The Abilene Paradox: Why Schools Do Things Nobody Actually Wants
On an indecently hot day in Texas, professor Jerry B. Harvey was visiting his wife’s family when his father-in-law suggested they visit a new restaurant in the town of Abilene to which his wife exclaimed “sounds like a great idea.” Harvey had reservations about this however, as a 53 mile trip in a car with no air-conditioning sounded terrible to him, but not wanting to rock the boat he also proclaimed this a good idea and asked his mother in law if she wanted to go. As she was now the only one in the group who had not yet expressed agreement with this “great idea,” she also said they should go, and so they began their journey to Abilene. However, as Harvey explains, the trip was not a success:
My predictions were fulfilled. The heat was brutal. Perspiration had cemented a fine layer of dust to our skin by the time we had arrived. The cafeteria’s food could serve as a first-rate prop in an antacid commercial.
Some four hours and 106 miles later, we returned to Coleman, hot and exhausted. We silently sat in front of the fan for a long time. Then to be sociable, I dishonestly said, “It was a great trip wasn’t it?”
No one spoke.
After a while, his mother-in-law admitted that she never really wanted to go but only did so because she thought everyone else wanted to and didn’t want to cause a fuss, to which his wife also protested that she never really wanted to go either which then lead to a volley of argument. Eventually his father in law broke the silence and exclaimed in a long Texas drawl: “Shee-it. Listen, I never wanted to go to Abilene. I just thought you might be bored. You visit so seldom I wanted to be sure you enjoyed it. I would have preferred to play another game of dominoes and eat the leftovers in the icebox.” This experience led to Harvey coining the term ‘the Abilene paradox’ to explain a curious aspect of group dynamics in which the opposite of what everyone wants is tacitly created by the group who thinks they are agreeing with what everyone else wants.
After the outburst of recrimination we all sat back in silence. Here we were, four reasonably sensible people who, of our own volition, had just taken a 106-mile trip across a godforsaken desert in a furnace-like temperature through a cloud-like dust storm to eat unpalatable food at a hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in Abilene, when none of us had really wanted to go. In fact, to be more accurate, we’d done just the opposite of what we wanted to do. The whole situation simply didn’t make sense.
The Abeline paradox lies in the fact that we have problems not with disagreement, but rather with agreement. It is characterised by groups of people in an organisation privately agreeing that one course of action makes sense but failing to properly communicate those ideas and then collectively stumbling to what they think is the right course of action or what everyone else wants. Eventually an inaccurate picture of what to do emerges and based on that, the organisation takes steps towards actions that nobody really wants and which is ultimately counterproductive to the aims of the organisation itself.
You can witness the Abilene paradox at work in many schools. Often this takes the form of ill-considered marking policies which increase teacher workload to the point of exhaustion, endless tracking and monitoring of students, behaviour policies which punish the teacher more than the student who misbehaves, and graded lesson observations where teachers abandon what they normally do to put on a one-off, all singing, all dancing lesson for the observer, because that’s what everyone thinks that’s what inspectors want.
A lot of this can be accounted for by innate cognitive biases such as groupthink but it can also be exacerbated by either poor evidence, as in the case of learning styles or a poor understanding and misappropriation of good evidence as in the case of formative assessment. With the emergence of a solid evidence base, we might just be able to defend ourselves from these kind of cognitive biases if they are communicated clearly and appropriated effectively as part of a broader discussion about the values of a school. At it’s best, good evidence can act as a bulwark against the tsunami of nonsense that has so often washed over our schools. If we fail to have these important discussions and simply go with what we think might work, then we are at risk of loading the entire staff onto the school mini-bus and heading off to Abilene.
This is an excerpt taken from the forthcoming book ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom? Bridging the Gap Between Research and Practice
“Limited men with limitless energy”: Why we should be wary of ‘passion’
In Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, there’s a phrase that has always stayed with me and one I’ve since associated with a particularly unpleasant character trait. Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov is the blonde haired, blue eyed protagonist of the novel, a star athlete in high school, who marries a beauty queen and expands his father’s business empire but can never escape his shadow. In many respects his father is the unknowing architect of his demise yet his central flaws are some of the most desirable qualities of the American dream:
a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases, and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything.
