Influence: lessons from business for teaching, part 4

Background 

If you’ve read Part 1 on Liking, Part 2 on Social Proof or Part 3 on Authority, you can skip this bit and go straight to Part 4.  If not, it’ll help. 

Car dealers. Marketing executives. Phone companies. Waiters.  Teachers. What do we all have in common? We all want people to do what we want. Buy stuff, read stuff, eat stuff, do stuff, don’t do stuff, do stuff differently. 

It’s not always easy, though. Usually the stuff you (we) want people to do is stuff they aren’t already doing.  Or if they are doing it, they aren’t doing it enough, or in quite the right way.  We all know that though.  So, why this blog?   

Well, there I was, idly flicking through Freakonomics Radio, when I came across an episode called How To Get Anyone To Do Anything.  Always a sucker for a quick fix (Get rock hard abs fast without exercise or diet?  Yes please!) I dived in.   

The episode was an interview with Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the psychology of persuasion. First published in 1984 and, I’m told, a classic of the genre, it was updated in 2021, hence the podcast.  In it, Cialdini takes host Stephen Dubner through some of the key principles that people he calls “compliance professionals” use to get us to do those things they want us to, but which we probably wouldn’t without some gentle encouragement. 

It was good.  So I bought the book.  And in this short series of blogs, I’m going to outline some of Cialdini’s theories and how they might be applicable to various roles in school.  He identifies seven “levers of influence” but I’ll stick to four: liking, social proof, authority, and commitment and consistency. 

A couple of disclaimers: I haven’t interrogated Cialdini’s sources, nor sought corroboration for his claims.  I also note from various reviews that lots of other people have said and written similar things, and no doubt some have contradicted them.  Be that as it may, I found lots of the book was relatable and applicable to teaching, and I thought you might too.  Here goes. 

Part 4: Commitment and Consistency

In this chapter, Cialdini explains how you can use the power of commitment to encourage the behaviour you’re after. 

The basic premise is this: “Once we make a choice or take a stand, we encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to think and behave consistently with that commitment.”  So far, so expected.  But here’s the bit I really like: “Moreover, those pressures will cause us to respond in ways that justify our decision.”

Cialdini gives lots of examples to back this up, but I’ll summarise just one.  Residents of a California neighbourhood were asked to have a billboard with the words “Drive Carefully” placed on their front lawn.  The sign was enormous, blocking much of the view of the house, and looked awful.  Only 17% agreed to have the sign, apart from one group where the figure was a whopping 76%.  Two weeks earlier, that group had received a visit from a volunteer worker, who asked them to display a three inch square sign that said, “Be a Safe Driver.”  It was such a little request, and so hard to refuse, that almost everyone agreed.  But, fascinatingly, this seemed to make them far more likely to comply with another, much more intrusive, request – to host the big Drive Carefully sign.

Even more remarkably, other homeowners were asked to sign a petition to “keep California beautiful.”  Who wouldn’t do that?  A couple of weeks later, a volunteer popped round to the same homeowners and asked them to have the big Drive Carefully signs in their front gardens.  About half agreed, even though their recent commitment had been to a different public service topic.

The researchers concluded that signing the beautification petition caused people to see themselves as public-spirited people who acted on their civic principles (and who knows, maybe they actually were).   So, when asked to do something else public spirited, “they complied in order to be consistent with their newly formed self-images.”  As the researchers put it, once someone has agreed to a request, “he may become, in his own eyes, the kind of person who does this sort of thing…who takes action on things he believes in, who co-operates on good causes.”

So, if we can get people to commit to something, they may well alter their subsequent behaviour to fit in with the view of themselves that they, and others, now have.  Helpfully, Cialdini goes on to explain how these commitments can be made most effective.  They must be active, public, effortful and, most important of all, freely chosen. Let’s take each in term (briefly, promise).

  • Active. Basically, this means write it down. A written commitment provides physical evidence of the intention.  Not only does this ensure we can’t deny making the commitment, it can also persuade those around us that the commitment reflects what we really think.  This brings in the awesome power of social proof (remember Part 2?  Course you do!): Cialdini notes that shortly after hearing their neighbours considered them charitable, people gave much more money to a fundraiser.  So, a written commitment can change our view of ourselves, and others’ view of us, which in turn reinforces the likelihood that we will behave in ways congruent with our commitment.

  • Public. “Whenever one takes a stand visible to others, there arises a drive to maintain that stand in order to look like a consistent person…The more public a stand, the more reluctant we are to change it.”  That’s why we’re always being told that we are more likely to stick to goals if we tell others about them.  I won’t linger on this one.  You know it’s true.  It’s also why you love that quotation from JM Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do?”  Gives you a lovely get-out.

  • Effortful. “The evidence is clear: the more effort that goes into a commitment, the greater its ability to influence the attitudes and actions of those who made it.” Cialdini describes a frankly eye-watering event that marks entry to adulthood for males in a particular African tribe, and the brutal initiation ceremonies common to a number of American university fraternities.  In both cases, he says, “the severity of an initiation ceremony heightens the newcomer’s commitment to the group.”  To be honest (and we saw in Part 3 how important honesty is in gaining trust) I think imposing frat-house style entry requirements for your new Y7s might be going a bit far, but making it seem like a Big Deal to join your school might perform a similar function.  I’ve referenced the Michaela School’s extensive pre-joining bootcamp for pupils before, but this could be another reason why it works so well.

