J. Garvey, The Persuaders: The hidden industry that wants to change your mind

This is not a book about education but it is a very erudite and enlightening examination of the world in which our pupils are growing up.  A world in which, Garvey argues, rational argument is increasingly losing out to other attempts to persuade.  These attempts include: ‘product placement, infoganda, astroturfing, crowd manipulation, newsjacking, framing, spinning, propaganding, agenda setting, message carpet-bombing, anchoring and the nudging of your choices, beliefs, desires, values, decisions and actions’.  The lowest estimates suggest that the average adult encounters several hundred ‘persuasive messages’ a day.  It is hard to believe that secondary age children encounter any fewer, and my suspicion would be that they encounter a greater number than many adults.  The book is full of examples of persuasion in action in the modern world.  Here are just a few:

  • The story of Nayirah.  In 1990, shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a 15 year old Kuwaiti girl gave evidence before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.  She spoke of the atrocities that she had witnessed whilst volunteering at Al-Aden hospital in Kuwait.  Her evidence, which was considered compelling, contained horrific details of babies being taken out of incubators by Iraqi soldiers and left on the floor to die. Nayirah’s testimony was reported in the major papers, and made all the main news programmes.  George Bush made several references to her testimony when seeking to bolster his case for war on Iraq.  The problem?  Nayirah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the US.  Independent investigations found no evidence that Nayirah had ever volunteered at Al-Aden hospital, nor any evidence that Iraqi soldiers had removed babies from incubators and left them to die.  It was lobbying firm Hill and Knowlton that brought Nayirah’s ‘evidence’ to the attention of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus.  Hill and Knowlton were acting for their clients, Citizens for a Free Kuwait, who wanted America to take military action against Iraq.  Nayirah was just one part of Hill and Knowlton’s extensive campaign to win over American ‘hearts and minds’ to the idea of military action against Iraq.
  • Public relations firms operating fake Wikipedia accounts and manipulating Google searches to promote the interests of their clients.  Representatives from Bell Pottinger Public Affairs have spoken with apparent pride about their work covering up the scandal of child labour in Uzbekistan.  Their devious work meant that anyone typing “Uzbek child labour” or similar into Google was directed to sites about how the Uzbek government was dealing with the problem, rather than sites critical of that government.
  • The ‘careful’ use of language.  People are more likely to feel sympathy for a ‘refugee’ than an ‘illegal immigrant’.  Equally, people are more likely to be shocked by the idea of ‘torture’ than of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’.
  • Suggestive questioning – this is increasingly being used by pollsters. Garvey quotes a particularly egregious example from the 2000 presidential election in America, when voters were asked: ‘Would you be more or less likely to vote for John McCain for president if you knew he had fathered an illegitimate black child?’  The question planted a false idea in voters minds.  The pollsters were hoping was that the voters would see McCain with his adopted daughter, who is of Bangladeshi origin, add two and two, make five, and decide that McCain was not trustworthy.
  • Marketing techniques that aim to increase sales by worrying the consumer. Manufacturers of air conditioning units have, for example, found it effective to market their products as good for security because they enable people to keep cool at night without the ‘dangers’ of opening a window.
  • The use of nudges by UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) to increase the number of organ donors.  These nudges included showing potential donors pictures of smiling people who had already donated, and telling people how many lives they could save by donating their organs.

If I were very cynical, I would probably have sat down after reading Garvey’s book, and worked out how to incorporate the persuasive techniques he describes into my classroom practice.  Indeed, I probably already use some of them without even registering what I am doing, but my interest in all this from a teaching point of view is not a cynical one.  It stems for my desire to ensure that my students are savvy about the world that they live in. I hope that the better they know and understand how the world operates, the more successfully they will navigate it.  Although that itself is double-edged, because if we do live in an age that gives the lie to the liberal idea that rational argument will always win out, navigating the world successfully might well require more guile than intelligent reflection, and I am not intending to start teaching guile anytime soon.  (Mind you, if I found out that someone somewhere was teaching a skills based course entitled ‘Emulating Machiavelli’s Prince’, I would only be mildly surprised.)  Even helping students to recognise and reflect on the various forms of persuasion to which they are subject each day is not an easily achievable goal. The kind of behaviours that Garvey describes are necessarily hard to spot because, of course, none of them would be successful were it easy to tell if and how manipulation was at work.  At one point I even found myself wondering if Garvey was really setting out a well reasoned case that persuasive techniques are on the increase, or whether he was just cleverly weaving together a range of most egregious examples to worry me.  It is the former, but this is the sort of book that makes one a bit wary …

 

 