Passion is seen as a universally positive trait and rightly used in any discussion of personal enfranchisement but this week the word has cropped up in two separate contexts that has given me pause to consider whether it is not being used in more nefarious ways, particularly in the context of leadership.
As we have seen over the last month, the last person standing in a leadership contest is often the least desirable candidate. The qualities which yield a ‘winner’ are often some of the most insidious traits observable in a human being, and yet are often the most celebrated. In Roth’s novel, the Swede’s father, a “limited man with limitless energy” is emblematic of a particularly pernicious kind of American rugged individualism that Donald Trump has harnessed so well this year; self-promoting, shallow, inflexible, ruthless, decisive, brash and of course, full of passion. We’ve also been treated to Andrea Leadsom’s “passion for strengthening families” which includes a rejection of same sex marriage and the claim that those with the ability to reproduce have more of a stake in the future than those unable to do so.
On occasion however, a candidate with a different set of qualities can make it to the Iron Throne. This week the Education Select Common’s committee rejected Nicky Morgan’s choice of Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman noting that they “were concerned by the lack of passion she demonstrated for the job and the important contribution it makes to the lives of children.” Of course, the committee’s job is not to choose the candidate but rather to hold to account the government’s decision to do so and in that sense that are somewhat of a paper tiger, but their decision was met with a volley of argument from almost all sections of education, most notably those who have worked with or have met Spielman, perhaps because many felt her predecessor’s notion of passion was so alienating. The whole episode does however invite us to consider what exactly we mean by the term ‘passion.’
If the Select Committee’s understanding of passion is so wildly at odds with so many of us in the field then we might venture the question; is the term even a viable one to use in judging such an important position? The term seems to be so wide ranging and all-encompassing as to render itself meaningless and would appear to chop off the branch on which it is standing.
We can perhaps think of two differing interpretations of passion on a broad spectrum; benign passion and malignant passion. The passion of an English teacher for Shakespeare is a very different proposition than the kind of jingoistic passion of the extremist. There is also the tendency to confuse passion with a sort of self-promoting extroversion. What of the passion of the introvert with its “quiet determination”? Might we realign the notion of passion with the qualities of measured reflection, patient facilitation, the rare ability to ask the right kind of questions and then listen attentively to the answers?
Of course used pejoratively as I have outlined here, passion can be viewed perhaps wrongly in a solely negative light. After all, having no conviction at all leads nowhere and being passionate about personal goals and pursuits extends many benefits to us all both personally and professionally. Good teachers are devotees of their subject and have an innate ability to communicate that in ways that make learning infectious.
However ‘passion’ can often mask a more set unhelpful of dispositions, from the harmless passion associated with the banality of self help culture to the more sinister passion of a certain leadership culture that uses the term to excuse prejudice and exercise power over others in negative ways. As we have seen this week, passion often confers certainty where it is not warranted, and at its worst can cover a multitude of sins as Yeats knew all too well.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
Not All Stress is Bad. The Benefits of Eustress or ‘Good Stress’ For Learning
In the 1930s endocrinologist Hans Selye differentiated between two types of stress, distress and eustress. We are all familiar with the first term but perhaps less with the second term which refers to a positive response to external stressors leading to a state of optimism, confidence and agency, in other words ‘good stress.’ The origins of this model has its roots in 1908 when psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John Dillingham Dodson posited that productivity is directly correlated with an optimal state of stress. Too little of it and you get nothing done, too much of it and you get nothing done either.
A key concern of anyone working in education is monitoring the stress levels of staff and students. Of course we don’t want anyone to be in a state of distress but we now live in an age that often views all stress as distress without acknowledging the benefits of eustress. Is it possible to imagine a more ‘stress-tolerant’ culture where students embrace a ‘sweet spot’ or optimal level of stress, one where we could engender a atmosphere of positive challenge and agency? As Ben Martynoga points out:
This is where good teachers and managers should push their charges: to the sweet spot that separates predictable tedium from chaotic overload. Where stress gets more persistent, unmanageable and damaging, Selye calls it “distress”. Eustress and distress have identical biological bases; they are simply found at different points on the same curve.
The key point here is that both of these states are responses to external stressors as opposed to being caused by events themselves, in other words, perception is everything. A key question here is in what way do educators shape the perception that all stress is distress?
