Delighted to announce that the American edition of ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?’ has been released this week with a new foreword by Dylan Wiliam which you can read here.
The book is the third volume in @Learn_Sci‘s Dylan Wiliam Center Collection
In 1999, Paul Black and I were working with a group of math and science teachers. We had just completed a major review of the research on the impact of assessment on learning, and we had published our findings in a rather dense 65-page academic journal article.1 However, since we thought our findings would be of interest to practitioners and policy-makers, we also wrote a more accessible summary of our research, and its implications, which was published in Phi Delta Kappan magazine.2
One of the most surprising findings of our review, which we were sharing with the teachers, related to research on feedback. A particularly comprehensive review of feedback in schools, colleges and workplaces by two American psychologists—Avraham Kluger and Angelo DeNisi—had found that while feedback was often helpful in improving achievement, in 38% of the well-designed studies they had found, feedback actually lowered performance.3 In other words, in almost two out of every five cases, the participants in the research studies would have performed better if the feedback had not been given at all.
In trying to makes sense of their findings, Kluger and DeNisi suggested that feedback was less effective when it was focused on the individual (what psychologists call “ego-involving”) and more effective when it was focused on the task in which the students were engaged (“task-involving”). We therefore suggested to the teachers that to make their feedback to students more effective, they should give task-involving rather than ego-involving feedback.
Most of the teachers seemed to find this advice useful, but one teacher, after some thought, asked, “So does this mean I should not say ‘well done’ to a student?” Paul and I looked at each other, and realized that we didn’t know the answer to the question. We knew, from the work of a number of researchers, that in the longer term, praise for effort would be more likely to be successful than praise for ability. However, without knowing more about the relationship between the teacher and the student, about the context of the work, and a whole host of other factors, we could not be sure whether “Well done” would be task-involving or ego-involving feedback.
What is ironic in all this, is that we had failed to take the advice we had given teachers a year earlier in the Phi Delta Kappan article, where we said,
if the substantial rewards promised by the research evidence are to be secured, each teacher must find his or her own ways of incorporating the lessons and ideas set out above into his or her own patterns of classroom work and into the cultural norms and expectations of a particular school community. (p. 146)
The important point here is that the standard model of research dissemination, where researchers discover things, and then tell teachers about their findings, so that teachers can then implement them in their own classrooms, simply cannot work. As Carl Hendrick and Robin MacPherson point out in this book, classrooms are too complex for the results of
research studies to be implemented as a series of instructions to be followed. Rather, the work that teachers do in finding out how to apply insights from research in their own classrooms is a process of creating new knowledge, albeit of a distinct, and local kind. This is why this book is so unusual and important. It is not an instruction manual on how to do “evidence-based teaching” (whatever that might mean). It is, instead, an invitation to every educator to reflect on some of the most important issues in education in general—and teaching in particular—and to think about how educational research might be used as a guide for careful thinking about, and exploration of, practice.
A second unusual—and welcome—feature of this book is the way it was put together. Carl and Robin started by identifying a number of issues that are relevant to every teacher—student discipline and behavior, motivation, grading, classroom practice, reading, inclusion, memory, technology and so on. At this point, most authors would have written advice for teachers on these issues, but of course, the danger with such an approach is that it reflects the concerns of the authors, rather than of the potential reader—what philosopher Karl Popper described as “unwanted answers to unasked questions.”4
Instead, in a novel twist, Carl and Robin decided to ask practicing teachers what were for them the most important questions in each of the areas. Then, again counter to what most writers would have done, they posed the questions to both academic experts and those with expertise in classroom practice. The result is a marvelous combination of insights into teaching that are both authoritative and immediately relevant to classroom practice.
If you have read the previous volumes in the “Dylan Wiliam Center Collection” —Craig Barton’s How I wish I’d taught maths and Tom Sherrington’s The learning rainforest—you will know that our aim has been to bring to North American readers the very best of authoritative writing on education from around the world. While the questions that were posed by the teachers that Carl and Robin worked with may appear to be focused on issues that are of particular concern to teachers in England, the extraordinary range of expertise of those responding to these questions means that the answers are relevant to every American educator. The very best writing on educational research, in an accessible form—solutions you can trust.
