‘Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents’, Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman, Psychological Science, Volume 16, Number 12, pp. 939-944

This article reports the findings of two studies conducted by Duckworth and Seligman, both on eighth grade students.  The first had 140 participants and the second 164.  Both groups were drawn from a diverse range of social, economic and ethnic groups.

Measuring levels of self-discipline is, as the researchers themselves admit, difficult, so they used what they describe as a ‘multisource approach’ – asking the students themselves, their parents and their teachers to complete questionnaires assessing the extent of their self-discipline.  The researchers also used two different ways to measure the students’ ability to delay gratification.  The results of the studies were as reported in the title of this paper.  Self-discipline was a more accurate predictor of academic success than IQ scores.  The former, unlike the latter, predicted which of the eighth graders ‘would improve their grades over the course of the school year’.  Indeed: ‘Highly self-disciplined adolescents outperformed their more impulsive peers on every academic-performance variable, including report-card grades, standardized achievement-test scores, admission to competitive high school and attendance.’

Duckworth and Seligman are planning further studies, and it will obviously be interesting to see if they achieve similar results.  On one level, it would seem odd if they didn’t.  What good can a high IQ score do you if you don’t put in the effort to study diligently, to read widely, to think through a tricky problem or to persist with a difficult task?  Without self-discipline you are not going to do those last four, and without doing those last four, you are not going to make significant academic progress.  Even minimal academic progress requires a certain amount of application.  In the short term, a constant and vigilant minder or the threat of sanctions for not working might have a similar effect to personal self-discipline but there seems to me no doubt that we need to instill in our students a willingness to work hard for its own sake.  Providing them with the kind of secure knowledge-base they need to engage properly with the subject matter is surely essential in building the academic confidence that students will need to work successfully on their own.  Equally important is an appropriately challenging curriculum which shows students the value of persevering through academic difficulties.  Restricting the access of children to electronic devices, which offer a myriad of easy-to-access distractions also seems to be common sense.  We may not be able to teach self-discipline as such, but we can encourage and enable the good habits that will promote it.


M. Myatt, High Challenge, Low Threat: How the Best Leaders Find the Balance

This is a quick read, and full of sound advice on leadership within schools.  The things from this book that I particularly want to remember and act on are:

  • Think of your colleagues first and foremost as people, don’t treat them as though they exist simply to fulfil a professional function. People need to know that you care about them, and not just about the job that they do.  This applies to everyone who works in the school, not just to its teachers.  Yes, the cleaners, caretakers, canteen staff and administrative support staff perform a crucial function, without which the school could not operate, but their right to be treated well stems from their humanity, not from the job that they do.
  • If you want to be trusted, you need to trust others first.  You can show you trust those you manage by welcoming feedback from them on your performance.  It will always be easier to trust some people than others, but don’t exclude or marginalise the ‘awkward squad’ on your staff – the fact that these people are not absolutely your cup of tea does not mean that they aren’t the source of the valid criticism or good ideas.  Listen to them and consider what they say with an open mind.
  • Show appreciation for the job that others do, not with bland and universal ‘thank yous’ but with specific praise for what they have done well.  Don’t reserve praise for the big things; show that you have recognised the ‘small triumphs and gains’.
  • You will have more to say ‘thank you’ for if you know exactly what your colleagues do all day.  So, manage by ‘wandering around’ and taking a full and proper interest in what others do all day.
  • Keep your hand in with teaching.  It is important not just to remember what so many of your colleagues do all day, but also to continue to experience work life in the way that they do.
  • Don’t be over-ambitious.  It is better to do a few things well, than many things badly.  The art is in choosing the right few things to focus on.  Thinking carefully about your priorities – you should be able not only to justify them but also to explain why they are essential.  Naturally, the most essential things in any school will be those that improve learning.  Strive to be a school that embeds knowledge by ‘digging deeper and lingering longer with [your] students.’
  • Don’t settle for a woolly mission statement.  Devise one that has a clear sense of purpose.
  • Accentuate the positive.  Find out what your school does well, and talk about.
  • If things go wrong, don’t make excuses, which are really just ways of shifting the blame.  Instead, examine the reasons for the failure, as part of a frank discussion about why things went wrong.
  • I left this until last, although I think it is the most important thing to remember in any management role – don’t confuse power and authority.  Myatt expresses this perfectly, so I am going to quote, rather than paraphrase.  ‘Power is attached to a role.  Authority is attached to the person.  Insightful leaders know the difference.  They have the humility to know that the role only carries them so far.’