  • Freely chosen. “We accept inner responsibility for a behaviour when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressure.”  An external stimulus to act (or not act), such as a reward or threat of a sanction, might influence behaviour but, says Cialdini, we won’t feel committed to the particular act.  In fact, such external pressures could even have the reverse effect, causing people to be reluctant to perform the behaviour in their absence.  (“There’s no reward, this time, for completing my homework by the deadline?  I won’t bother, then.”)  If Cialdini is right, this doesn’t necessarily mean allowing pupils simply to choose what to do.  It means giving them a chance to make a relevant decision.  He cites a study which showed that young children told not to play with robots because it was wrong and because if they did they’d be in trouble, complied at the time.  But six weeks later, given no further instruction and in the absence of the person who’d spoken to them before, almost all of them played with the robot.  A similar group, told only that it was wrong to play with the robot, eschewed it to the same extent as the initial group, and did so again six weeks later.  The researchers concluded that this was because the children felt they had made the decision not to play with the robot, rather than not doing so for fear of a telling off.  I suspect quite a lot of secondary school age children, at least, would view this as “treating us like adults, not children.”   So perhaps don’t say, “Don’t do this or you’ll be in detention,” but, “Don’t do this, because it runs against the core values you signed up to when you made that active, public and effortful commitment to them.”

One more piece of Cialdini advice.  Remind people of the commitments they’ve made.  This helps restore the commitment, but also prods people to recall that they are the kind of person who makes that kind of commitment, and therefore want to live up to that standard.

Two quick examples to prove these points.  The first stems from Tom Bennett’s Running the Room.  You know those classroom rules we get the kids to agree to at the start of the year? Be on time, bring your book, don’t interrupt, do your homework, etc.  All well and good, but, Tom says, unless we remind people of them, and revisit (including practise) them regularly, they will get forgotten.  Linking Tom and Cialdini, the commitments could easily be active (written down), public (have them on the wall, or in their exercise books), freely chosen (developed with the pupils) and regularly reprised.  It won’t make everyone behave just so, but it should give you a flying start – and if you add to it social proof, a bit of authority and a dash of liking, you’re well on your way.

The second is from my own, current, experience. I’ve introduced a thing to Y8 called Make It Happen.  Everyone chooses (freely) two goals, one school based and one not.  They also note down the milestones they will need to pass along the way, when they will pass them, and what they need to do to get there.  Bespoke stickers are available at each milestone.  We launched this last year, using OneNote to share electronic templates to be filled in, which tutors could then check.  While some people really took to it, most – OK, almost everyone – didn’t.  Same this year.  Having read Cialdini, here’s what I’m going to do to make Make It Happen happen.

  1. A couple of weeks before the launch, run an electronic survey, asking people whether they think they are more likely to work to achieve their goals if they write them down or just think about them; keep them to themselves or go public; have to work hard for them or if they’re easy; are told what they are or can freely choose them.  This should encourage lots of them to see themselves as the kind of people who would set goals and monitor their progress.
  2. When launching, deploy social proof by getting some older children who have benefited from MIH to explain to Y8 why it’s such a good idea.  Also, ensure it’s all couched in terms of why this is a good thing to do, so they will want to do it and feel they have freely chosen to engage.
  3. Bin the electronics and go paper-based.  This will adhere to the “Active” principle.  I have a sense that writing something is more commitment-forming than typing.
  4. Put up a list of everyone’s goals in each form room.  Not all the milestones, that’s too much. Just the end goals.  This meets the “Public” principle.
  5. Make it quite hard to complete the initial sheet.  That is, have several boxes on there, all of which need to be filled in, so it’s “effortful.”
  6. Return to it formally (e.g. in tutor time) and regularly.

Some of this we’ve already done.  So maybe it’s just a crap idea that will never work.  But I don’t think so, and I won’t give up until I’ve given it the best chance of success.

Next time: a Twitter thread to summarise it all.

 

Influence: lessons from business for teaching, part 3

Background 

If you’ve read Part 1 or Part 2, you can skip this bit and go straight to Part 3.  If not, it’ll help. 

Car dealers. Marketing executives. Phone companies. Waiters.  Teachers. What do we all have in common? We all want people to do what we want. Buy stuff, read stuff, eat stuff, do stuff, don’t do stuff, do stuff differently. 

It’s not always easy, though. Usually the stuff you (we) want people to do is stuff they aren’t already doing.  Or if they are doing it, they aren’t doing it enough, or in quite the right way.  We all know that though.  So, why this blog?   

Well, there I was, idly flicking through Freakonomics Radio, when I came across an episode called How To Get Anyone To Do Anything.  Always a sucker for a quick fix (Get rock hard abs fast without exercise or diet?  Yes please!) I dived in.   

The episode was an interview with Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the psychology of persuasion. First published in 1984 and, I’m told, a classic of the genre, it was updated in 2021, hence the podcast.  In it, Cialdini takes host Stephen Dubner through some of the key principles that people he calls “compliance professionals” use to get us to do those things they want us to, but which we probably wouldn’t without some gentle encouragement. 

It was good.  So I bought the book.  And in this short series of blogs, I’m going to outline some of Cialdini’s theories and how they might be applicable to various roles in school.  He identifies seven “levers of influence” but I’ll stick to four: liking, social proof, authority, and commitment and consistency. 

A couple of disclaimers: I haven’t interrogated Cialdini’s sources, nor sought corroboration for his claims.  I also note from various reviews that lots of other people have said and written similar things, and no doubt some have contradicted them.  Be that as it may, I found lots of the book was relatable and applicable to teaching, and I thought you might too.  Here goes. 