1 Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 5(1), 7-74.
2 Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(2), 139-148.
3 Kluger, A. N., & DeNisi, A. (1996). The effects of feedback interventions on performance: a historical review, a meta-analysis, and a preliminary feedback intervention theory. Psychological Bulletin, 119(2), 254-284.
4 Popper, K. (1992 p. 41). Unended quest: An intellectual biography. London, UK: Routledge.
One of the biggest lessons from research is that many students don’t really know how to study. Various studies have shown that students rate re-reading and highlighting as the most effective ways of revising when in reality they are often a waste of time giving an illusion of competence in the short term at the expense of long term gains.
Students may spend large amounts of additional time studying despite no gain in later memory for the items, a phenomenon called ‘‘labour-in-vain’’ during learning (Nelson & Leonesio,1988). Recent research with educationally relevant materials has shown that repeatedly reading prose passages produces limited benefits beyond a single reading. (Karpicke, Roediger, Butler, 2009)
In contrast, retrieval practice, spacing and interleaving are some of the most productive ways of revising material but how many students are familiar with this? I think there is often a tendency to focus too much on what teachers are doing and less on what students are doing.
Recently I got the chance to talk to some year 10 students from across our partnership of schools about study skills and I put together a brief guide to help them. The idea was to introduce them to five powerful approaches to studying in a language they can understand with the opportunity to apply them to a period of revision designed by them. All materials are below.
Thanks to the brilliant Olivier Cavigioli for the illustrations and design.
Once you talk students through these key principles, you can get them to plan their revision using a revision planner like this depending on how much time they have left:
You can download all materials here:
In our new book ‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?’ we interviewed Dylan Wiliam on how to implement research on assessment in the classroom.
A central problem in the area of assessment in the classroom has been in the way we often confuse marking and feedback. As Dylan Wiliam points out in our discussion, there is an extraordinary amount of energy expended by teachers on marking and often very little to show for it in the way of student benefit. Although feedback is one of the most effective drivers of learning, one of the more surprising findings is that a lot of it actually has a negative effect on student achievement.
A set of marked books is traditionally seen as an effective proxy for good teaching but there is a lot of evidence to say that this might not always be the case. This problem is on a scale that might surprise a lot of people:
Dylan: I once estimated that, if you price teacher’s time appropriately, in England we spend about two and a half billion pounds a year on feedback and it has almost no effect on student achievement.
Certainly students need to know where they make misconceptions or spelling errors and correcting those is important. Doing so also provides a useful diagnostic for teachers to inform what they will teach next, but the written comments at the end of a piece of work are often both the most time-consuming and also the most ineffective. For example, taking the following typical comments on a GCSE English essay:
- Try to phrase your analysis of language using more sophisticated vocabulary and phrasing.
- Try to expand on your points with more complex analysis of Macbeth’s character.
This is a good example of certain assessment practices where the feedback mainly focuses on what was deficient about it, which as Douglas Reeve’s notes, is “more like a post-mortem than a medical.” The other thing is that it doesn’t really tell the student what they need to do to improve. What is more useful to the student here? receiving vague comments like these or actually seeing sophisticated vocabulary, phrasing and analysis in action? It’s very difficult to be excellent if you don’t know what excellent looks like.
Often, teachers give both a grade and comments like those above to students, hoping that they somehow improve by the time their next piece of writing comes around a week later and then berate the student when, lo and behold, they make the same mistakes again. Perhaps part of the problem here is that we have very low expectations of what students are willing to do in response to a piece of work and do not afford them the opportunity to engage in the kind of tasks that might really improve their learning.
To address this problem, Dylan advocates a much more streamlined model of marking that is not only more manageable for teachers, but also allows students to have more ownership over the process:
Dylan: I recommend what I call ‘four quarters marking.’ I think that teachers should mark in detail, 25% of what students do, should skim another 25%, students should then self-assess about 25% with teachers monitoring the quality of that and finally, peer assessment should be the other 25%. It’s a sort of balanced diet of different kinds of marking and assessment.