Broadly there are two responses to stress, an initial avoidance and then subsequent coping strategies. For a group of Yale researchers, both of these approaches deny the benefits of eustress because they perpetuate the idea that all stress is bad:
These approaches advocate and perpetuate the mindset that stress-is-debilitating, a mindset that not only is partly inaccurate but may also be counter-effective. Even hardiness and resilience approaches to stress, while acknowledging the enhancing outcomes, still ultimately affirm the mindset that the debilitating effects of stress must be managed or avoided.
In contrast to the “stress-is-debilitating” mindset, these researchers discovered that students could be primed to adopt a “stress-is-enhancing” mindset in which they embraced a certain level of stress and which resulted in them being more open to seeking help, more open to feedback, which led to lower levels of distress overall and which had “positive consequences relating to improved health and work performance.” This “stress-is-enhancing” mindset has many resonances with Robert Bjork’s notion of desirable difficulties.
We are all familiar with the”stress-is-debilitating” mindset. When we have open ended large tasks, we are often are on the left of the Yerkes-Dodson curve, with little or no stress and thus no stimulation to act, but when the deadline is looming, we find ourselves often on the right of that curve, in a state of paralysis, unable to act and making poor decisions in an effort to alleviate the distress. Clearly then the ‘sweet spot’ is to be in a state of eustress, characterised by hope, excitement, active engagement, (O Sullivan, 2010) and that feeling that you are in control of the task you are faced with.
While there are some serious external stressors that are debilitating no matter what your response to them, two questions worth asking are:
- Are the kinds of tasks we are asking students to do genuinely placing them in a state of distress or could they be seen more positively as a potential state of eustress?
- Are we focusing on teaching methods that actually increase distress such as a focus on the storing of information as opposed to the retrieval of it?
In education research there is often very little consensus, but one area in which there is almost unanimous agreement is in the testing effect. We now know that the worst thing we can advise students to do in terms of revision is to re-read material and highlight key points, and that the most effective thing we can advise them to do is to practice retrieving information through testing, preferable through self testing, low stakes quizzing and flash cards. This distinction between storage and retrieval processes is well researched as Roediger and Butler explain:
“The testing effect is a robust phenomenon: The basic finding has been replicated over a hundred times and its generalizability is well established.”
So we know that testing is beneficial for learning but yet the general perception of testing seems to be altogether negative. Is the problem not just the high stakes nature of them but also how students are prepared for them? If students are using poor study techniques like re-reading and highlighting material for most of the school year within a curriculum that is not interleaved but focuses on mass practice, is it any wonder that they enter a state of distress when they enter exam season?
Stress experienced early in life can be debilitating and potentially devastating if compounded throughout life. Where children experience prolonged periods of distress they need the proper help and support to enable them to cope and we clearly have some way to go in this area. But are the kinds of tasks that we are asking them to do in schools genuinely creating a state of distress? If stress is a often a question of perception as Selye claimed then to what extent is it helpful to portray testing and exams for example as a key contributor to a “mental health crisis spiralling out of control?”
Stress is a very difficult area because it is highly subjective and often results in emotional and sometimes irrational reactions to it. We all want to create a healthy, productive atmosphere for staff and students in which they feel they have agency over their future and in which they don’t feel overwhelmed by external stressors but by viewing all stress as distress without harnessing the hidden benefits of eustress, we might just be missing a trick.
Diamond DM, et al. (2007). “The Temporal Dynamics Model of Emotional Memory Processing: A Synthesis on the Neurobiological Basis of Stress-Induced Amnesia, Flashbulb and Traumatic Memories, and the Yerkes-Dodson Law”. Neural Plasticity: 33. doi:10.1155/2007/60803. PMID 17641736.–
O’Sullivan, Geraldine (18 July 2010). “The Relationship Between Hope, Eustress, Self-Efficacy, and Life Satisfaction Among Undergraduates”. Social Indicators Research 101 (1): 155–172. doi:10.1007/s11205-010-9662-z.
Roediger & Butler Encyclopedia of the Mind (2013)
Rethinking Stress: The Role of Mindsets in Determining the Stress Response
Is effective teaching more about good relationships than anything else?