Part 3: Authority 

In this chapter, Cialdini explains that “we are trained from birth to believe that obedience to proper authority is right and disobedience is wrong.  This message fills the parental lessons, schoolhouse rhymes, stories and songs of our childhood and is carried forward in the legal, military and political systems we encounter as adults.”  We can all relate to this: accepting the advice of a doctor, even if it’s unexpected; obeying police instructions to move along, even if we don’t want to; going to lessons when the bell rings, even if we don’t fancy it.  (You can decide for yourself whether the last of those relates to teachers or pupils.)  

I know there are exceptions to all of these.  Dr Internet can help us challenge our GPs; some people simply haven’t been through Cialdini’s “parental lessons” or stories and songs.  But, for the most part, deference to authority exists.  So we might as well use it to our advantage. 

First, let’s make sure people will view us as being in authority.  Cialdini notes several ways to do this.  One, get a title.  Easy: we all have one as teachers, be it Mr, Ms, Dr or whatever.  I know some schools are all for first names, but they are the exception.  Two, clothing.  Again, easy. Wear something smartish and you’re on the way. It’s not as good as a uniform but it helps.  Three, trappings: costly clothing, expensive jewellery, a nice car.  Much less easy, but according to Cialdini mall shoppers were 79% more likely to fill in a survey and homeowners donated to charity 400% more frequently if the person asking them wore a designer sweater. 

Second, be a credible authority.  Again, we have a huge head start.  People are much more likely to go along with the advice of those they deem to have expertise, and we’re all experts in our subjects – or at least, more expert than the pupils.  You’ll have seen this in class, when you’ve given what you know to be a pretty flaky answer to a good question and the student has accepted it, largely because it came from you.  (Come on, I’m not the only one.)  

Finally, be a trustworthy authority.  Often trust takes time to build, for obvious reasons.  But a clever way to shortcut this, Cialdini says, to admit to a weakness up front, especially if it will anyway become apparent later.  I can imagine doing this: “Now, I always find this section particularly difficult, because there are so many competing opinions/variables/ways for things to wrong.”  Come to think of it, that also has the benefit of giving your students permission to fail: if you find it hard, it’s fine for them to find it hard too, so there’s no shame in getting things wrong.  Win win. 

If I’m honest, this isn’t my favourite of Cialdini’s chapters.  There’s so much more to being an effective authority than looking right, sounding right and having a title.  The good thing, though, is that we don’t have to do much to ensure we benefit from his ideas, and we can easily add the authority principles to those of liking (part 1 of this super soaraway series of blogs) and social proof (part 2), we really might find that people will do what we ask more often and with less effort on our part. 

Summary: keep your title; look the part; revel in your expertise; but remember that there’s lots more to authority than a Rolex. 

Next time: commitment and consistency. 

Influence: lessons from business for teaching, part 2

Background 

If you read Part 1 you can skip this bit and go straight to Part 2.  If not, it’ll help. 

Car dealers. Marketing executives. Phone companies. Waiters.  Teachers. What do we all have in common? We all want people to do what we want. Buy stuff, read stuff, eat stuff, do stuff, don’t do stuff, do stuff differently. 

It’s not always easy, though. Usually the stuff you (we) want people to do is stuff they aren’t already doing.  Or if they are doing it, they aren’t doing it enough, or in quite the right way.  We all know that though.  So, why this blog?   

Well, there I was, idly flicking through Freakonomics Radio, when I came across an episode called How To Get Anyone To Do Anything.  Always a sucker for a quick fix (Get rock hard abs fast without exercise or diet?  Yes please!) I dived in.   

The episode was an interview with Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the psychology of persuasion. First published in 1984 and, I’m told, a classic of the genre, it was updated in 2021, hence the podcast.  In it, Cialdini takes host Stephen Dubner through some of the key principles that people he calls “compliance professionals” use to get us to do those things they want us to, but which we probably wouldn’t without some gentle encouragement. 

It was good.  So I bought the book.  And in this short series of blogs, I’m going to outline some of Cialdini’s theories and how they might be applicable to various roles in school.  He identifies seven “levers of influence” but I’ll stick to four: liking, social proof, authority, and commitment and consistency. 

A couple of disclaimers: I haven’t interrogated Cialdini’s sources, nor sought corroboration for his claims.  I also note from various reviews that lots of other people have said and written similar things, and no doubt some have contradicted them.  Be that as it may, I found lots of the book was relatable and applicable to teaching, and I thought you might too.  Here goes. 

According to Cialdini, the principle of social proof states that “we determine what is correct by finding out what other people think is correct…We view an action as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it [his emphasis].” 

We’ve all done this.  The example that springs to my mind is that on busy trains, we all stand in silence, just like everyone else.  Cialdini notes that the best way to increase sales of a particular dish in a restaurant is not to call it the “chef’s recommendation” or “speciality of the house,” but to say it’s the most popular dish.  Similarly, the “fastest growing” product is advertising gold. (I confess to having used this myself, to raise the numbers of people choosing my A-Level.  I did it as a bit of a joke – “Join Presdales School’s fastest growing subject!” – and prefer to ascribe the subsequent doubling* of take-up as evidence of my magnetic personality.) 