Dylan Wiliam’s Four Quarters Marking (Oliver Caviglioli)
After producing a piece of work, instead of using abstract skills based success criteria, it is probably more powerful for students to have access to a bank of exemplar essays or worked solutions to see concrete examples of success against which to self-assess their own work. Marking everything in sight and leaving detailed comments is an established cultural norm now but this practice doesn’t appear to be based on good evidence. We know for example that many students will look at a grade and not engage with the feedback but is that feedback always useful anyway?
As we discuss in the book, a common issue we see again and again in using research in the classroom is the ‘Chinese whisper effect’ where by the time evidence works its way down to the level of the classroom, it’s a pale imitation of its original form. This is especially prevalent in the area of marking where convoluted policies such as triple marking are enacted as a means of raising pupil achievement whereas all they are doing is often increasing teacher workload. As Dylan Wiliam reminds us, “feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor,” but how do you change a culture that has traditionally been the opposite?
Dylan: In terms of what we do about this, I would say first of all, headteachers should lay down clear expectation to parents and say things like, “We are not going to give detailed feedback on more than 25% of what your child does. The reason for that is not because we’re lazy. It’s because there are better uses we could make of that time. We could mark everything your child does, but that would lead to lower quality teaching and then your child will learn less.” Heads have to establish those cultural norms. If a teacher is marking everything your child does, it’s bad teaching. It is using time in a way that does not have the greatest benefit for students.
As a profession, we are too some extent, we are our own worst enemy. Using marking policies that have little impact on student achievement and a negative impact on teacher workload and morale makes little sense. By adopting an approach like four quarters marking, we might go some way to address this issue and at the same time, give students more ownership over their own learning.
‘What Does This Look Like in the Classroom?’ is out later this month.
I was asked to write a piece for the Guardian Teacher network on what books teachers should read. You can read it here.
1. Motivation doesn’t always lead to achievement, but achievement often leads to motivation.
While there is a strong correlation between self perception and achievement and we tend to think of it in that order, 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 directly 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.
Despite this, a lot of interventions in education seem to have the causal arrow pointed the wrong way round. Motivational posters and talks are often a waste of time and may well give students a deluded notion of what success actually means. In my experience, teaching students how to write an effective introduction to an essay through close instruction, careful scaffolding and then praising their effort in getting there is a far more effective way of improving confidence than showing them a TED talk about how unique they are.
2. Just because they’re engaged doesn’t mean they’re learning anything.
One of the slides from a talk that has stuck with me the most in recent years was this one from Professor Rob Coe which in which he criticised graded lesson observations and highlighted several performance indicators for learning which are actually very misleading:
This again is quite a counterintuitive claim. Why is engagement is such a poor proxy indicator – surely the busier they are, the more they are learning? This paradox is explored by Graham Nuthall in his book ‘The Hidden Lives of Learners,’ (2007) in which he writes:
“Our research shows that students can be busiest and most involved with material they already know. In most of the classrooms we have studied, each student already knows about 40-50% of what the teacher is teaching.” p.24
Nuthall’s work shows that students are far more likely to get stuck into tasks they’re comfortable with and already know how to do as opposed to the more uncomfortable enterprise of grappling with uncertainty and indeterminate tasks.
3. Marking and feedback are not the same thing.
This subtle difference may seem semantic but there is an important distinction to be made. The value in marking a piece of work may counterintuitively be of more benefit to the teacher than the student as David Didau explains:
While there’s no doubt that marking and feedback are connected, they are not the same. In some parts of the world – Japan for instance – teachers do very little marking but that’s not to say students are not getting feedback. From my own experience, I’m pretty sure it’s possible to make marks in students’ books without providing anything in the way of useful feedback and of course lots of thinking (some of it disastrous) has been done to try to prevent this from happening. Ask any group of teachers if their marking load has increased dramatically in past five years and they’ll fall over themselves to let you know just how much impact marking has on their lives, but what impact does it have on students’ outcomes? The answer is, we just don’t know.
