C. Fernyhough, The Voices Within: the history and science of how we talk to ourselves

This is a wide-ranging examination of self talk (what we say to ourselves), covering such diverse subjects as: the significance of children’s imaginary friends; the ways in which authors perceive their characters; auditory hallucinations; and the relationships that schizophrenics have with the voices in their heads.  It is a fascinating read from start to finish, but with a couple of passages which are especially interesting from a teaching point of view.

The first of these passages is about sports players and self talk.  This is an area that has been studied quite extensively.  The general findings of the research are that it is good to talk to yourself, although you need to be careful what you say.  A study conducted on Canadian divers suggests that those who were too self-congratulatory were less likely to make the team.  But being overly negative is also unhelpful – studies of amateur darts players show that those who tell themselves they can make a throw have greater success that those who tell themselves they can’t.  The conclusion I drew from all this was that sports players need to be as constructive when talking to themselves as they would be when offering advice to somebody else.  Overall, though, the findings are that self talk should be encouraged because ‘successful athletes seem to talk to themselves more’.  Cricketers, who need to switch their attention from making a mental note of where the fielders are stood to concentrating solely on the bowler’s next delivery, make particularly extensive use of self talk.  Watch Eoin Morgan carefully and you can see him directing himself to ‘watch the ball’ just prior to each delivery he faces.  The fact that he mouths the words to himself may be unusual but that he gives himself this reminder is fairly typical.  A detailed study of professional cricketers and self talk found them using it for a whole variety of purposes, including: to think ahead about where they might play the next ball; to refocus after a bad shot; to calm themselves when in the ‘nervous nineties’; and to chastise themselves when they got out.  I know that we must not assume that what works for experts also works for novices, but it did make me wonder whether our young cricketers could be taught to use the same techniques.  From the perspective of a school that has recently readopted cricket as its summer sport and is hoping for lots of success on the pitch, it is surely worth a try?

Another piece of research cited in the book, is a study that was conducted on children as they tackled a series of puzzles of increasing difficulty.  It found that children ‘who used more self regulatory private speech’ achieved a greater level of success.  This seems to point up the value of modelling our thought processes for those we teach, so that our students understand the kind of questions they should be asking themselves as they work through a task.  Perhaps more than that – perhaps we should be explicitly encouraging students to ask themselves questions like: ‘Why am I stuck?’ or ‘What should I do next?’ when they hit a problem.  An experiment conducted by Ibrahim Senay and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign would certainly seem to suggest that this can yield positive results.  Senay’s experiment required children to solve anagrams.  One group of children were told to prepare for the task ahead by ‘making statements about it’, whilst a second group were instructed to ‘[ask] themselves questions about what they were to do’.  The children in the second group solved more anagrams than those in the first group, and the researchers concluded that ‘quizzing yourself in self talk can push you beyond what you might otherwise achieve’.  I think that makes it official: talking to yourself is actually a sign of sanity.

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Daisy Christodoulou, Teachers vs Tech: the case for an ed tech revolution

This is an intelligent and clear sighted book.  Although Daisy works for an ed tech start up (www.nomoremarking.com, home of comparative judgement), she recognises the limits of technology as a classroom tool, and is rightly wary of the idea that shiny and expensive technology has the answer to today’s educational problems, which are, of course, largely the same as yesterday’s educational problems.  Indeed, the book opens with an examination of why the introduction into British classrooms of interactive whiteboards was a waste of money (the machines essentially serve as very expensive projectors) and goes on to compare this to the doomed attempt by the Los Angeles Unified School District to improve pupil performance by supplying all its children with i-pads. 

Later in the book, building on her argument that ‘you can’t just Google it’ (see Daisy Christodoulou, Seven Myths about Education), she explains how the online algorithms that search engines use can serve to reinforce misconceptions; why Google’s teacher certification programme is not fit for purpose; and why the internet creates problems, as well as resolving them.  It is, for example, the internet that has led to a resurgence of the idea that the earth is flat.  As importantly, she explains that while the wealth of information on the internet might make project based learning seem easier than ever, technology does not address two core problems with projects as an educational tool.  Firstly, your ability to find new information is conditioned by what you already know and understand, and secondly projects can encourage students to think less about content and more about how they are going to present their work.