My experience of comparative judgement

Last year, I agreed to take part in a comparative judgement exercise using the No More Marking software.  The exercise involved comparing Year 7 history essays on the Battle of Hastings.  My school contributed half the essays, with the other half being supplied by a school one hundred miles away, which I had never visited and of which I had no knowledge.  (The relevance of this will become clear later.)  Once the essays are scanned into the No More Marking software, it displays two at a time for each of the people doing the judging.  The only question you need to answer is: ‘Which essay is better?’.  You click on the essay you think to be the best, and two more essays are displayed.  The process continues until you have judged each of the essays many times, each essay being judged against many other different essays.  The others doing the judging do exactly the same, and then the No More Marking Software collates the results and provides a rank order of all the essays based on the judgements made by all those participating in the study.  In the case of the exercise I was doing, there were only three of us but the software allows for many more people than that to be involved and, obviously, that gives a larger number of judgements and a greater degree of certainty that the results are fair and accurate.

When you first log on to start making your judgements, a message tells you how many judgements you need to make.  The exact number of judgements will vary according to the number of essays that you have scanned in but it will be quite large and might seem quite daunting.  I certainly had a moment of wondering exactly how much work I had signed myself up for but I quickly got into the flow and found that I really enjoyed the process.  Sometimes making the judgements was relatively straightforward because one essay was obviously very much better than the other.  Consider comparing essays one and two below, for example.  Other times it was really difficult, and occasionally my decisions felt really marginal.  If you look at essays three and four below, you will see one example of the kind of dilemma I faced.  Whilst in these cases it was hard to make a choice between essays, it did really force me to think about what I considered to be a good history essay.  What was better, excellent explanation throughout but no conclusion or something with weaker explanation but a ‘proper’ essay structure?  I decided that the former was more important.  How much did I value evidence of specific knowledge of the Battle of Hastings as opposed to more general information on Norman battle strategies?  Specific knowledge was better, I decided, because the question set was not a general one.  Should more credit be given to a complex idea expressed badly or a simple idea expressed well? Here, I had to go with the latter, partly because I don’t think the reader should have to tease out the meaning of a passage but mostly because I couldn’t be sure that the writer really understood the point that they were trying to make.  These were questions, I realised, that I didn’t think about nearly enough when trying to fit essays into levels and markschemes.

At the back of my mind all the time I was making my judgements was a curiosity about what the others involved in the exercise would be thinking and deciding.  Would they agree with me?  And, if so, would they make the same judgements for the same reasons or for different ones?  Would the two of us who had contributed essays both be favouring our own essays over those written by students at the other school?  When the three of us finally met up to discuss the results and our experiences, the answers to these questions turned out to be: yes, the same and no, which was enormously reassuring. Despite the fact that the other practising teacher and I had never met, were teaching at very different schools, and had not discussed our criteria in advance, we found that we were in close agreement about what we valued in the essays and why.  We did not need markschemes or levels to help us decide what an excellent essay.  What we needed was an array of examples and plenty of opportunities to exercise our judgement.

The essays below are for exemplification purposes only.

Essay One

Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?

In 1066 the Battle of Hastings took place because King Edward had died leaving the English throne without an heir.  Harold Godwinson seized the throne, he had two rivals who wanted to be King of England: Harold Hardrada and William of Normandy.  Eventually, William of Normandy won the battle and the throne of England.  I believe that there were three main reasons for this and I will look at each one in depth below.

One the main reasons that William was victorious during the battle was because William was extremely well prepared.  William’s highly trained army were well rested and fed.  He had over two weeks to prepare for his battle with Harold after landing in Pevensey Bay, in the south of England.  Harold, in sharp contrast, had just fought Harold Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford bridge (in the north of England) so he had to march his troops all the way back to the south to fight William.  Clearly his troops were battle weary, with many of them having been killed, whilst others were injured.  Hence Harold’s troops were tired going into the Battle of Hastings and not nearly so well prepared.  This gave William a huge advantage.

Another major reason that William won the Battle of Hastings was because he employed excellent tactics.  Initially Harold’s defensive shield wall was so strong that William’s cavalry could not penetrate it.  So William ordered his army to pretend to retreat, which made Harold’s men run after them, breaking their own shield wall.  Once the shield wall was broken, William ordered his army to turn back and with the shield wall broken, Harold’s men were not well defended.  William had also noticed that by ordering his archerS to fire high up in the air he could destroy Harold’s men who were not protected by armour.  These clever tactics allowed William to break through Harold’s shield wall and shoot Harold in the eye, which won the battle.