4. Feedback should be more work for the recipient than the donor.
Possibly the most damaging misappropriation of research in my career has been the mangling of Assessment For Learning – a quagmire from which we are now only beginning to emerge. Not long after Dylan Wiliam’s seminal 1998 ‘Inside the Black Box’ became adopted at a national level, school leaders and policy makers managed to twist it into a pale imitation of its original form as AFL became about students memorising what level they were working at and teachers marking books at a level that defied sense in order to show ‘evidence’ of learning. But for feedback to be truly meaningful to students, they need to take ownership of it which may well mean not giving levels to a piece of work at all and instead just leaving comments for the student to reflect and act upon. As Dylan Wiliam writes:
Robyn Renee Jackson suggests that one of the most important principles for teachers is “Never work harder than your students” (Jackson, 2009). I regularly ask teachers whether they believe their students spend as long processing feedback as it takes for the teacher to provide it. Few teachers say yes. We spend far too much time giving feedback that’s either completely ignored or given scant attention.
5. (a) The steps needed to achieve a skill may look very different to the final skill itself.
If you want to get good at a certain skill then surely the best way to get good at it is to practice that particular skill right? Well not according to the tenets of deliberate practice which asserts a more indirect approach that breaks a global skill down into its constituent local parts and focuses on specific feedback and incremental improvement rather than a set of assessment criteria/performance descriptors that are “aimed at some vague overall improvement.” (Ericsson) In her book ‘Making Good Progress’, Daisy Christodoulou writes:
Whilst skills such as literacy, numeracy, problem solving and critical thinking are still the end point of education, this does not mean that pupils always need to be practising such skills in their final format. Instead, the role of the teacher and indeed, the various parts of the education system, should be to break down such skills into their component parts, and to teach those instead. This means that lessons may look very different from the final skill they are hoping to instil. For example, a lesson which aims to teach pupils reading may involve pupils learning letter-sound correspondences. A lesson with the ultimate aim of teaching pupils to solve maths problems may involve them memorising their times tables. The idea here is that the best way to develop skills does not always look like the skill itself.
5. (b). There is no such thing as developing a ‘general’ skill.
Of course, critical thinking is an essential part of any student’s mental equipment. However, it cannot be detached from context. Teaching students generic ‘thinking skills’ separate from the rest of the curriculum is often meaningless and ineffective. As Daniel Willingham puts it:
[I]f you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives … critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.
This detachment of cognitive ideals from contextual knowledge is not confined to the learning of critical thinking. Some schools laud themselves for placing ‘21st-century learning skills’ at the heart of their mission but without anchoring them in domain specific contexts, they are often a waste of time. Anders Ericsson develops this point:
This explains a crucial fact about expert performance in general: there is no such thing as developing a general skill. You don’t train your memory; you train your memory for strings of digits or for collections of words or people’s faces. You don’t train to become an athlete; you train to become a gymnast or sprinter or a marathoner or a swimmer or a basketball player. You don’t train to become a doctor; you train to become a diagnostician or a pathologist or a neurosurgeon.
It’s a well observed truth that because everyone has had an education, everyone feels well placed to comment on all aspects of education. Often that takes the form of “My experience of education was like this so all education should be more/less like that.” This often finds its most pure expression in the form of mainstream journalists giving answers to questions nobody asked them and giving a state of the union address on education anyway.
In a recent article in the Times, Caitlin Moran decided to offer herself up as education secretary and outlined her vision:
My plan is very straightforward, and rests on two facts: (1) the 21st-century job market requires basically nothing of what is taught in 21st-century schools, and (2) everyone has a smartphone.
First, as anyone with a teenage/young adult child will know, the notion of them going into a full-time, long-term job with a pension at the end of it looks like something we left behind in the 20th century. The old pathway – learn a skill, use it for 40 years, then retire – is over. The jobs of the future require flexibility and self-motivation. Indeed, the jobs of the future increasingly require you to invent your own job. The majority of jobs our children will have – in just a few years’ time – have almost certainly not been invented yet.
