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.”
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?
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.”