On the 3rd May 2015, Chelsea won the Premier League title with three games to spare. For manager Jose Mourinho, it was his 21st trophy, marking him out as the most decorated manager in recent club football history. In August he was rewarded with a multi-million pound contract that would see him at the club until 2019. By December he was sacked.
The club had inexplicably nosedived in the new season with reports of “palpable discord” in the dressing room exacerbated by his public admonishment and subsequent ostracism of team doctor and well respected member of the group, Eva Carnerio. One of the major questions that emerged from Mourinho’s “annus horribilis” is how did a group of players who won the league at a canter a matter of months ago, capitulate in such a dramatic fashion?
In direct contrast to this, in 2016 we witnessed possibly the greatest sporting phenomenon in English football history with Leicester City winning the Premier League, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that at the same time the previous year they were bottom of the league and fighting for their lives to even stay in it. The difference appears to be their new manager, the genial Claudio Ranieri who has elevated a disparate band of largely unknown players to the pinnacle of football history within less than a year by fostering an indomitable team spirit that has seen each and every player performing well beyond their limits.
Great teachers have much in common with great coaches. They have a vertiginous knowledge of their field with an infectious passion for it, and they can communicate that passion clearly and in ways that inspire. They have an unquestionable authority, the total respect of the players in their charge and crucially, they can engender trust and belief in their team to the extent that they will walk through walls for them. Conversely, if that relationship breaks down, players can be shadows of their former selves; aimless, lacking in confidence and self-belief and playing ‘within themselves.’
Anyone working in education has experienced this same dynamic, either themselves as students through a teacher who ignited a passion for the subject they went on to study, or through witnessing that colleague who unfailingly seems to get the best out of even the most resistant of students. I’m not talking about teachers who are well liked and who allow students to “define their own learning” (often described as a “legend”) but teachers who set high expectations, command genuine respect and trust, who model the kind of behaviour they expect, who have the authority to create a scholarly space that allows kids to really achieve, who have the ability to make students believe they are better than they ever thought they could be, and who can transmit their own obsession for their subject into a lifelong appreciation of it from their students.
Yet this element is rarely mentioned in education research. Possibly because there is no effective way of measuring such a thing and possibly because it is the elephant in the room that many simply don’t want to face. The uncomfortable truth is that without the respect and trust of their students, a teacher will often be ineffective no matter how many interventions they try or how many leadership training courses they are sent on.
One of the many blind spots in education research is that it often doesn’t take into account the context in which an particular approach occurs, which makes comparing ‘like for like’ extremely problematic and which has resulted in widely differing interpretations of what works.
However, despite the fact there is often very little consensus in education research, one area in which there is almost unanimous agreement is in feedback as the most effective agent of learning. For Dylan Wiliam, in order for this approach to function properly, context is all important and a healthy relationship between teacher and pupil is paramount:
“In the end, it all comes down to the relationship between the teacher and the student. To give effective feedback, the teacher needs to know the student—to understand what feedback the student needs right now. And to receive feedback in a meaningful way, the student needs to trust the teacher—to believe that the teacher knows what he or she is talking about and has the student’s best interests at heart. Without this trust, the student is unlikely to invest the time and effort needed to absorb and use the feedback.”
There isn’t a lot of research in this area but one interesting (yet somewhat disturbing) study conducted by Hunter Gehlbach from Harvard in which researchers tried to improve teacher/student relationships by showing areas where they had something in common, has yielded some intriguing results:
“For the experiment he had in mind, Hunter and his team created a survey for students and teachers of a ninth-grade class. The researchers then selectively shared examples from the survey results with teachers and students to show them that they had things in common. When Hunter examined the test scores of students who had been induced to see that they had things in common with their teachers, he found something astonishing: students — especially minorities — suddenly started to perform better in class.”
This study is yet to be replicated and there are many problematic aspects of it, but it does perhaps signal a new avenue of enquiry that moves away from focussing on disembodied education interventions and instead focuses on the context in which those interventions take place. If a teacher doesn’t have authority and the respect of his students, does it matter what approach they take?