Cialdini explains that people are especially likely to follow the lead of others in the following circumstances: 

  • When there is an element of unfamiliarity and/or uncertainty.  You’ll have seen this at the beginning of every school year, when groups of children will willingly follow one of their peers to their next classroom, whether or not that peer really knows where they are going.  Everyone else is following them, so I’d better too, right?   
  • When the people whose behaviour they are witnessing are similar to themselves.  This goes with the above, but extends to the fact that people are also more likely to take advice from peers.  Cialdini cites a school anti-smoking programme, which had best effects when it was delivered by people of the same age as the pupils.  At my current school, an International Mens’ Day-themed assembly – basically, about how it’s OK to be male and vulnerable – delivered to Year 7 and 8 by some supercool Year 11s, got rave reviews and requests for more presentations from fellow pupils. 

There’s lots we can learn here, I think.  In the past, and quite probably still, Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela School has invited all its new pupils to pre-joining “boot camp,” so that they can learn exactly how they are expected to behave in school.  This capitalises on social proof: the pupils are unfamiliar with the circumstances and each other and uncertain of how to behave, so particularly receptive to social proof.  Thus, when they see everyone around them behaving in a certain way, they are very likely to follow suit.  This will be reinforced when school starts for real, and they see all the other pupils behaving similarly.  I don’t know whether Michaela deploy current students to help explain the rules at boot camp, but Cialdini’s principles would suggest that they should. 

Social proof could also be married with the “liking” principles explained in Part 1 of this world beating series.  It seems to me that if you can persuade influential people to behave in a certain way, the power of social proof will be magnified still further. So, we could drop compliments, possibly indirectly, towards those people, about particular things they have done – and, critically, the traits they have shown – and that we want to reinforce.  Or – or perhaps and – we could explain in assembly how delighted we are to see so many people acting considerately to others in lessons.  Even better, we could ask a pupil to do it: “I was really worried when I came that because I was the only one from my school I would find it hard to make friends, but everyone has been so kind and welcoming that I have really loved it.”  Beautiful. 

But, there’s a catch.  Cialdini explains that in harnessing social proof to promote the good, we mustn’t accidentally normalise the bad.  He gives two examples relating to teenagers.  “After a suicide prevention program informing New Jersey teenagers about the alarming number of adolescents who take their own lives, participants became more likely to see suicide as a potential solution to their own problems.  After exposure to an alcohol use deterrence program…junior high school students came to believe that alcohol use was more common among their peers than they’d originally thought.”  In both cases, the aim had been to use social proof to encourage people in the right direction, but by normalising the harmful behaviour, some people at least considered moving the opposite way.  They too had social proof, with possibly disastrous consequences. 

This is a real issue, I think.  A PSHE session on eating disorders: vital information for pupils, or an introduction to, and normalisation of, something they may not otherwise have considered?  Drugs awareness: critical to warn of the dangers, or a window into a world of new possibilities?  And so on.  It may be that the one is impossible without the other: we can’t not cover drugs, alcohol etc. But if Cialdini – and, let’s be honest, our own intuition – is right, we need to think very carefully about the unintended consequences and what we might do about them.  Maybe we do nothing, but at least we will have made a decision to do nothing.  

To sum up: your pupils are very likely to do what other pupils are doing; will take advice from peers; are particularly likely to do both when feeling uncertain or unfamiliar; and beware of supplying social proof for the wrong things. 

Next time: authority. 

*Possibly not quite doubling.  It was a while ago now. 

Influence: lessons from business for teaching, part 1

Background

Car dealers. Marketing executives. Phone companies. Waiters. Teachers. What do we all have in common? We all want people to do what we want. Buy stuff, read stuff, eat stuff, do stuff, don’t do stuff, do stuff differently.

It’s not always easy, though. Usually the stuff you (we) want people to do is stuff they aren’t already doing.  Or if they are doing it, they aren’t doing it enough, or in quite the right way.  We all know that though.  So, why this blog? 

Well, there I was, idly flicking through Freakonomics Radio, when I came across an episode called How To Get Anyone To Do Anything. Always a sucker for a quick fix (Get rock hard abs fast without exercise or diet? Yes please!) I dived in.

The episode was an interview with Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the psychology of persuasion. First published in 1984 and, I’m told, a classic of the genre, it was updated in 2021, hence the podcast.  In it, Cialdini takes host Stephen Dubner through some of the key principles that people he calls “compliance professionals” use to get us to do those things they want us to, but which we probably wouldn’t without some gentle encouragement.

It was good.  So I bought the book.  And in this short series of blogs, I’m going to outline some of Cialdini’s theories and how they might be applicable to various roles in school.  He identifies seven “levers of influence” but I’ll stick to four: liking, social proof, authority, and commitment and consistency.

A couple of disclaimers: I haven’t interrogated Cialdini’s sources, nor sought corroboration for his claims.  I also note from various reviews that lots of other people have said and written similar things, and no doubt some have contradicted them.  Be that as it may, I found lots of the book was relatable and applicable to teaching, and I thought you might too.  Here goes.

Part 1: Liking

“Few of us would be surprised to learn that we are more influenced by the people we like.”  Sure thing.  Cialdini breaks down “liking” into a range of categories, which are more helpful to us as teachers.  I know, I know, we don’t want the children to be our friends, and getting them to like us is not our primary, or even secondary or tertiary, aim.  Nevertheless, getting on well with pupils (and parents) can have many benefits, perhaps especially in the pastoral context.

Cialdini says you can increase the chances of people liking you, and therefore your ability to influence them, though several routes.

