manipulate these domain specific issues through ‘all-purpose’ positive interventions attempting to boost general self esteem are likely to be ineffective.

The other major issue here is that we may have got things back to front. Research shows that while there is a strong correlation between self perception and achievement, the actual effect of achievement on self perception is stronger than the other way round (Guay, Marsh and Boivin, 2003.) It may well be the case that using time and resources to improve student academic achievement may well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds (2011) note that:

At the end of the day, the research reviewed shows that the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger that the effect of self-concept on achievement.

So there is a strong case to say that that focusing our efforts on students being taught well (surprise, surprise) and given clear and achievable paths to academic success creates a more positive perception of themselves anyway than those given unproven interventions such as the kind of pop psychology churned out in so much of school life. A key question then is why is so much time and energy invested in it?

One of the best initiatives I’ve seen is from a school in New York where they use blocked periods of time in the school week called ‘Lab Time’ where both teachers and pupils were free and where the onus was on the students to book appointments with particular teachers and go over work they had missed or didn’t understand or just needed to improve on. This gave pupils a real sense of agency, responsibility and choice and a series of opportunities to address their own problems. How much time do we waste on assemblies, tutorials and numerous interventions that are costly, time-intensive and ultimately ineffective? Would an approach like this not only give pupils more chance of improving academic achievement but also concomitantly, their own self-perception?

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Motivational posters are a a “daily boost of inspiration” for some and vomit-inducing for the rest of us but they also encourage us to take complex ideas and reduce them to something utterly trivial, and seemingly life-changing and often far removed from their original premise. There are complex ideas that should be given time and space for us to critically reflect upon and resist the urge to summarise into a soundbite. Education research in particular shouldn’t be represented as some kind of ersatz profundity summarised in a single sentence, it should embrace Keats’s notion of negative capability and seeking a richer, more complex and ultimately elegant elucidation of these difficult ideas that we hope will improve student experience.

As my old English literature tutor Prof. Chris Baldick once quipped in a lecture “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus and pop psychology is from Uranus.”

27 comments

  1. nancy

    My feeling is also that they are, at heart, deeply dishonest. ‘When you really want success you get it’ – erm, no. Nothing like a little bit of learning disability to disabuse you of that notion. *cross face*

    Liked by 1 person

    • Paul Hartzer

      Even learning disabilities aside, my urban students are surrounded by examples of adults who are working 50, 60, 70 hours a week and still somehow constantly falling behind. So are they to conclude that their parents are all idiots who just don’t “want it” enough? This strikes me as all being part of the meritocracy narrative.

      It’s true that it’s difficult to succeed if you don’t try, but the inverse (if you try, you succeed) is not always true.

      I support Dweck’s mindset concept from the same perspective: If you convince yourself you can’t, then you can’t. But on the flipside, convincing yourself that maybe you can doesn’t mean that you definitely can.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Of Possible Worlds

    Great post. I agree that the “one-liners” and “quick-fixes” seem to have overtaken not only our hallways, but, in my area, our mindset in education. My school, like your NY example, offers one-on-one time for remediation and support. I struggle with the efficacy of this practice because it seems that high-achieving students use this time and low-achieving students do not. Imbuing students with a sense of agency does not seem like something that rests in my power. Maybe I’m wrong.

    We’re also inundated with stats that tell us how depression in teens, among other mental and psychological issues, is a growing problem. The solution to this troubles me because, of course, school seems like a logical place to address these issues, but I’m not the right person. I am neither trained nor otherwise equipped to help students deal with low self-esteem, an overall sense of disengagement, or any of the emotional struggles that most teens face. I can help a student achieve his or her best in my class, I can support a student along the way in this regard through academic tutoring, and I can let a student know that I care about his or her academic success. Beyond that, my skill set is limited, at best. Yet my role as a teacher is increasingly becoming that of teacher-counsellor.

    Lastly, I rather enjoy the motivational quotes and posters, especially the ironic/sarcastic ones. But we also need to consider, as you suggest, the underlying messages. When we suggest that “success comes to those who want it the most,” and other such platitudes, the underlying message is that if you don’t succeed, it’s due to some failing on your part. And in this instance, that may be true, but the mantra seems to have become that with the “right” attitude/effort/mindset, everyone can “reach the stars.” This is detrimental to students and to society. No – not everyone can reach the stars, and that should be okay, too. Look no further than TV talent contests like American Idol to see the mass-delusional under which many seem to be, to their own psychological detriment.

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    • chronotopeblog

      I couldn’t agree more. I was just making this point to Nancy: a really pernicious element to these platitudes is the implication that if you dont achieve something then you didn’t want it badly enough or didn’t “dream hard enough.” (what does that even mean??)

      As you say, it is symptomatic of a larger cultural shift towards the facile and the superficial and may be a result of technological advances. This is really well explored in Andrew Keen’s new book ‘The Internet is Not the Answer.’

      Liked by 1 person

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  9. margaretpclark

    Reblogged this on Combatting Schooling Injustice: Comenius Dreaming and commented:
    I liked this piece a lot. I used to work in the field of gender equity when raising girls self esteem was all the rage and it used to make me furious.
    An esteemed colleague of mine Professor Sue Willis used to be particularly scathing about these popular programs, proclaiming to all who would hear that experiencing success in learning leads to self esteem but the other way round does not work.
    I have noticed a slight return of this theme in feminism aimed at girls and young women and it really bothers me. What do others think?

    Liked by 1 person

    • margaret bearlin

      I couldn’t agree more Margaret. Success in learning, assuming that what the student is coming to understand is something that is giving them greater power to understand the world in a way that enables them to be active within it and change it, carries with it implicitly a greater sense of one’self as a worthwhile human being.

      Liked by 1 person

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  15. debrakidd

    I find myself nodding in agreement – certainly in terms of the superficiality of them in school. What’s wrong with a really beautiful quote from literature or science? But then I also know that most people are very well intentioned when they use and respond to them, and I don’t feel like it’s my place to undermine them or make them feel stupid or inferior.

    Like

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