Those of you playing TED talk education cliche bingo will probably be already screaming “full house!” but hold your horses folks…
If you work better sleeping until noon, then working until 2am – as most teenagers do – congratulations! You no longer have to deny your own biology! And if, working at 2am, you have no teacher to help you, discovering how to research on your own is, frankly, going to be far more useful than the thing you’re supposed to be learning. Because, (2) my education policy would be to stop bothering kids with anything you can access on a smartphone.
This kind of pseudo-futurist, Waitrose Organic aisle philosophy is often found in self-made individuals who eschewed school to admirably forge a successful career in the communications industry. Fine for those outliers but unconscionable to advocate that for the vast majority of children from less privileged backgrounds for whom good A level results can be life changing.
Apart from the fact there are well documented problems with the assertion that Google can replace human knowledge, claiming that we should just depend on our smartphones for learning is a dangerous idea as Paul Kirschner and Mirjam Neelen note:
All this leads us to conclude that if we don’t have knowledge and only depend on the information in the cloud, what will happen is what William Poundstone articulates in the Guardian: The cloud will make us mega-ignorant: unaware of what we don’t know.
There is also the potentially damaging impact with celebrities claiming that school doesn’t matter. One can’t help stifle a chuckle/grind one’s teeth when we hear auto-satirist Jeremy Clarkson tell A level students to not worry about their results because it all worked out fine for him. Again, fine for those who had great fortune/rare abilities but very dangerous to mandate as a broad system of education.
Behind these risible views however lies a dangerous conceit; namely that the purpose of education is to merely get you a job, and not just any job, but a job that doesn’t exist yet. These phantasmic jobs often focus on alliterative groupings such as “collaboration, creativity and connectivity”, (something we are evolved to do anyway) and are positioned in opposition with the cruelty of 20th century education which apparently was some kind of mass conspiracy designed to create a global village of the damned.
However, far from being the so called “factory model” bastille limiting children’s potential, 20th century schooling is perhaps the high water mark for education. Class sizes were reduced, more students with special needs were included in mainstream education, minimum teachers standards were introduced and more children had access to quality education than at any time in human history. Astonishingly, from 1900 to 2015, rates of global literacy increased from 21 percent to 86 percent.
Behind many of these claims is also a barely concealed contempt for the teaching profession. If Moran’s education policy were to be enacted and we were to “stop bothering kids with anything you can access on a smartphone” then the role of teacher would be defunct. Teachers are the most expensive commodity in the 21st century learning paradigm so it would make sense to replace them with technology, something these evangelists rarely say explicitly. At a time when school funding is being cut to almost unmanageable levels, the emancipatory claims of 21st century learning should be viewed with forensic scepticism.
Of course we should prepare students for an uncertain future, but if we adopt the techno-evangelist disruptive model and view education as merely a utilitarian enterprise for 21st century workplace then we truly will enact a “factory model” of schooling and furthermore, we will diminish the gift of knowledge for its own sake. Students should study Shakespeare not because of what job it might get them but because it’s an anthropological guidebook that tells them how to live.
Being an air traffic controller is hard. Really hard. The job entails having to remember vast amounts of fluid information often within a context of enormous pressure. Essentially the job is about ‘situational awareness’ which involves “the continuous extraction of environmental information, the integration of this information with prior knowledge to form a coherent understanding of the present situation.” The job is sometimes done under extreme duress, where they have to make life or death decisions often with a lack of sleep leading in some cases to long-term fatigue and burnout. So stressful is the job that they are eligible for retirement at age 50 or after 25 years of service.
In the 1960s, a series of interesting experiments was done on air traffic controllers. Researchers wanted to explore if they had a general enhanced ability to “keep track of a number of things at once”  and whether that skill could be applied to other situations. After observing their sophisticated abilities in air traffic control, they then gave them a set of generic memory based tasks with shapes and colours. The extraordinary thing was that when tested on these skills outside their own area of expertise the air traffic controllers did no better than anyone else.