  1. Physical attractiveness. Obvious, really. But if you are not favoured in the looks department, fear not: there are other ways too.
  2. Similarity. Claim, or find, similar interests to your interlocutor and you’re onto a winner. Anyone who has ever struck up a conversation with a difficult pupil about something they and you both like – cooking, fish, football, painting, fashion, whatever – and felt that, at last, you might be getting through to them knows this. (Top Tip: If you have any interest at all in football, make sure you have a Fantasy team. Teenage boys in particular are obsessed with it and are amazed and delighted to find out that you are too. If you have a staff league, so much the better: they also love to know that the Head of PE is in eighth place and the Physics teacher they’ve never really bothered about has just transferred in Mo Salah.) According to Cialdini, an initial similarity of interests is the single most important factor in a mentor-student relationship. Worth bearing in mind when you are thinking about pastoral match-ups.
  3. Praise. “We are phenomenal suckers for flattery.” Remarkably, Cialdini says flattery doesn’t have to be genuine and it doesn’t even matter if the flatteree knows you are complimenting them because you want something. It still makes them like you. So, give lots of praise. Not only that:
    • Give compliments behind someone’s back. Don’t just tell someone they’ve done well. Instead, or in addition, identify someone close to the flatteree, and tell them the person has done well. If you’ve chosen the link person well, the person’s form tutor, perhaps, the compliment will be passed on and you’ll be safe from accusations of ulterior motives. I can also imagine this working if, for some reason, a direct compliment from you wouldn’t go down well – if, for example, the flatteree would deem it death-inducingly uncool to be called out for doing something good by their Head of Year.
    • Give compliments about the kinds of behaviour you want to see replicated. This will encourage people to live up to the standards you want to inculcate. Cialdini gives a really nice example. His paperboy used to throw his newspaper into his porch, as opposed to nearby where it might get wet, about 75% of the time. After a Christmas card and tip thanking the paperboy’s conscientiousness in getting the delivery right almost all the time, the success rate went up to 100%. Apparently it’s crucial to compliment a trait as well as action: in this case, not just delivering the paper well, but also the boy’s conscientiousness in doing so. That makes the boy feel conscientious and want to continue to live up to that label. So, not just, “Thank you for picking up that crisp packet,” but, “Thank you for your thoughtfulness in picking up that crisp packet.”
  4. Conditioning and association. “Merely communicating negative news affixes to the communicator a pair of devil’s horns that, in the eyes of the recipients, apply to other characteristics, “ says Cialdini. This is bad news for pastoral leaders, who often find themselves dishing out the serious sanctions and therefore, if this “horns effect” is real, being seen as generally horrible. Happily, it works the other way too. Advertisers use gorgeous models because, per point 1 above, we “like” physical attractiveness and will associate that good feeling with whatever it is we are being sold. It’s also why companies are so keen to be the official hairspray/umbrella/tea towel of the Olympics (Olympics = good, so official Olympics tea towel = also good), and why politicians seek celebrity endorsements. This is the “halo” counterpart to the horns effect. We can learn from this: if you are someone who has to tell people off a lot, risking the horns effect, make sure that isn’t the only communication you have with those individuals. Show them your halo, be that a shared interest, a compliment, or the certificate that only you give out – even if, given 3a above, it’s best that someone else actually passes it on.

To sum up: in some circumstances at school, it’s helpful for people to like you.  To aid that process, you could find or develop similar interests; give compliments, even ones that aren’t genuine, possibly indirectly, that reinforce traits you like; associate yourself with good things as well as bad; and if you are so blessed, work your looks.  

Next time: social proof, or why we often look to what others are doing to decide what we should do, and how we as teachers can harness that.

“Obvious, obvious, obvious.” CLT: just so right?

I recently watched and very much enjoyed this webchat between Oliver Lovell and Tom Sherrington.  Lovell has recently written Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action, and Sherrington was interviewing him about it. 

About 24 minutes in, Sherrington asks Lovell for “the main thing that teachers should do.”  Lovell gives three things to avoid: 

  • Redundancy: cut out anything you don’t need.  Anything redundant wastes precious working memory. 
  • Transience: for example, when running through a powerpoint, remember that the information is transient.  It’s on slide one, but not slide two, three or four, but you still need the class to remember it, and that takes up working memory. 
  • Split attention: “information that must be combined, should be together in space and time.”  Sort of a development of transience, I think. 

Good stuff.  Eminently and evidently sensible.  So much so that Sherrington describes it, in a much more complimentary way than will come across on the page, as “Obvious, obvious, obvious.”  He’s not belittling Lovell’s ideas.  Rather, he is praising Lovell for his research-based clarity of thought and expression, and the obvious link between Cognitive Load Theory and Lovell’s practice.  Nice. 

I agree.  I think Lovell’s suggestions are excellent.  They are indeed obvious, once you come to think about them.  What’s more, they just feel right. 

The problem is that other things just feel right too, even when they’re wrong.  Way back in 2008 the great Daniel Willingham, of whom I am an enormous fan (ask any of my classes), made a video called Learning Styles Don’t Exist.  I’m sure that somewhere he once apologised for its “garage band quality”, which I rather liked, but the information is good and, as it happens, I buy it.  Of particular interest, though, is that Willingham himself says that the learning styles theory, specifically the visual/auditory/kinaesthetic variety, “seems to make a lot of sense.”  He even asks, “Why does it seem so right?” 

He says there are three reasons: 

  1. Because everyone believes it; 
  1. Because something close to the theory is right; 
  1. Because of confirmation bias (though he doesn’t use that term). 