Harold’s bad luck also played a large role in William winning the Battle of Hastings.  It was luck that the wind changed allowing William’s troops to cross the channel at a time when Harold’s troops were away in the north of England fighting.  Harold had guarded the south coast of England all summer waiting for William.  That meant that William’s troops had time to rest and get organised, whereas Harold’s army were both tired and injured from fighting Harald Hardrada’s army.

William won the Battle of Hastings in part because he had a stronger army and used clever tactics however, luck also played a huge role in him winning this battle.  It was luck that the wind changed at just the right moment for his crossing to the south coast of England, which gave him time to get very well prepared and enabled his troops to be well rested, as Harold was in the north of England fighting Harald Hardrada and so his army was tired and many of his soldiers were injured.  If William had been able to cross the channel earlier in the year the outcome could have been very different.

Essay Two

Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?

Edward the king had no children to become king after him.  The English had to decide between William of Normandy, Harald of Norway, and Harold, earl of Wessex. The English chose Harold.  Harald and William did not like this because they still wanted to be king.

William decided to invade England, so he made ships and gathered an army.  He was ready but the wind was blowing the wrong direction.  Further up, Harald was making similar plans and invaded from the north.  Harold marched into battle it was a long hard fight but soon Harald died and the battle drew to a close.  Then the wind changed and William arrived in the south.  Harold and his army marched quickly towards him.  Harold’s army was exhausted whilst William’s was ready.  Harold army stood on the hill. There was a shield wall ahead of him.  William’s archers shot loads of arrows they bounced off the wall of shields.  Rumours started that William was dead and his army started to run away.  William was cross and took off his helmet to show he was alive. But Harold’s army thought William had surrendered and ran down the hill to chase the Norman’s away.  William’s army killed those who had run down the hill.  William then told his army to pretend to surrender so the rest of the English would run down the hill. It worked, Harold was killed and William won the battle.

Essay Three

Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?

One of the main reasons is that William had assorted troops: men on horse back, foot soldiers like Harold’s, and archers.  The cavalry had long swords, and could reach Harold’s men, while they could not reach the men on their horses.  There was also the fact that if the horse died, the soldier could fight on foot; the horses would cause chaos if their rider died, and if the soldier was injured he could manage to ride to safety.  The archers could stand at the back, without too many close combat weapons weighing them down, and carefully take aim while the cavalry and food soldiers protected them.  This made his men a lot more powerful than Harold’s foot soldier army.

Another key cause was that Henry pulled a cunning trick on Harold by feigning retreat, luring Harold’s military off their good tactical position on the top of the hill.  William’s archers no longer had to shoot straight up, and his men had to spend less energy getting to the opposing army.  The trick caused Harold’s men to lose their best advantage.

An additional major event was the wind changing direction, allowing William’s troops to get to the battlefield quickly while Harold’s men were weary and far in the north. William’s army had time to rest, set up camp and even build a small castle.  Harold’s soldiers, however, were fatigued and had lost some of their best men at Stamford Bridge, which meant that they were not able to put up enough resistance during the Battle of Hastings.

Essay Four

Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?

The three most important reasons for William winning the Battle of Hastings was that he had knights on horseback and knights with arrows.  The reason why knights on horseback was an advantage is because they were above ground and riding on horses, this made them a lot faster as they were on animals.  This was an advantage because they could get away a lot faster and gain speed.  Also a horse protected the rider so if the horse died and the rider was still alive, this was like having two lives.  Another reason would be that the man on horseback would be higher up giving more ways to attack.  Also to having arrows meant the archers could shoot from a far distance and minimise their chance of dying, making the army stronger.

My second reason was that William pulled a very clever trick which was pretending to leave the battle.  When he did this he managed to get the English to leave their strong position on the hill which was their only advantage.  This was a clever move because it meant that William had an advantage because the Normans could now attack from behind.  Harold was surprised, wasn’t ready for this and he got killed.

My final reason is that Harold’s army had just come from a battle.  This meant that he and his soldiers were very tired which caused them not to fight at their best.  Another reason was that they would have been dreading another battle, and might have gone in half-hearted with not as much determination as they normally would.  Also some of their friends and family might have died making them upset and not wanting to bother, this all gave William a big advantage.

‘A Mountain of Words’, Emma Young, New Scientist, 11th February 2017 pp. 34-37. Part 2: Reading in print vs reading from a screen

Last week I discussed what this article had to say about speed reading.  This week, I am going to discuss what it has to say about reading in print as opposed to reading from a screen.  This is a subject about which I have written before,  a post also inspired by a New Scientist article. My earlier blog on this subject can be found here.