Even in areas where technology might seem to be the obvious answer, Daisy shows us that it is not that simple.  We do not need personalised learning programmes that cater to the illusion that some students learn best through visual stimuli, others through the written word and still others through listening.  ‘Adaptive Learning’ platforms, on the other hand, which try to ‘mimic what teachers would like to do if they had unlimited time’ and the ability to teach according to every individual student’s level of knowledge and understanding, have lots of potential.  Sophisticated programmes like ALEKS (which teaches algebra) and Mindspark, make excellent use of the data they collect not only to monitor student performance but also to choose what questions and activities to set them.  And apps such as the Cerego Memory Bank, which are built around the principles of spaced learning and distributed practice, and provide learners with information about what they do and do not know, have obvious benefits in terms of helping learners retain information.

Chapters 5 and 6 have relevance way beyond the teaching profession.  Indeed, they have something to say to anyone who uses technology and, surely, these days, that is everyone?  Chapter 5 deals with our limited attention span and points out that technology firms only prosper by capturing ever more of this by seeking to entice you onto their platform.  This can be used for good, as language learning app Duolingo seeks to do by encouraging you to amass a ‘streak’ of ever more consecutive days’ learning.  Unfortunately, the same techniques are used by Snapchat and Instagram to prompt users to post messages or pictures.  It can be hard to resist these nudges, and we do not always make the right choices about where to devote our time.  Furthermore, young adults tend to switch their time between tasks when on their devices, rather than devoting time and attention to what matters, which means that they should certainly be doing tasks which do not require the use of technology.  Where technology is valuable, though, is in doing those things with which humans struggle.  The algorithm that decides whether or not the bank should loan you money is more likely to make the right decision than an employee of the bank.

The real challenge, as Daisy points out, is how to ‘integrate teachers and technology’ because it needs both ‘sophisticated technological tools’ and ‘significant institutional and behavioural changes’.  Neither of these will be easy to achieve.  A useful model might be the use of DRS in cricket, a technology which supports the umpire’s decision making.  VAR in football, which seeks to do a similar thing, still has some teething problems.  (For those who want to know more about Daisy’s views on VAR, this is instructive.)

It should be clear by now that this book is a must read for teachers but in case you are wavering about whether or not to buy a copy, here are two further reasons to do just that.  (1) The checklists at the end of Chapter 6 for evaluating ed tech applications and picking an approach to suit your context.  These useful and practical lists will be particularly helpful to SLT members trying to make the best possible spending choices.  (2)  The bonus chapter available to anyone who pre-orders their copy of Teachers vs Tech before 2nd March.  The chapter acknowledges that while technology is changing the economy, it isn’t clear that phenomena such as self-driving cars or algorithms that can write legal contracts should really change schools.  At the same time, it gives some serious thought to the consequences of this economic change for schools.  I don’t want to give too much away about this chapter and spoil the surprise for those who will be lucky enough to receive a copy of it but it is a shame that it didn’t make it into the final book.

On that note, can I recommend that you pre-order a copy from Oxford University Press right now?

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J. Pfeffer, Power: Why some people have it and others don’t

This book examines the realities of power dynamics, with most of its focus being on the American corporate, non-profit and political worlds.  In teaching you how to negotiate those worlds successfully, it shows little concern for those with whom you might find yourself working.  It recommends as an effective power tool, for example ‘forceful displays of anger that put the other person on the defensive’.  It points out the value of using any control you have over resources to reward those colleagues who support you and penalise those who are in any obstructive.  It tells the story of Ross Johnson, ‘formerly CEO of Nabisco, [who] excelled at maneuvering himself into CEO jobs and eliminating rivals who naively trusted him’.  The moral of this story is, apparently, that it is best not to trust anyone.  And, indeed, if everyone thirsting after power has read this book and decided to live life by its adages that is probably very good advice.  I think (I hope) that some of what Pfeffer describes in the American context would land you in an employment tribunal in the UK, although I acknowledge that it might also encourage others to write you lovely letters of reference in order to be rid of you.

So, there was quite a bit in this book which made me uncomfortable.  Moral and ethical considerations may not always affect the decision making of those who gain power but to suggest that others to follow this example, does not simply accept the status quo, it prolongs it.  To be fair to Pfeffer, there is a section towards the end of the book about how you should behave once you have power, which is much more humane, but I did wonder how realistic it is to advise someone to be ruthless in their pursuit of power but then start behaving in a more magnanimous way once they have achieved that power.  Surely a person’s earlier experiences of what works would make it likely that they fall back on such strategies once they are established in the top job?  There are other difficulties too.  For example, the ability to empathise with others (cited as one of the four key skills needed to obtain power) must make marginalising anyone you see as a threat at least a bit more difficult.  An important aid in gaining ‘self knowledge and a reflective mindset’ (another of Pfeffer’s key skills) is a staff and/or colleagues who will be honest with you, but if you have created a culture in which you avenge yourself on anyone you see as obstructive, it seems to me very unlikely that you will benefit from the frankness and honesty of those who might help you reflect more successfully on your performance.