There is plenty more in this book, on everything from taking tough decisions to learning from the wider community.  I liked the fact that Myatt advised all leaders to keep reading.  It is, as she says, one of the best ways to gain insights and learn from others.  I would say, read generally, and find time for this book in particular.

Image result for myatt high challenge low threat


5 things students need to understand about marks

I read The Tyranny of Metrics recently.  It is as interesting as everyone says, but what I ended up thinking about wasn’t so much the problems and unintended consequences of the data schools and teachers are (or have been) asked to collect, although this is something Muller address well.  What I found myself thinking about was the various ways students misunderstand and misuse data.  They, like the rest of us, need to remember that ‘measurement may provide us with distorted knowledge – knowledge that seems solid but it is actually deceptive.’  Below are 5 key things that I would like students to remember about the data they receive, in the form of marks for tests and essays.

One test result does not necessarily encapsulate your ability.

If you did very well, ask yourself honestly why.  Were you lucky with the topics or questions that came up?  Would you have done equally well had the paper been differently focused?  You must not lose focus just because you fulfilled or exceeded your expectations in one mock or practice paper.  You still need to think carefully about what to work on.  Even if you know the material well now, you need to keep revising it regularly to keep it fresh.

Equally, one below par performance should not be a reason for despair.  Does it really mean that you ‘just can’t do history’ and that any further efforts on the subject will be wasted?  It is more likely to mean that you didn’t revise effectively or that your question answering technique was flawed.  If it has knocked your confidence, take the time to redo the questions with the benefit of the advice and feedback you have received, or do some better revision and sit another practice paper.  Even in football it is not really true that you are ‘only as good as your last result’.  Performance needs to be judged over time, and thought given to how to build your knowledge and refine your technique so that you maximise your potential.

Comparing marks between subjects is problematic.

At my school, all year groups do exams in every subject towards the end of the academic year.  And, every year, several students will decide that they are ‘better’ at subject X than subject Y because they got a higher percentage in the former.  The dangers of judging ability from one test do not occur.  Nor does the idea that one test may have been easier than the other.  Indeed, sometimes when a student finds one exam easier they will take this as further evidence that they are better at that subject.  Students do accept that getting full marks is possible in some subjects but not in others but that seems to be as far as it goes.  Students rarely consider the variations caused because one subject demanded the use of more detailed knowledge or more complex analysis and evaluation.  That 70% in a challenging examination may represent a far greater achievement than 90% in a straightforward one is a truth students find it hard to absorb.

Standardising scores across subjects will solve some of these problems, making comparisons between subjects more meaningful.  Quality control across subjects to ensure that students are being appropriately stretched in all  aspects of the curriculum may also be necessary.

Similar looking questions can vary a lot in difficulty.

Consider the following two questions:

  •  How far do economic causes explain the outbreak of the French Revolution?
  •  How far do economic causes explain the outbreak of the American Revolution?

The uninitiated might think that these two are of similar difficulty, but, in fact, the economic problems that underlie the French Revolution are far more complex than those that helped to provoke the American colonies into rebellion.  Indeed, overall, the question on the French Revolution represents a greater academic challenge than the question on the American Revolution because of the level of contextual understanding required.  At least we would normally teach the American Revolution before embarking on the French but our need to teach chronologically in history means that we can’t always tackle the simpler stuff first and, even if we do, students might perceive their ability to have dipped because they did better on an earlier essay on a more straightforward topic than a later one addressing a trickier subject.

You will not acquire any useful information from a test or examination for which you are unprepared.

After mock examinations, there are always students who inform me that they ‘were seeing how well they could do without revision’, as if that is some useful guide to further action.  As I said to my classes last year, well before their exams: ‘This isn’t complicated.  If you don’t revise YOU. WON’T. DO. VERY. WELL.   You don’t need a poor mark in a mock to tell you that you need to revise.  Everybody needs to revise.  Furthermore, if you haven’t done any revision, I won’t be able to give you any meaningful feedback because I won’t be able to gauge how well you understand the material.  Marks are only one aspect of feedback, and generally not the most important.’