It’s not a teacher’s job to be liked or popular, but it is their job to ensure students can achieve their potential and ideally, open their minds up to wonders of Shakespeare, Newtonian Physics or Minoan civilisation. If the strength of the relationship between teacher and pupil is the determining factor in how well students engage with their subject then maybe we need to talk about this rather than focussing on a set of ‘what works’ interventions that no matter how well evidenced, won’t work if the teacher has ‘lost the dressing room.’
Dylan Wiliam The Secret of Effective Feedback
In The Classroom, Common Ground Can Transform GPAs
The role of teacher should be privileged over any leadership role.
One of the dominant narratives in contemporary education is the ubiquitous assertion that everyone is now a leader. Not only are all teachers now leaders, but even the kids are leaders whether they like it or not. Within such a climate we might want to ask; if everyone is now a leader, then what distinguishes the role of leader from any other, and who now leads the leaders? The other serious question is what does this say about teachers who just want to remain in the classroom?
Of course, on an abstract theoretical level all classroom teachers are leaders in the sense that they ‘lead’ a class of young people, but in reality they are not ‘leaders’ in the same way that effective senior leaders or heads of departments are. They aren’t making difficult decisions on a need-to-know basis about confidential pupil welfare issues, they are not organising whole school timetables and assemblies, they are not dealing with delicate staff disputes and they are not considering these issues from the same vantage point of actual leadership. If the entire crew on a ship were suddenly told they were now captains or chief officers and all stood at the bridge then how would the ship function?
Calling yourself a ‘thought leader’ because you put whacky ideas down on post-it notes and get a room full of people to jump up and down in order to “energise their creativity” doesn’t make you a leader. More often than not, you’re just wasting people’s time and time is something that teachers have precious little of. They certainly don’t have time to indulge some facile notion of motivational leadership dreamt up by a someone who has just watched a TED talk or read a bestselling book on leadership by yet another ‘leader’ who has never even been in a classroom.
So let’s be clear, beyond the motivational jargon, teachers are not leaders and leaders are not teachers and to conflate both the roles does each a disservice. What we need is both a divergence and an elevation of both of these respective roles in order to maximise their individual potential, and in doing so we should privilege the role of classroom teacher above all others. The overwhelming purpose of a school is to have an impact on the young people who attend it and the place where that happens for the most part is in the classroom not the assembly hall.
But this cult of leadership has its roots in a more ominous development in education. What seems to have crept into our profession is a sinister corporatism that views career progress in terms of leadership promotion and insists that everyone is now obliged to lead as a matter of course. What could be more suspicions that the teacher who just wants to be a teacher? This new cult of leadership is imperious and its followers are legion, indeed its various plenipotentiaries have been a veritable cash cow for the the encircling forces surrounding education. From the bloated list of academic qualifications in education leadership offered by universities to the often farcical leadership training days for teachers who are sent away from their classes on leadership courses, leadership is the assumed obligation of all teachers, without which any teacher is merely just that, a teacher.
So the role of teacher should be privileged over any leadership role. I labour this point not to denigrate leadership but rather to pay tribute to it. Great leadership is a rare ability role that requires a very particular set of skills, many of which are innate. Whilst they can be impersonated, they cannot be learned on a course or through an inspirational seminar.
In my career working in both the state and independent sectors I have been fortunate to work with many truly great leaders and the one consistent element in those people is that they had a set of skills that were sui generis – they were one of a kind individuals who were marked out by their difference, and that is what great leaders are – different. What made them true leaders wasn’t learned on a course or a book, it was a set of innate qualities such as drive, humility, patience, ambition and a certain kind of vision that others didn’t have. Their single biggest quality as a true leader however, was their willingness to selflessly take on a huge amount of unpleasantness that allowed those around them to flourish.
Great school leaders know that the purpose of schools is to endow students with a vital sense of themselves greater than they can yet imagine through the wonder of knowledge, and it is the direct impact of the classroom teacher that is ‘transformational’ here not the senior leader, or the school inspector or the education consultant. Truly great leadership does just that, it leads, intervening when it needs to, but for the most part it gets out of the way and allows others to flourish in a well structured environment. By telling everyone that they are leaders, we risk diminishing the unique role of leadership and we simultaneously perpetuate the idea that simply being a classroom teacher is somehow not enough. Let leaders lead, but more importantly, let teachers teach.