Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Now displaying: March, 2016
Mar 28, 2016

Ethnic minorities and women are disadvantaged enough as it is. When considering why members of some ethnic groups tend to do badly in school, and why girls tend to do worse than boys in mathematics, people present all kinds of arguments, including economic, cultural, and sometimes even (very controversially) genetic reasons. A contributing factor that one seldom hears about is the pernicious psychological effect known as stereotype threat.

Stereotype threat describes the unconscious tendency for people to worsen their performance in a task when they are reminded of a negative stereotype that a group to which they belong has. For example, when girls are made to put their gender on the front of a mathematics exam script, then they do worse than when they aren't so asked. This means that merely reminding girls of their gender is enough to make them be momentarily worse at maths, as if subconsciously trying to confirm the stereotype.

This kind of effect has been repeated with other stereotyped-against groups, such as african american and latino children in the United States. Interestingly, the positive side of the effect seems to be very small - white children don't benefit from being reminded that they are white, for instance.

The "reminding" mentioned here can be very subtle. The students don't need to be aware of what is going on - it's a classic subconscious process, like priming. For instance, even getting people to write down what part of town they're from is enough to activate racial stereotype threat.

It should be obvious that there are serious practical implications. One in particular that is worth mentioning is that some examinations require students to write down their gender and/or their ethnicity before starting, which is shown to activate stereotype threat and thereby reduce performance. Apparently this is what happens in the USA with the SAT school-leaving test, although I have had trouble confirming this.

This article describes the phenomenon, and discusses some potential ways of mitigating the effect. Michelle Goffreda originally wrote it as a blog post on the MIT Admissions blog ( With her permission, in this episode I read it out and add my own comments.

Mar 21, 2016

A classic book on people's irrationalities.

Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize-winning psychologist and cognitive scientist. Together with his late research partner Amos Tversky, he co-founded the field of cognitive heuristics and biases in psychology, and that of behavioural economics. This all stems from his investigations into the irrationalities of human thought.


In this book, he explains his findings from a lifetime of research.



In the introduction to the episode, I mention some PISA reports with international perspectives on education. Here are links to all six volumes of the 2012 report:

Volume I: What Students Know and Can Do: Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading, and Science

Volume II: Excellence through Equity: Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed

Volume III: Ready to Learn: Students' Engagement, Drive, and Self-Beliefs

Volume IV: What Makes Schools Successful? Resources, Policies and Practices

Volume V: Creative Problem Solving - Students' Skills in Tackling Real-Life Problems

Volume VI: Students and Money - Financial Literacy Skills for the 21st Century

The other figure I mention, who talks about education in international perspective with an anti-PISA stance, is Yong Zhao. His website is

Mar 14, 2016

What's the best kind of experience you have? When do you feel happiest? Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced me-HIGH CHEEK-sent-me-HIGH) shows us that the conditions for optimal experience are also those of when we have our greatest learning.

Flow, a psychology term coined by the author, refers to the feeling of utter concentration and complete absorption in what one is doing, when it feels as though the world has melted away and all that there is is this moment. Rock climbers often experience flow - they are completely in the present, and the only thing that they can think of is what to do next on the rock face, their time horizon of thought narrowing to less than five minutes from now. Experienced chess players also get the feeling that the chess board is its own universe, and that nothing else exists during a game, claiming things like "the ceiling could have caved in while we were playing, and if it didn't hit us, we wouldn't have even noticed".

Csíkszentmihályi developed his own psychological research method known as experience sampling in order to study the topic of optimal experience. With the help of a pager, participants were asked to record what they were doing and how they felt at random times in the day. This is how he discovered that many leisure activities, such as watching TV and "chilling out", actually made people feel worse, and that people felt best when they were concentrating on doing something challenging. 

What kind of activities can produce flow? It seems that, in principle, any activity can do, but the author refers us to some that seem to do so more than others. Cooking, farming, surgery, yoga, and reading are some of the examples given, but a large class of activities seem designed specifically to create flow, and those are sports and games. An important reason why we enjoy these is that they demand our concentration on a clear goal.

The author also considers what kinds of people are more likely to experience flow. Although, by the time of the publication of this book, not much research had been done on this question, it seems that there are certain factors in upbringing that can affect a person's propensity to experience flow, and a related tendency to seek out activities that require effort can feel like hard work. The most important factors appear to be (1) the stability and consistency of the home environment, and (2) the level of intellectual stimulation at home (those who have more of this are more likely to become inclined to intellectual pursuits throughout their life, in work and in leisure).

As mentioned above, an interesting feature of the conditions that create flow is that they are also very good conditions for learning. A clear goal, with quality feedback, in a challenging situation that puts you at the edge of your capabilities, are likely to produce both high levels of flow and of learning. As a result, we can look to Flow for ideas both on how to live happier, and on how to learn better.

Enjoy the episode.

Mar 7, 2016

Writing in the 1970s, Timothy Gallwey comes eerily close in The Inner Game of Tennis to what modern cognitive scientists have discovered about the nature of the mind. He reminds me of medieval Buddhists whose descriptions of certain mental processes, particularly those to do with meditation, have been confirmed to be highly accurate by modern neuroscience*. Forty years isn't a thousand years, but it's still a long time in cognitive and brain sciences.

Gallwey's basic point is that, when we reflect on our "selves", we are actually made up of (at least) two parts. "Self 1" is the voice in your head that actively decides to do things - call it "I". "Self 2" is that part of you that does things without you thinking about it - call it "myself". An example of the actions of Self 2 is when you are holding a pen and a sandwich, and try to eat the pen and write with the sandwich; or (if you're English) when you say sorry for something automatically even though it wasn't your fault; or when you drive all the way to work even though you were engrossed in thought about something completely different, and so, in a sense, weren't concentrating on the road.

The relevance of this observation to tennis is that Self 2 should be doing all the work, and Self 1 should shut up. In reality, your bossy, self-obsessed Self 1 tends to try to dominate Self 2 and tell it what to do, which only leads to stress, wasted energy, and worsening outcomes. In other words, people both tend to overthink tennis and to try to "tell themselves" how to correct their problems, which mostly just stresses them out and doesn't produce improved results. What they should really do is just shut up and trust their body (i.e. their Self 2) to do what it needs to do. It might be uncomfortable to not feel "in control" at first, but ultimately greater improvements and a better experience await those who can manage this. Easier said than done, mind you.

Of course, The Inner Game of Tennis has application far beyond tennis alone. The book has been popular and influential enough to spawn a veritable tribe of Inner Game books, including that of golf, music, work, and even stress. 

The book serves as an experiential, non-technical look at things that we will have to look at the types of issues that we will have to look at in a more evidence-based, nuanced way in future. As well as having more than its fair share of applicable wisdom, it also introduces us to the important idea of our minds being modular, which is very important in looking at learning in general, and is a theme that we will return to.

Enjoy the episode.


*Take a look at Daniel Goleman's Destructive Emotions for a more detailed discussion.