These findings challenged contemporary thinking on generic skills. Surely they had developed a set of general cognitive capacities that could be used in other areas or ‘domains’? The evidence suggested the opposite. In order to be good in a specific domain you need to know a lot about that specific domain and moreover, “the more complex the domain, the more important is domain-specific knowledge.” This phenomenon is now well established and has been replicated many times. Other research for example has shown that the ability to remember long strings of digits does not transfer to the ability to remember long strings of letters. Indeed, we all know very ‘clever’ people in their professional lives who seem to often make very stupid decisions in their personal lives:
“A person who is able to reason logically in science may show no such ability in his or her personal life or in any areas outside of his or her areas of science. Knowing that we should only test one variable at a time when conducting a scientific experiment is critical. Outside of hypothesis testing, it may be irrelevant, with other knowledge being pre-eminent.” 
Take another example, sport. Within a football team you have many different types of positions or ‘domains’ such as goalkeepers, defenders and attackers. Within those domains you have further categories such as centre backs, full backs, attacking midfielders, holding midfielders and attacking players. Now the ‘general skill’ that all these players have is the ability to play football, however if you put a left back in a striker’s position or put a central midfielder in goal they would be lost.
A footballer’s ability to be effective in a particular position or domain is based on years of experience where they have built up thousands of mental models from playing the game in that particular position so that when they have to perform at a high level they can do so with faster reaction times and their full concentration can go on anticipating the complexities of the game faster than their opponent. Of course there are elements that are consistent with each position such as touch and technical ability but they look very different in each position and are heavily context specific. For example, a central defender heading a ball away to safety is very different to a striker heading a goal and the types of positioning and runs an attacking player needs to make are radically different to those of a defender. In other words, elite footballers are not “good at football” as such, they’re good at being a left back, defensive midfielder or attacker.
Despite the growing body of evidence questioning the efficacy of teaching general skills in recent years, there is still a near constant refrain for them to be prioritised in schools. This usually takes the form of generic “critical thinking skills” often taught in some form for an hour or two a week and decontextualised from any specific subject. This is a problem as Dan Willingham reminds us
Critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.”
Thus, if you remind a student to “look at an issue from multiple perspectives” often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives. 
Another problematic area is the diaphanous world of “21st century learning skills” which some schools have made a central part of their mission. It’s even been suggested that some of these nebulous skills are now as important as literacy and should be afforded the same status. An example of this is brain training games whose proponents claim can help kids become smarter, more alert, and able to learn faster. However recent research has shown that brain training games are really only good for one thing – getting good a brain training games. The claim that they offer students a general set of critical or problem solving skills was recently debunked by a new study reviewing over 130 papers :
We know of no evidence for broad-based improvement in cognition, academic achievement, professional performance, and/or social competencies that derives from decontextualized practice of cognitive skills devoid of domain-specific content.
Instead of teaching generic critical thinking skills, an alternative strategy would be to focus instead on subject specific critical thinking skills that seek to broaden student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject. This goes for other dispositions and faculties taught generically such as Growth Mindset and Grit – students may well have a Growth Mindset in English but not in Maths, and yet the concept is often portrayed to students as a general capacity that can supposedly function in a transversal way across all subjects.(Despite the fact that the jury is still out on whether these can be taught at all.)
In the same way that teaching knowledge devoid of any platform for students to discuss, explore and develop that knowledge makes no sense, the teaching of standalone, decontextualised general skills is a questionable practice at best. It’s enduring appeal is probably in the fact that the concept seems so intuitively right yet when the evidence is appraised we find their justification weak. To those advocates of the ubiquitous critical thinking skills we might risk the question: “but what are they going to think with?” As Dan Willingham reminds us “thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about.”
The Role of Memory in Air Traffic Control (Gronlund, Dougherty)
Domain-Specific Knowledge and Why Teaching Generic Skills Does not Work (Tricot, Sweller 2014)
Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? (Willingham)
Do “Brain-Training” Programs Work? (Simons et al 2016)
1 (Dominquez, 1994)
2 (Yntema & Mueser, 1960)
3 (Ericsson & Charness, 1994)
4 (Tricot, Sweller 2014)
5 (Tricot, Sweller 2014)
6 (Willingham 2007)
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.