I think you could apply a lot of that to CLT, or rather to the way CLT is being used in the classroom.  As Sherrington implies, Lovell’s suggestions “seem to make a lot sense,” and so they do.  It may even be that they are sensible because they derive from CLT.  But it may not. 

I recently highlighted some doubts about the robustness of the methodology underpinning CLT experiments.  (To save you a read: it’s not clear that we can measure cognitive load very well, which to me begs the question of whether we should be building theories of education on it.)  Be that as it may, once you’re into cognitive load, you see it everywhere and it explains everything.   

Your students wrote rubbish essays?  You probably overloaded their working memory with new information.  They can’t factorise?  I expect you didn’t do enough worked examples.  They forgot to bring their swimming kit?  Well, that was one of four messages you gave out in form time yesterday.   

Alternatively, perhaps you explained the essay really badly.  Maybe, during your factorising lesson, they were all thinking about inter-form football later on.  Perhaps they were hungry in form time, or focused on the latest gossip.  The CLT explanation might feel right, but is it?  How can you know? 

Ironically, perhaps, Willingham’s VAK video makes a similar point.  He imagines a teacher trying to explain the structure of the atom, but “it’s not really clicking.  Finally, you say, ‘Picture the solar system. The nucleus of the atom is like the Sun, and the electrons are like the planets spinning round it.’ The student understands and you think, ‘Aha!  The student must be a visual learner.’  But maybe that was just a good analogy that would have helped any student, or maybe the student needed just one more example for the idea to click.  Why the student understood at that point is actually ambiguous.” (My emphasis.) 

The same could be said of CLT.  You’ve read about it, maybe been to talk or a webinar.  So you strip down your explanations, use worked examples, rid your slides of diversions and – ta-dah! – your students ace the test.  Cause and effect?  Maybe.  Probably your teaching, free of frills and frippery, was clearer and sharper, and thus more likely to produce the desired results.  But can you be sure that was due to your adherence to CLT?  Or was it just that you thought harder about how you were going to explain things?  As Willingham says, “if you already believe, ambiguous situations are interpreted as consistent.”  

I’ve written before about the the seduction of quick clarity: the danger that we alight on something that seems to make logical and accessible sense of a difficult and nuanced issue – teaching, for example.  CLT certainly seems logical and can be made accessible: witness this by Adam Boxer.  That doesn’t make it right – VAK wasn’t, after all – but it will still lead us to teach in particular ways and, perhaps damagingly, not in others.  That’s for next time, though.  

Cognitive Load Theory: a life of its own

In 1971, in Palo Alto, California, the Stanford Prison Experiment took place.  You’ve probably heard of it. In case not, here’s a quick rundown. 

The SPE was led by Philip Zimbardo of Stanford University’s psychology department.  It involved two groups of nine students.  One group played the role of prisoners, the other the prison guards.  The prisoners, supposedly arrested for theft or armed robbery, were stripped naked, given numbers and locked up three to a cell. The guards were to keep order.   

Order broke down.  The inmates rebelled.  The guards responded with fire extinguishers, physical punishment, sleep deprivation and refusals to let the prisoners empty their sanitation buckets.  The researchers concluded that these otherwise upstanding young people had acted in such appalling ways as a result of their environment.  Put otherwise good people into bad situations, and their behaviour will deteriorate. 

However, according to Rutger Bregman’s recent book Human Kind, the study was “a hoax.”  The scientist in charge had told the guards how to act, rather than letting their behaviour develop unencumbered.  Zimbardo denied it for years.  As a result, according to Bregman,  

“In the decades since the experiment, millions of people have fallen for Philip Zimbardo’s staged farce.” 

And as for Zimbardo himself, asked in 2018 how he felt about his research, he said: 

“It’s the most famous study in the history of psychology at this point.  There’s no study that people talk about fifty years later.  It’s got a life of its own now.” 

He’s not wrong.  Today (26 October 2020) I googled “Stanford Prison Experiment.”  The very first hit, even before wikipedia, took me to SimplyPsychology.org.  It describes the experiment in some depth.  It doesn’t say anything about it being a hoax.  A life of its own indeed. 

——————————————————————————————————————————— 

I feel like this about cognitive load theory (CLT).  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying it’s a hoax, nor impugning the good auspices of its proponents.  I’m also not saying that I don’t buy it.  What I am saying is that it’s got a life of its own, and that may not be a universal good. 

If you’re not totally familiar with CLT, an admirably succinct definition was given by Oliver Lovell, author of the brand new book Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory in Action, in this webchat with Tom Sherrington: “to reduce extraneous load and optimize instrinsic load.” 

To me, CLT basically means that our job as teachers is to ensure our students think about the right things (the intrinsic load: the particular bit of grammar/trigonometry/coding they are doing), with minimal distraction (the extrinsic load: the pretty pictures on the worksheet, the overwhelming glut of new information).  You can read a much fuller and better explanation by the redoubtable Adam Boxer, here

The “Sweller” of Lovell’s title is John Sweller, Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of New South Wales and the godfather of CLT.  Papers of his such as Cognitive Load During Problem Solving (1988) and Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work (2006, with Kirschner and Clark) are widely cited.  Famously, in 2017 Dylan Wiliam tweeted that “Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know.” 

And so it came to pass.  Right now, CLT and the method of teaching it inspires, perhaps best encapsulated in Barack Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction (which itself references two Sweller papers), are having a moment.  More than a moment, in fact.  As well as Lovell’s book, there’s Sherrington’s Rosenshine’s Principles in Action and accompanying CPD events, articles everywhere you care to look, the ResearchED movement, and much, much more. 