Many of the marks you receive will be influenced by subjective judgements.

Yes, exam board use ‘seed’ scripts (pre-marked scripts placed in examiners’ bundles) and an element of double marking in an attempt to maintain levels of reliability.  Teachers cross mark with their colleagues to ensure consistency.  With essays, in particular, though, some subjectivity will still creep in.  On a different day, with a different examiner, your script might not have got exactly the same mark.  The same examiner might be more generous with the first essays he marks than those towards the end of the batch.

The best possible remedy for this is the widespread use of comparative judgement, so that each script is judged against many others, many times, by a number of different markers.  Anyone from the maintained sector wanting to know more about comparative judgement, is welcome to sign up to attend a free INSET with Daisy Christodoulou on 1st November, in which Daisy will both explain the fundamentals of CJ and give a lecture on the Seven Myths About Education.  

The event URL is https://www.eventbrite.com/e/inset-at-south-hampstead-high-school-with-daisy-christodoulou-tickets-50682469631






‘Yes you can! What if getting ironclad willpower was all about attitude.’ Christian Jarrett, New Scientist, 9th September 2017

If you had asked a psychologist a decade or so ago about willpower, the chances are that they would have said that it was something like a car’s fuel tank – the more you call on it as a resource, the more depleted it gets.  This phenomenon is referred to be psychologists as the ego-depletion effect.  Psychologists today, however, are starting to think differently about willpower.  It should be seen, says Krishna Savani from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, more as a car battery: ‘The more you drive, the more [it] gets charged, the longer it will last.’  Studies have shown that if you ask two groups of people to complete the same tough mental challenge, the group told that ‘willpower is limited’ ceased to improve once they reached the halfway point but the group primed to think that ‘it is energising to be fully absorbed with a demanding mental task’ showed improved performance throughout the task.  (Those experiencing a cash reward for completing a task also seem to find that this boosts their reserves of willpower.)

But is any of this relevant outside of the lab?  Krishna Savani and Veronika Job from the University of Zurich, who recently collaborated on a study of willpower conducted on Indian participants, believe that it is.  Indians tend not to subscribe to theories of ego-depletion.  Instead, they see upping their mental effort as wholly advantageous.  When asked to do two mentally sapping tasks in succession, they generally did better on the second of these.  This is in contrast to American volunteers whose performance tended to wane on the second task.  So, doing one hard thing does not necessarily impact on your ability to focus on another hard thing immediately afterwards.  Furthermore, students who see willpower as a potentially infinite resource are apparently more content, with a study showing that they ‘suffer less from stress and bad moods’ at crunch times such as during examination periods, than those who see their willpower as limited.  This is apparently because the former group have more faith in both their resilience and their ability to up their effort in response to challenge.

My natural instinct when I have finished one of these blog posts is to have a little break but in view of everything I have said above, today I am going to push on.  Where did I put my marking?

The History ‘Aptitude’ Test

I have been marking some History Aptitude Tests (HATs) recently.  The University of Oxford would like to maintain the fiction that you can’t help students prepare for these tests but, honestly, that claim has about as much credibility as the idea that Mark Zuckerberg just wants ‘to bring the world closer together’.  Students who have read widely and had the opportunity to reflect on and discuss their reading will do better than those who have done neither of these things. I would say that my job is to direct students to the ‘right’ books and articles (ones which are appropriately intellectual) and make sure that the conversations we have about them are robust and challenging.  The guidance for students on question 3 of the 2017 HAT suggests that I am not only wasting my time but potentially disadvantaging my pupils.  For this question, students are given an extract from A Voyage to Icaria by Etienne Cabet and asked:’What does the extract tell us about the political and social values of the author?’  The guidance includes the following sentence: ‘You do not need to know anything about the author or the context in which he was writing to answer the question below, and candidates will be penalised for making use of any outside knowledge.’  (My italics)  I could be very flippant here.  Were candidates penalised for using vocabulary that was not ‘provided’ on the paper?  Was their knowledge of how to construct a sentence and write grammatically used against them?  OK, I know that is not what the statement means but I still maintain that it is a very silly thing to say, and it confused my students no end.