The technology industry is keen to convince us all that reading digitally is something we should encourage.  It’s the modern way, they tell us, and it’s so much more appealing to young readers.  Even this is questionable, with research showing that when reading for ‘study purposes’ people prefer physical documents to digital ones.  Anne Mangen, of the University of Starvanger in Norway, counsels caution about the rush to digital for another reason.  Research in which she has been involved suggests that if you give one group of people a digital PDF file to read, and another group a paper copy of the same text the latter group will find the text easier to understand.  Exactly why is still a matter of speculation but it could be because it is easier to flick back through a physical document to find a particular passage that you want to reread than it is find a passage by scrolling through a digital text.  Navigating work in print is easier because your brain remembers, for example, that the information for which it is seeking is near the middle of the third page, but these contextual clues are missing with digital texts.

Some would probably counter at this point that you don’t need to scroll back through most digital texts, you can do a key word or phrase search to find the passage for which you are looking.  While this is possible with some digital texts, the ‘Find’ function itself has drawbacks.  As Naomi Baron of the American University in Washington DC has pointed out:  ‘Using ‘Find’ typically leads us only to read the specific item we are looking for rather than benefiting from reading the surrounding text’.

Did anyone click on the link at the beginning of this blog?  Perhaps you shouldn’t have done.  Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts, worries that online formats that encourage us to flit around or between websites, or to regularly shift our attention from visual to auditory formats, could be damaging to our attention spans.

I don’t want to sound too despairing about digital texts.  I love being able to read a hefty tome on a lightweight electronic device, and I am sure that we will all get better at learning how to use digital formats effectively.  I know that I have found that the enthusiastic use of electronic bookmarks is helpful, and in future, when I use the ‘Find’ function I will make sure to read around any found passages.  The most important thing, of course, is to encourage reading because it is not just a great way to learn but also a great joy.

 

‘A Mountain of Words’, Emma Young, New Scientist, 11th February 2017 pp. 34-37. Part 1: Speed Reading

This article examined (1) the research on speed reading and (2) the relative merits of reading a physical book, newspaper or article as opposed to reading from a screen.  I am going to discuss (1) this week and (2) next.

The internet, emails, texts and Twitter all contribute to the fact that people today encounter far more written material each day than those from previous generations. If we want to making sense of all this written material quickly and efficiently, should we learn to speed read?  Apps, such as Spritz, which promote speed reading, suggest that we should but the evidence is not really in their favour.  A recent study by Elizabeth Schotter from the University of South Florida examined a number of commonly promoted speed reading ‘techniques’ and found that many of them are founded on bad science.  Take the idea that we should cease to internally vocalise (articulate the words in our heads) as we read.  Not necessary, say speed reading gurus, an unnecessary hangover from when we learned to read.  Wrong, says Schotter.  The evidence actually suggests that if we turn off our internal vocalisation we will understand less of what we read.

Some speed reading apps aim to increase the speed of reading by ‘presenting single words rapidly, one after the other’, sometimes at speeds of up to 1000 words a minute.  The justification for this is that it frees the reader up from making unnecessary eye movements which will simply slow them down.  The problem with this theory is that it does not take into account the fact that when we read we rarely just plough onwards.  10 to 15% of our reading time is actually spent rereading.  We revisit words when we realise that we misunderstood them first time round or simply because we know that rereading a passage will help us understand it better.  Without the ability to reread our understanding of a text is negatively affected.

What about ‘chunking’, which is recommended by a number of speed reading gurus? Those wanting to ‘chunk’ are advised that they can do so by taking in a large number of words or phrases in one go, even ones outside the centre of their vision.  The trouble is, they can’t.  ‘Chunking’, Schotter says is not ‘physiologically possible and, besides, reading speed is limited by our ability to attend to, identify and understand words, rather than our inability to see them’.

Schotter suggests that what many of the people who claim to be speed reading are actually doing is skimming a text.  While this can be an effective way to get the gist of a book or article, a skimmer will not understand a text as well as someone who has read it properly.  The skimming technique that Schotter recommends is the same one I was taught at university – read the first and last line of every paragraph in order to determine whether or not the rest of the paragraph merits your attention.  This technique is only likely to be helpful if the text is well written, of course.  Which is a shame, because surely everyone is much more likely to find themselves wanting to skim read something badly written?