Everything I have said so far makes me sound pretty dismissive of this book but there are some lessons that I will take from it.  I can see the sense in ‘plac[ing] your own objectives in a broader context that compels others to support you’.  Pfeffer’s warning not to overestimate how far your own intellectual abilities will get you also seems sound.  If you are clever and capable it is easy to think you can achieve everything you need to on your own, and to fail to build the alliances which might broaden the range and scope of your influence.  The insight that your acquaintances can be more valuable than your strongest personal and professional relationships in aiding your success was a fascinating one.  (Whilst close friends and family members often think as you do and tend to belong to social groups with which you are very familiar, your acquaintances can connect you to ‘new people, organizations and information’ and, therefore, broaden your horizons.)  Finally, I think it is always important to be reminded that it is not all about the big picture.  You need to think strategically about the ‘small steps’ and ‘mundane details’ which will enable you to achieve your wider vision.

It has to be said, though, that if there is one thing from this book I will never forget, it is a study carried out by Jennifer Chatman from the University of California-Berkley.  Chapman was hoping to discover the point at which flattery ceased to aid the flatterer.  Apparently, the data she collected suggest that no such point exists …

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Gina Rippon, The Gendered Brain

In his book Blueprint, Robert Plomin argued that the results even of good nurturing are all but insignificant; it is nature that sets the agenda.  When I wrote about Plomin’s book (Robert Plomin, Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are), I was cautious about commenting on the science but I did feel that he was overplaying his hand.  Although Gina Rippon does not take on Plomin directly, it would seem she agrees.  ‘It is no longer a question’, she writes, ‘of either nature or nurture but realising how entangled the ‘nature’ of our brains is with the brain changing ‘nurture’ provided by our experiences.’  Again and again, Rippon emphasises how our experiences of life change our brains.  Our education has an impact, of course, but so do the sports we play, the hobbies we engage in and the careers we end up pursuing.  If a child spends her free time engaged in constructive play with lego, her brain will develop differently from if she spent it improving her hockey playing.  And what a child does is certainly more important than their sex in determining how their brain develops.  This is not to say that we can entirely rule out the possibility that there are sex differences in the brains of male and female babies.  As yet, this is too hard to prove definitively but once factors such as birth weight and head size have been controlled for ‘there are very few, if any, structural differences in the brain at birth’.

This might seem to add little to any debate on gender differences – the majority of people will find it easy to accept, and there is next to no point in trying to argue with the vociferous brigade who still insist that men and women are just born different.  The reason it matters is that we still live in a society which sends out different messages to, and about, men and women.  The media loves reports which suggest that there is a biological basis for the differences between men and women and each time they publicise one of these they are, Rippon argues, playing into gender stereotypes and discouraging the fight for change.  The stereotypes the media perpetuates seep into people’s subconscious and can affect how children are raised and educated.  If you tell your son to ‘man up’ when he falls over but comfort your daughter when she has a minor accident, you are sending out a message that boys should be tough but girls can cry.  This book is a reminder that we need to keep countering those gender stereotypes, not just because they are based on bad science but also because they constrict all our children.

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A little bit of adversity does you good.

I had a colleague once who was completely immune to feedback.  It did not matter how many people gave this individual exactly the same feedback about how to improve, they ploughed on using the same failed techniques.  ‘I’m a really good teacher’ this person kept insisting, in the face of all evidence to the contrary.  I think Mark McCourt* would describe my former colleague as ‘robust’, and it would not be a compliment.  ‘Stress, damage and harm’ do nothing to change robust items, McCourt explains.  In the case of the teacher I have described, even strongly worded criticism had no apparent impact on their behaviour.