‘I felt like Cabet was describing a utopia but I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to say that’ one of them said when we were discussing her paper.*  The guidance had discouraged a student from exploring a potentially interesting aspect of the passage.  My response was tentative because I am not entirely sure what does and does not count as outside knowledge but I said that I thought explaining why Cabet’s vision seemed utopian would be fine but, for example, comparing Cabet’s utopia to that of Thomas More would be a no go.  In both cases, however, the student would be using ‘outside knowledge’.  I know, shocking.  I had a similar discussion with another student about what it was and was not acceptable to say about Cabet’s views on paternalistic government and social duty.  Cabet lauds the idea of the government providing and citizens being grateful.  The students that picked up on the significance of gratitude in Cabet’s society are all ones who also study Politics A level, as part of which we read an extract from Disraeli’s Sybil where he explains how society benefits when the poor appreciate the largesse of the rich.  I can see why examiners wouldn’t want or need candidates to explain why they had picked up on the idea of gratitude but, at the same time, it is a clear indicator of the value of outside knowledge, even if that knowledge is, so to speak, unacknowledged.  I could make similar points about other aspects of the passage – students’ outside knowledge helps them understand, make connections and unpick the significance of different ideas.  They just have to pretend that their ideas are the sort of sudden inspiration that only strikes those who have ‘native talent’.

One thing pretty much all universities say is that they want students who are ‘intellectually curious’ but how are you supposed to show intellectual curiosity whilst simultaneously denying that any of your ideas have been stimulated by your wider reading?  I know students at my school are lucky to receive not only guidance but also active preparation for university admissions tests and interviews.  (That is, assuming what we do is actually effective.)  Some might think that we unfairly advantage our pupils in this way and see this post as a moan about the fact that students can’t fall back on our preparation but instead have to ‘think on their feet’.**  This is not at all what I mean.  My point is that preparation undoubtedly helps.  My experience, for history at least, is that the more students have read, the better they are able to tackle ‘ungameable’ exams, and to deny this is a fiction about as convincing as that penned by Cabet.

*In case anyone is wondering why we didn’t discuss how to tackle the question in advance, I agree that this might have been sensible but I didn’t set the paper.  On this occasion I was merely the muggins who ended up marking it.

**If you are interested in what we do to prepare students, please contact me directly.  I will gladly give you more details and even share the resources I use.  If you are from a state school in or with easy access to north London and you have students who you think might benefit from the university preparation programme we run for our historians, again please contact me directly.  Our sessions run outside normal curriculum time and, if practicable, I would be happy to accommodate students from other schools.


Unconditional offers: a warning from history

Back in the 1990s,  I got a two E offer to study history at University College London, and I have always felt grateful for it.  Following the current debate about unconditional offers, however, I am starting to wonder if I have been thinking straight.  When I got my offer letter (no emails in those days), it came with an accompanying blurb the gist of which was that they would be disappointed if I actually got two Es but wanted to give me the security of a definite university place.  That was all OK.  I had no intention of getting two Es.  I was doing A levels I cared about and wanted to excel in, but I was also doing economics.  The economics department at my school wasn’t sparkling, and I had never really enjoyed the lessons.  If I am being honest my first thought on reading my offer letter was ‘Bye, bye economics’.  From that day forwards, I pretty much ceased to make any effort at all in economics.  When it came to my A level examination, I put ‘b’ for everything on the multiple choice paper and made a vague stab at the essay questions.  And, on results day, I was not surprised to find out that my final grade was an E.  At the time, I was largely unbothered by this.  Unlike lots of my friends, I hadn’t been stressed about getting into my first choice of university; that was all but guaranteed.  I had done lots of additional reading for history, during the time I might otherwise have been studying for economics, and considered this time well spent.  And I didn’t care enough about economics for its own sake to be upset by the E grade.

I was wrong, of course.  Effectively giving up on economics in Year 13 limited the breadth of my education.  Furthermore, universities are not the only people who care about A level results – I have been asked at more than one job interview why I got an E in economics when I was clearly capable of better than that.  I tell the truth but it doesn’t make for a great answer.  I always wanted to be a teacher, which is perhaps as well because my E would have ruled out of certain companies and careers.  Yes, the two E offer did take some of the pressure off me in my final year of A levels but I would hardly have crumpled under the need to get a B or C.  (An A, I think, would have been beyond my reach.)