Mainly, that’s a good thing.  I think it’s great that we are seeking to put our professional actions on a sound footing.  I’ve presented at a ResearchEd national conference myself.  However, as Roxana Moreno, Associate Professor in the College of Education at the University of New Mexico, put it, “researchers construct towers of knowledge on the foundations of others.”  So, what if those foundations are a little bit shaky? 

For example, I had assumed that measurement of cognitive load would be really, well, scientific.  If lots of people are telling me that understanding CLT is crucial to my success as a teacher, I want that to be founded on excellent research.  So I was a bit surprised to read this, in an article by Professor Ton de Jong of the University of Amsterdam: 

“The most frequently used self-report scale in educational science was introduced by Paas (1992). This questionnaire consists of one item in which learners indicate their ‘‘perceived amount of mental effort’’ on a 9-point rating scale (Paas 1992, p. 430). In research that uses this measure, reported effort is seen as an index of cognitive load.”

In other words, students measure their own perceived mental effort in a task.  In Paas’ original scale it ran from “Very, very low” to “Very, very high”, although others prefer a five point scale and still others use different terms.  Some studies into CLT ask this question at the end of the task, others during.  From this perceived mental effort we deduce cognitive load: lots of effort = lots of load.   

I’m no scientist or psychologist, and maybe this represents the best we can do at the moment.  If so, great.  But it’s still a bit less robust than I had imagined, or would want from a theory which has convinced so many that direct instruction is the way to go.  Roxana Moreno, however, is rather more direct: 

“The conclusion is clear: There are no standard, reliable, and valid measures for the main constructs of the theory…In contrast to the large number of studies that have used CLT to frame the research questions and predictions as a framework, insufficient attention has been given to the rigorous development of CL measures.” 

In other words, we’re putting the cart before the horse. 

I also found this, on the twitter feed (@cbokhove) of Dr Christian Bokhove, Associate Professor of Maths Education at Southampton University.  It’s the numbers of people who took part in the relevant studies in the 1980s, when CLT was coming to prominence. 

Not tiny numbers, but enough on which to base a whole theory of teaching?  Not sure.  (Honestly not sure.  Maybe in academia it’s plenty, but it’s still fewer than I’d imagined.) 

But all of that was a long time ago. How about something more up to date? Well, there’s this, from a 2019 article whose authors include Sweller and Paas themselves:  

“There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered in future research with regard to the optimal use of the subjective ratings scale. What is the effect of time on task on perception of invested mental effort or task difficulty? What are the effects of age and gender on the ratings? Do we need to present participants with a baseline before they start to rate?”  

Personally, I’d quite like to have had some of that nailed down.   

The article continues (the square brackets are mine, the curved ones theirs): 

“It is assumed that low or high performance on the secondary task [i.e. one set after the initial one, to check how well the information has been learned] are indicative of high and low cognitive load imposed by the primary task [i.e. the higher the load in the primary task, the worse people will do in the secondary].  However, secondary task techniques have been criticised for their intrusiveness (i.e. imposing an extra cognitive load that may interfere with the primary task; Paas et al. 2003) and inability to differentiate between different types of cognitive load. 

Ah. Oh. 

Maybe there are new techniques we can use.  There seems to be some promise in physiological tests.  One study used a “rhythmic foot-tapping secondary task.”  But, the authors add, “much more research is needed into these techniques and their potential to measure cognitive load.” 

What worries me here is that CLT requires us not to overdo the CL.  But it’s not at all clear that we know how to measure CL in the first place.  And it seems that I’m not the only one who’s a little bit nervous.  Remember the Dylan Wiliam tweet from 2017?  Well, here’s another from 2019: 

Still important, then, but perhaps not quite as unequivocally so as in 2017. 

As I said, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying I don’t buy it.  What concerns me is that we’ve just accepted it as The Truth.  And now it’s everywhere.  Maybe that’s OK, maybe it isn’t.  Whichever, CLT has undoubtedly got a life of its own now. 

First Impressions

OK, so this one’s a list rather than a diagram, but it’s day four and I’m flagging a bit.

EffectivenessIt derives from some Harvard University research into whether the first impressions we make as teachers are predictive of how good we are at our jobs.  Somewhat disconcertingly, the clear answer is yes.  Within two seconds – two seconds – students can form an impression of us that will correlate remarkably closely with how we are rated by our superiors. And those impressions will be based not on what we say, but on what we do: our non-verbal behaviour.

That raises all sorts of questions, some of which I addressed in this article. But for the purposes of this short blog, just know this: the traits you display in class may well predict how are good you are at your job.

The lists above are the traits on which the Harvard professors asked pupils to score their teachers.  The higher people scored in the list on the right, the better teachers they were.  (In the list on the left, Anxious was negatively scored – so the lower the rating, the better as it meant they were Not Anxious.)

So how do you come across as Enthusiastic, Confident, Dominant etc?  The research suggests this:

Body language

So there you go.  Walk around confidently; smile enthusiastically; touch your upper torso dominantly; be a better teacher.

Good Question Questions

“Good Question” Questions

Mainly, questions in lessons are good.  They suggest interest, curiosity, a willingness to try something out or to ask for help.

However, not all questions are equal.  After observing several lessons and noting down the pupils’ questions, I think they can be grouped like this:

QuestionsCapture

“How to do it” questions

These were the most common.  Pupils ask them to make sure they understand what they are being asked to do.  Here are some examples:

  • Can we take notes on this?
  • Should we put a cross or a tick?
  • How should we structure this essay?
  • Do we only add three things?