Of course, no person is truly robust and that’s a good thing.  A robust person would be an inflexible, emotionless soul, without the ability to and learn and prosper.  When we say that we want children to be robust, what we really desire, as McCourt points out, is for them to be anti-fragile.  Whereas a fragile object is one that will be damaged beyond repair by ‘breakage, stress or being forced to operate beyond their current limit’, a thing that is anti-fragile can develop and grow in response to an adverse or hostile situation (assuming that situation does not involve extreme or prolonged stress, both of which are clearly damaging).  What this means, according to McCourt, is that we need to think of our cognitive systems as similar to our immune systems.  Just as the latter can be strengthened by a hostile encounter by, for example, developing anti-bodies in response to an infection, so the former can be strengthened by tackling a difficult academic challenge.  Equally, the ’emotional shock’ of being told, quite starkly, that they are wrong can be good for a child, if it prompts them to listen more carefully and work more diligently in the future.  In short, it is not just that we do children no favours by pandering to them; by sheltering them from experiences and truths we actively damage their prospects of becoming independent minded, intellectually astute adults.

*Mark McCourt, Teaching for Mastery – highly recommended for anyone who is committed to creating the conditions in which all their students will thrive.

Fit to learn

A study from the University Hospital, Muenster in Germany has found a strong corrrelation between physical fitness and cognitive abilities.  The research, which involved over a thousand adults, with an average age of 30, showed that those able to walk the greatest distance within a two minute timeframe, were also those who performed best on tests of cognitive ability.  The tests measured the skills of recall, reasoning, mental acuity and judgement.  The highest scoring participants benefitted too from ‘better structural integrity of white matter in their brains’  (John Anderer, Sound Body, Sound Mind: Physically Fit People Have Stronger, Sharper Brains)  White matter helps to ensure the rapid transfer of information from one region of your brain to another.  A lack of white matter is associated with a number of ‘cognitive deficits’ including in ‘language ability, memory and visuo-spatial construction’.  (http://blogs.biomedcentral.com/about/)  The lead researcher on the project, Dr Jonathan Rapple, said: ‘It surprised us to see that even in a young population cognitive performance decreases as fitness levels [drop] … This leads us to believe that a basic level of fitness seems to be a preventable risk factor for brain health’.

What is true for adult brains may not necessarily apply to those of children, but we know at least that a fit child is more likely to become a fit adult, and if fit adults are also mentally more capable, this yet another reason to promote school sport.

Teaching students how to use examples

Towards the end of last term, some colleagues and I were discussing ‘Concepts, examples and misconceptions’ from Andy Tharby’s How to Explain Absolutely Anything to Absolutely Anyone.  We all agreed that Tharby’s advice was extremely useful for those occasions on which we need to create examples.  The problem we have in history is generally a different one, however.  History is less about creating examples than using the existing evidence effectively.  Indeed, in our subject a key skill is choosing the most appropriate example to back up the point you have just made.  The same is true for politics, which I also teach.  Choosing the most pertinent examples is something even bright students find incredibly hard but below are some tried, tested and successful strategies.

  1.  Anticipate common errors that students make when using examples, so that you can warn them to guard against these.  Thus in politics, I always remind my students not to use examples of the behaviour of cabinet ministers when the question asks about backbenchers.
  2. When a student has suggested or asserted that something is true, ask: ‘Can you give me an example of that?’  Once the example has been suggested, unpick it.  Does it prove the point in question?  Why?  How?  Is there another example which might work better?  If it doesn’t work, why is that?
  3. Do example hunts – this is when you give a student a passage, article or chapter of a book and ask them to find the best examples within it to prove particular points.  A simpler version of this, which is good for younger pupils, is to provide them with three examples and ask them to explain which works best and why.
  4. Stress that examples are not an afterthought but an integral part of your argument.  Simply advancing a reason or cause and adding an example is not a good technique.  Each example needs to be surrounded by explanation, in order that its relevance is fully articulated.  The more we model this to students by explaining the examples we use as fully and clearly as possible, the better.
  5. Following on from the point above, it is also worth telling your students that if they are struggling to explain the relevance of a particular example, it may well be because the example they have chosen is not the best one to use in the circumstances.  It may well be that it would be far easier to make the case for a different example.  And, if students do stumble, it is worth requiring them to correct their own examples, as part of their redrafting process.

Teaching students how to use examples successfully takes time but if they master this skill it really improves the quality of their arguments, and little is more satisfying in history than a well constructed argument.