When I arrived at UCL, I learned that my story was hardly unique.  Several of my comrades in the history department had also messed up at least one of their A levels, safe in the knowledge that it did not really matter.  This is all very anecdotal but it highlights some of the negative consequences of unconditional offers.  For me, a two E offer was a safety net too far.  An incentive to try harder would not have been a bad thing.  Along with a love of knowledge for its own sake, that’s what I want for all my students – an incentive to work to their full capacity and achieve the best results they possibly can.

Daniel Pink, Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

The key argument made by this book is that trying to motivate people through traditional ‘carrot and stick extrinsic motivators’ is ‘deeply unreliable’ and we would do better to try to tap into people’s intrinsic motivation.  Amongst the evidence cited in support of this argument is an experiment which showed that paying blood donors decreased the number of people giving blood, and a famous study of the attitudes of pre-school children to drawing carried out by psychologists Mark Lepper, David Greene and Robert Nisbett.  For the latter, children who had previously shown an interest in drawing in their free time were divided into three groups.  Children in the first group were shown a certificate and asked if they would like to draw to receive such a certificate themselves. Children in the second group were asked if they wanted to draw, and then given a certificate when they had completed their drawing.  Children in the third group were asked only if they wanted to draw.  Observations of the children two weeks later showed that children in the second and third groups were as keen on drawing as ever, but the interest and motivation to draw of those in the first group had declined.  This experiment, which has been replicated many times, with both children and adults, certainly casts doubt on the motivational value of expected rewards, and Pink also argues that if ‘unexpected’ rewards are overused the impact will be the same.  He does, however, add the caveat that the situation is different if the task is boring, routine or repetitive.  In those instances rewards do not corrode intrinsic motivation, mostly because people have little intrinsic motivation for such tasks in the first place.  Pink also makes a distinction between monetary rewards and trophies, on the one hand, and praise and positive feedback, on the other.  The first two of these sap motivation in a way the second pair do not.  Often directly linked with extrinsic rewards are externally set targets, which are also problematic.  Teachers will be only too well aware of the ways in which targets imposed from outside can narrow a school’s focus and encourage gaming of the system.

If extrinsic rewards and externally imposed targets don’t work, how should we be motivating people?  Pink’s prescription is greater autonomy – allowing people as much say as possible over how and when they work and greater say in who they have in their team or office.  He also recommends that organisations institute ‘Fed Ex Days’, an idea borrowed from software company Atlassian.  These are days on which employees get to decide what project they want to work on; with whom, if anyone, they want to collaborate on this endeavour; and how to approach the job, with the only proviso being that everyone must ‘deliver something – a new idea, a prototype of a product, a better internal process, the following day’.  Clearly, there are practical limits on the amount of autonomy that can be given to teachers, but I largely found myself nodding along with Pink’s arguments.  We once had an INSET day at school where each department was allowed to choose how to spend the day and it was brilliant.  (The history department went first to an exhibition at the Weiner Library and then had a private tour of 19 Princelet Street, a former synagogue which is now a museum of immigration.  Both were inspiring and interesting places to be able to spend time.)  My nodding turned to frustration, however, when Pink started applying his arguments to schools.  At the beginning of the chapter on schools, Pink falls into the trap of assuming that ‘creative and conceptual abilities’ can’t be grown in a school that emphasises ‘routines, right answers and standardization’.  This is despite the fact that he acknowledges that mastery of the subject matter is important.  There follow various case studies of trendy schools that do some very silly things.  Sudbury Valley School for example ‘gives students total control over [the] task, time and technique of their learning.’  I really wanted to put the word learning there in inverted commas because it is hard to believe that most students at that school will learn anything important.  Another suggestion that had me banging my head on the desk was that of allowing students to write their own reports.  At what age should children start doing this? Four?  Five? Thirteen?  Even when I was doing my PhD there were times when I struggled to assess my own progress or know what I needed to do next; that was why I had a supervisor.  And let’s not forget the wider point that solutions that work for mature, competent employees with a high level of expertise cannot necessarily be applied to school children.  Learning, knowledge and wisdom are essential to the meaningful and useful exercise of autonomy.  To give children too much autonomy too soon is to do them a disservice.  And good guidance really can be something that motivates all of us.