 

 

 

 

 

Dale Carnegie, How to win friends and influence people

How to win friends and influence people appeared in the TES list of ’33 books all teachers should read’.  It wouldn’t make my top 33.  In fact, it wouldn’t make my top 330.  My overall reaction to this book is a sceptical sounding ‘hmmm’.  Carnegie provides lists of rules under headings such as ‘How to handle people’; ‘Ways to make people like you’; ‘How to win people over to your way of thinking’ and ‘How to change people’.  Under each heading, he then provides a list of principles to follow in order to achieve this goal.  Each principle is elaborated with explanation and examples.  Quite a lot of the advice that Carnegie gives concerns things that I would think most people instinctively know they should do, even if they do not routinely practise them. For example, he suggests that we show an interest in what other people care about; are openly appreciative; admit it quickly when we are in the wrong; and try to see things from other people’s viewpoints.  Other advice given is less obvious and, therefore, more interesting to read about.  For example ‘call attention to other people’s mistakes indirectly’ and ‘ask questions instead of giving direct orders’.  The explanations and examples that come with each piece of advice provide models for action and can be fun to read.  I enjoyed the anecdotes about Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and Benjamin Disraeli.  But they are just anecdotes – they do not necessarily prove that Carnegie’s suggestions are more widely applicable.  And they certainly don’t prove that his suggestions are the panacea that he, at times, implies.  The book was first published in 1936, and I would say (hope?) that we have higher standards of proof now.  The results of psychological experiments, for example, would be more convincing than Carnegie’s stories and bogus statistics: ‘get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own … That is so simple, so obvious, that anyone ought to see the truth of it at a glance; yet 90 percent of the people on this earth ignore it 90 percent of the time.’  Following the advice in this book might make me a nicer person and a better manager of people but the case Carnegie makes is not compelling.

       

Elizabeth Bjork and Robert Bjork, ‘Making things hard on yourself but in a good way: Creating desirable difficulties to enhance learning.’ M. A. Gernsbacher et al (ed) Psychology and the real world: Essays illustrating fundamental contributions to society, pp. 56-64

Just because you know, understand or can do something now, doesn’t mean you’ve learnt it.  The desirable difficulties which enhance learning are:

  • ‘Varying the conditions of practice’ – this can be as simple as studying the same material in two different places but can also mean not just practising the thing you want to learn but also engaging in related tasks.
  • ‘Spacing study and practice sessions’ – this is the same as distributed practice, which I have discussed elsewhere.
  • ‘Interleaving the practice of separate topics or tasks’ – those who engage in blocked practice tend to think it results in better learning, but whilst it may yield decent results in the short term it does not have long term efficacy. Why?  The Bjorks suggest two reasons why interleaving might be more successful.  (1) Interleaving causes learners to think about the similarities and differences between the things being studied, which is the sort of deeper thinking more likely to embed a memory.  (2) Interleaving forces the learner to make more use of their powers of recall.  If a learner does one thing, then another, then a third, and then returns to the first thing, they have to recall the first thing to mind again, which will help to transfer the information to their long term memory.  If a learner works continually on the same thing, by contrast, they never have to recall that thing to mind.  They will acquire a sense of familiarity with that thing, which they may mistake for learning, but they will not really be learning it in the proper sense.
  • Using your existing knowledge and understanding to solve problems. The Bjorks call this the ‘generation effect’ and say that ‘any time that you, as a learner, look up an answer or have somebody show you something that you could, drawing on current cues and your past knowledge, generate instead, you rob yourself of a powerful learning opportunity.’
  • Doing tests – the Bjorks suggests that we think of tests less as a way of assessing knowledge and understanding and more as a way of learning material.

The more observant among you will have noticed that I have now discussed several articles, all of which say similar things about what works in education.    I have done this deliberately.  I want to reinforce the message that the research points clearly in one direction, and this is the direction in which we should all be moving.

Max Landsberg, The Tao of Coaching

A four part coaching course was my CPD highlight of last year, and I have been enjoying using my coaching skills at work, both with colleagues and older students.  A year on from the course, seemed like the right time to reinforce and develop my understanding of coaching by doing some more reading on the subject.  I will admit to some initial scepticism about this book, which interleaves coaching techniques with the story of Alex, an employee negotiating his way through the corporate world, and learning about coaching along the way.  I have an instinctive dislike for never-quite-plausible sounding ‘real life’ stories intended to impart a message to the reader.  But I must admit that the stories did help me remember the different coaching techniques – there really was a time when a sixth form student came to me with a problem and I thought: ‘I need to use that coaching strategy that Alex used with Mary’.  The chapters are short and to the point.  The different coaching techniques are all really clearly explained, with the use of diagrams, as well as written explanations.  Landsberg also makes it clear when and why you should use the different techniques.  I borrowed the copy I read from the library but I will be buying my own because this is a reference book to have to hand.