 

Scott H. Young, Ultralearning: Accelerate your career, master hard skills and outsmart the competition

Young defines ultralearning as: ‘A strategy for acquiring skills and knowledge that is both self directed and intense.’  Ultralearners are those who use a proven set of techniques, in a highly disciplined way, to master information or gain expertise in a relatively short period of time.  This book provides a set-by-step guide for anyone who might wish to join the ultralearners club.  In brief, those steps are:

  • Make a plan.  What exactly do you need to know?  What is the best way of learning this?
  • Hone your concentration skills – you will need to be able to concentrate for long periods of time.
  • Focus directly on what you want to learn.  Don’t procrastinate and don’t fall back doing what is easy at the expense of practising what you currently find hard.
  • Devise learning drills to help shore up your weaknesses and use these until you have achieved mastery of a particular skill or set of information.
  • Use retrieval practice from a very early stage to ensure that you are learning, rather than simply covering content.  (Young believes that the value of retrieval practice to memory is so high that you should test yourself even before you are confident with the material.)
  • Aim to disengage the part of your brain that might be offended by criticism, so that when you seek out feedback, you are able to act on it, rather than react defensively to it.
  • Remember that what you forget will be of no value to you, so develop an awareness  of what slips through your brain and why it doesn’t stick.  Then you will know what weaknesses to rectify.
  • Make sure you are learning things deeply and fully, rather than simply acquiring a surface understanding of them.  The more you explore, and play with, relevant concepts and information, the better you will achieve this.
  • Be prepared to venture outside your comfort zone throughout your ultralearning project.

That list perhaps makes the book sound like a useful but dull technical manual, so I should stress that it is actually a very engaging read.  Each chapter is constructed around the story of someone who has achieved success through learning in a systematic and/or intensive way.  These stories, which relate the feats of Benjamin Franklin, Vincent Van Gogh, Richard Feynman and Judit Polgar (among others) are fascinating.  On a certain level, they are also inspiring, although ultralearning sounds exhausting.  Even Young admits that it ‘will strain you mentally, emotionally and possibly even physically’ by forcing you to ‘face down frustrations directly’ rather than taking refuge in easy and familiar.  As Young also points out, the difficulties will be worth it if your project helps you to a better career, or provides you with the sense of deep fulfilment that comes from mastering a new skill.  Persuading others, or motivating yourself, to overcome the humps is clearly hard, though.  Young says that, as part of his preparation for writing the book, he coached a ‘dozen or so’ people in ultralearning, ‘some’ of whom dropped out.  It would be interesting to know the exact drop out figure, and I do wonder if Young failed to reveal it because it represents rather a high percentage of those with whom he worked.

It is encouraging to think that, if you set about things in the right way, you could improve your performance in almost any area and, as Young points out, the techniques he advocates can also be used to learn in a less intensive way.  This more gradual approach will not suit the most driven and impatient of learners but I suspect it will have a wider appeal.

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Lisa Damour, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. (Part 2: Unexpected Drawbacks)

You have a child sitting in front of you.  Her parents are wealthy and she has a large group of friends.  She may have other problems but at least she has two big things going for her.  Right?  Lisa Damour is not so sure.  In fact, she cautions that we can overlook the disadvantages that come with parental wealth and big friendship groups.

Since issues around the latter are something we have to deal with more regularly as teachers, let us deal with that one first.  The trouble with being part of a big friendship group is that it increases the likelihood of what Damour calls ‘social turmoil’.  It is very unlikely that everyone within a group of five or six will feel equal affinity with everyone else in the group.  Everyone will have their own favourites.  If more than one person in the group has the same best friend of choice this will inevitably cause tension.  If two people in the group like each other more than they like the rest of their set, this too can be divisive, with everyone else feeling hurt if those two decide to meet separately.  Also, the more people in a friendship group, the more each member of that group has to compromise over plans, and compromising can be dissatisfying.  Finally, the bigger the group, the more likely there are to be fall outs between members, with others being drawn in to mediate or asked to pick sides.  These drawbacks rarely occur to the teenage girl unhappy that she is not part of the big in-crowd, and it would be good to able to remind her that one or two secure friendships will probably make for a happier life.

The disadvantages of having wealthy parents will almost certainly elicit little sympathy and are, of course, balanced by a great number of advantages but I thought them worth noting, nonetheless.  According to Damour, the problem is this: having wealthy, successful parents makes children preoccupied with their own future success, and because they tend to see success in terms of the money they can earn and the lifestyle this will afford them, this leads them to consider only the small range of universities and career options they think will guarantee this.  They thus cease to think about what they are good at, what they enjoy or what might best suit them.  This negatively affects their well being. Yet, being happy and fulfilled should, Damour argues, take the place of ‘impressive achievements and earnings’ in our definition of success.