These aren’t bad questions but they are a bit annoying: they take up time which could be used on other things and they reflect the fact that either you haven’t explained properly or they haven’t been listening, or both.  They don’t add much to your lesson, and can be avoided.

“Clarificatory” questions

I like these questions better.  They are ones through which students try to clarify their understanding of a particular issue.  They may not drive the lesson forward, but they will probably help ensure that the foundations are secure.  For example:

  • Do you have to re-sign Executive Orders every 90 days? (Bit niche but fellow teachers of US Politics will back me on this one.)
  • Does sea or land heat quicker?
  • Is judicial activism something which overturns a ruling?
  • What was that thing you said about Labour’s rise in the 1970s?

Nothing wrong with these at all, but they probably aren’t the ones that make you say, “Good question!”

“Thanks but” questions

These are the ones which represent the opening of the rabbit hole.  Perhaps something more tempting than a rabbit hole, actually; sometimes they offer the possiblity of an interesting tangent, a beautifully freeform, off the cuff discussion.  Such questions may well reflect an inquiring mind and some genuine interest, but they threaten to derail your lesson.  Hence the “Thanks, but…”  Some examples:

  • [In a lesson about the UK constitution:] Does the constitution really exist?
  • [In a lesson about the transmission of disease:] AIDS, is that what Freddy Mercury died of?
  • [In a lesson about the 2017 election:] Why does the left wing see the media as so biased against them when there is so much media attention on minor gaffes like fields of wheat, rather than on big issues like Corbyn being friends with Hamas?

“Good question” questions (GQQs)

These are the ones you really want.  They take whatever it is you are discussing and move it on a level.  Unlike “Thanks buts”, these ones do make you say, “Good question.”  They show interest, understanding and curiosity and they are relevant.  For example:

  • [In a lesson about the formation of tropical storms:] Why are tropical storms not found on the equator since it’s an area of low pressure?
  • [In a lesson about the transmission of disease:] So, a doctor could be infected?
  • I know second term US presidents are supposed to have less power of persuasion, but haven’t they built up good relations with Congress by then, which should help?

For more on all this, including how to get more of the right sort of questions, click here.

Ratio

Totally ripped off from Adam Boxer, this one.  I claim no credit whatsoever.  Here’s the diagram: 

Ratio

So clear, so simple, so effective.  Your lessons need to be in the top right hand quadrant for as much of the time as possible. 

The only thing I’d add, which probably goes without saying which is probably why Adam doesn’t say it, is that your students need to be thinking hard about the right stuff.  I know lots of my students will be thinking hard if I walk into the room with my flies undone, but it probably won’t help their understanding of the Treaty of Versailles. 

There are implications for your teaching practice, though.  Here are ten things that sometimes happen in class.  It’s worth considering where they fit on the graph and whether, therefore, they offer good teaching value. 

  1. Group discussion in which you take only those hands that go up. 
  2. Group discussion when you ask people rather than using hands up, but in which your main aim is to get everyone to speak. 
  3. Inviting one person to write their ideas on the board. 
  4. Individual work. 
  5. Group work. 
  6. A whole class debate, properly set up with speakers proposing and opposing the motion. 
  7. Resources with lots of clip-art style pictures to make them fun. 
  8. Making a poster to display information they’ve found out. 
  9. Writing a newspaper front page to describe a pivotal moment, complete with adverts for the grrrrreat competition on page four. 
  10. Making a model of a First World War trench/a cell/the solar system/an oxbow lake. 

And if you’re observing a lesson, the diagram is a good framework to discuss what you saw. 

For more on this, including from the Boxer’s mouth, try this presentationthis blog and this one. 

Progress

Progress.

It’s what we all want to see.  People progressing in our subject.  Brilliant.

Now, “progress” is a contentious and complex term.  But for the purposes of this blog I’m going to cut the crap.  Today, it means “getting better at your subject.”  You can define “better” however you like – that’s one for your department meetings.  Here, it just means “better.”

Everyone knows one thing about progress, however defined: it’s got to be inexorable.  No backsliding or false starts or dips.  Only endless, upwards, momentum.  Everything must always be getting better.

Unfortunately, progress in your subject won’t look like that (and if it does, you’re not looking hard enough).  Instead, it will look like the graph below.

Progress

  1. Start of year. Let’s assume they arrive somewhere above the bottom of the Y axis.
  2. Steady progress. They’re enthused, you’re refreshed and well prepared.
  3. Fire practice. Not much done today, and it meant they missed homework.
  4. A difficult concept. Needs quite a lot of explaining and will need going over again.
  5. But, they got it!
  6. Unexpectedly busy few days with your sick child/mother/cat/car. Not much time for planning.  Lessons feel adequate at best.
  7. Everyone got their parents to do that homework.
  8. You’re poorly. You’re trying, but you know you’re not on top of your game.
  9. A good few steady weeks. They’re interested and it’s one of your favourite topics.
  10. Lesson badly derailed by vaccinations/MidYis assessment/careers interviews.
  11. Data provided for OFSTED.
  12. End of year exams. I mean, what do they show, exactly?
  13. Summer holidays. Everyone forgets everything.

So next time someone asks you why Child X or Class Y are not “progressing”, first explain that it depends what you mean by progress, and second deploy any or all of the factors above.  Sorted, and repeat to retirement.