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.
Speaking on the art of direction, Terry Gilliam said that the difference between Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick is that while Spielberg gives you comforting answers, they’re not very clever answers, whereas Kubrick gives you something you have to really think about. For Gilliam, Kubrick’s work articulates a more recondite truth about humanity that doesn’t patronise its audience with platitudes and banalities but instead celebrates ambiguity, complexity and rejects the comforting, media friendly sound byte.
Spielberg’s work has its place of course and provides just as valid a form of entertainment as anything else. Sometimes “not very clever answers” are exactly what we need, but when those answers overreach their scope and are posited as a deep and inherent truth about life and offered as a maxim for how to live our lives, we risk conflating the truly profound for the pseudo profound. Inspirational culture is characterised by this conflation, telling us that the world is a lot simpler that is actually is.
This week there have been a series of ‘inspirational’ messages aimed at comforting students facing difficult exams. One of the central messages is that failing these exams doesn’t matter and that what really counts is “dreaming big” or “going on adventures.” Other messages advise students taking their SATS not to study over the weekend but instead “ride a scooter” or “eat Haribo and ice cream.”
While well intentioned, these statements conceal some concerning messages. They give students comforting, easy answers to difficult questions and implicitly tell them that instead of confronting difficulties, and being OK with confronting difficulties, they should instead be entertained all the time and be unconcerned with consequences. These messages fetishise failure as a means of growing, but failure doesn’t mean dismissing challenge and difficulty. Real failure means trying your very best at something and learning from the experience come what may, not “dreaming big” on a scooter all weekend.
Many inspirational messages not only patronise children with overly simple answers but also reveal a deep ignorance about the very real challenges many of them face. A lot of inspirational culture seems to come via highly successful individuals from wealthy backgrounds who fetishise their own failure with evangelical zeal, but failure is relative. What if you are from a second generation immigrant family with English as a second language? Is it in their best interest to eat Haribo and ice cream all weekend rather than giving themselves every opportunity of academic success? For many purveyors of failure, the consequences of flippantly failing the SAT exam as an adult and posting it on social media are on a different planet to the kind of consequences many kids from deprived backgrounds will face. Failure is relative and not all failure is good. I’m reminded of Donald Trump’s “inspirational” message earlier this year claiming that things had “not been easy for him” and that his father had given him a “small loan” of a million dollars to help him get started.
And while we’re on exams, a curious claim this week was that the SATs tests were were too “middle class” and “would have had no relevance to inner-city children or ones with no or little life skills.” Are we to take from this then that we should only teach kids that which they are interested in or already know about? Isn’t the point of education to broaden the minds of young people and introduce them to the vast expanse of human achievement and the natural world? Surely we want children to be intellectually curious, to have an ever expanding thirst for the best which has been thought and said, and to be exposed to a world beyond the limits of their time and space.
Failure has become the cri de cœur of the inspirational movement. A Princeton academic recently published a ‘Failure CV’ to wide acclaim which lists among them, a series of failed research funding proposals. However, rejections from doctorate programs at Harvard, Stanford and Cambridge are a world away from the prospect many children face if they fail key exams up to 16. All failure is not equal, and to propagate that is ill-judged, to celebrate it is irresponsible.
Inspirational culture implicitly tells the reader that they are too stupid to understand actual complexity and that they can do their thinking for them by summing up deep philosophical problems like failure in a pithy phrase or inspirational slogan on social media. We shouldn’t patronise children with the facile platitudes of inspirational messages (many of which are merely cynical opportunism,) we should be honest with them about the consequences of failure, both good and bad. We should equip them with the bravery to accept irresolution, challenge and difficulty and not provide them with the simple answers of inspirational culture. Failure may be an option for some of us, but not for all of us and for some kids, the consequences are far greater than others.