Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Aug 15, 2016

I write a little blurb like this for every episode, but I feel that some books hardly need any introduction. This is one such example. Malcolm Gladwell is one of the most celebrated journalists and writers of the early 21st century, and his book Outliers caused a splash in people's thinking about success.

Why? One answer is that it popularised the idea of the so-called "10,000 hour rule", initially discovered by K. Anders Ericsson, concerning how much "deliberate practice" it takes to become a world-class expert in any field. "Popularised" is the key word here, as several others were writing the same thing, but when Gladwell writes, everybody reads. And, for the most part, everybody believes. (So another answer to "why did the book cause a splash?" would be "because it's Gladwell, and he's famous, and everybody likes him.")

The strange thing is, the 10,000 hour rule makes up a minority of what he writes about in his book, but people seem to often forget the rest of the ideas. Since we've already seen the power of extended deliberate practice described in other books (Bounce, Genius Explained, and The Talent Code), it's actually these remaining ideas where we find Gladwell's unique contribution to our knowledge of the development of expertise. And it has a message with is quite at odds with the spirit of the 10,000 hour rule.

Gladwell's unique yet oft-forgotten contribution, then, is the idea of success as being a gift. He's not talking about talent, which he more or less rejects by reference to the aforementioned 10,000 hour rule, but about life circumstances. You don't choose where or when you are born, or the culture you are born into, or the state of the job market or of national demographics or of technology as you are growing up, and yet these very factors have a profound effect on whether somebody is successful. Would Bill Gates have become so rich were he born in Burma instead? Or in the 1920s? Or in fourth century Phrygia? 

Although some of Gladwell's historico-cultural musings can be somewhat open to doubt, in several places he gives evidence strong enough to convince even the careful reader that something funny is indeed going on. In this episode, I hope to help you see where he might be onto something, and where we need to be wary of the potential of his masterful storytelling to obscure his shaky arguments.

Enjoy the episode.

Jul 30, 2016

"Follow your passion" is bad advice.

It seems an almost blasphemous thing to say. And yet in this book, Cal Newport argues that it is, indeed, generally a bad idea to try to base a career on a pre-existing passion.

Firstly, as blunt and uninspiring as it may sound, most people don't *have* a passion to begin with. Hence the need to "find yourself" or figure out what you want to do with your life. People who do have a passion are usually passionate about something that can't provide them with a career, such as supporting a local sports team.

Secondly, passions are usually the *result* of a successful career due to the build-up of skills that allow for more interesting jobs, rather than something that people start with. Having higher quality skills that are in high demand means that you can "trade them in" for a job which is in high demand. To think that you can go in to a field and get an exciting job right away is rather naive, and the entry-level positions don't tend to be the sorts of things that inspire people.

This book was written by the author as he was contemplating where he would go with his career after finishing his PhD, as he confronted the fascinating question: what makes for a career that people love? Through a combination of personal stories and broader research, the author argues his perhaps unorthodox position to us in very convincing style.

Enjoy the episode.

Jul 18, 2016

With The Talent Code, we have another perspective on the development of expertise. Daniel Coyle looks at "talent hotbeds" in music, sport, and academics in order to piece together a theory of how people get good at things. In the process, he discovers different types of teachers, necessary for different stages in the process of achieving mastery.

Jul 4, 2016

In Genius Explained, we saw how people considered "geniuses" build up their skills over many years prior to their production of great works. Although this training usually happens in childhood and adolescence, we saw at least one case - that of George Stephenson - where the key knowledge and expertise were built up in early adulthood. This prompts me to cover a book about adult development to supplement our series on expertise.

Meg Jay writes not just about adolescents, but directly for them. She is a therapist specialising in the twenty-something years, and her experience in therapy combined with her knowledge of the background scientific literature contributes to the value of this book.

Her main thesis is that many people today appear to believe that the twenties should be a period of unrestrained fun and thrill-seeking, and that "grown-up" concerns such as building a career, finding a partner, choosing a place to live, or raising a family can be left to the thirties, since "everything happens later now". Her response to this is that the twenties are not a time that can be wasted, since they are of such great developmental importance. Various biological and particularly neurophysiological changes during the twenties make it a time of great learning and of building habits for a lifetime.

Her interviews and case studies with clients show that the twenties can be a rather harrowing time, with young people unsure of what they are supposed to be doing with their lives, and often not doing anything at all with them. Often paralysed by a combination of apparently limitless choice, endless time, and the day-to-day banality of doing anything in particular, many twenty-somethings end up doing the rough equivalent of nothing at all, unemployed or underemployed in an eternal "Starbucks phase".

This book should interest both those who are interested in psychology and adult development in general, and those who are in their twenties or know people who are and would like some practical advice from an expert.

Enjoy the episode.

Jun 20, 2016

Last episode, we got to see the lives of three exceptional individuals in depth: Charles Darwin, George Stephenson, and Michael Faraday. In today's episode, we take a look at how people have tried to bring up children to be prodigies, and to what extent they succeeded. We also look at genius writers so as to get a view of a more "artistic" kind of high achievement. Finally, Michael Howe explains explicitly why he thinks that the idea of inborn talent being necessary for genius doesn't have any real evidence behind it, and what he thinks the secret to genius really is.

Jun 6, 2016

In Genius Explained, Michael Howe takes us through biographies of many people with great achievements, who we might consider to be "geniuses". It is an investigation into what makes geniuses so great, chiefly through looking at their upbringing. I'll refrain from sharing his conclusions in this brief description to keep up the suspense :).

In this first part, we will look at Charles Darwin, George Stephenson, and Michael Faraday in depth.

May 23, 2016

A continuation of last week's episode about Daisy Christodoulou's book.

May 16, 2016

This should be a controversial episode!

I cover this book in the interests of looking at the cognitive science it refers to. However, this is also the sort of book that tries to undermine, or even overthrow, what might be interpreted as a failing ideology among many educators. It is therefore not possible for me to talk about it without at least paying some heed to a long-standing debate in education circles: progressivism versus traditionalism.

Progressivism is hard to pin down exactly, because it's used as a catch-all term for many ideas in education. Some people who would call themselves educational progressives would have completely different ideas from other self-described progressives. Ideas huddled under the progressive umbrella include character education; "whole-child" learning/development; using more "authentic" assessments (i.e. not paper-and-pencil tests); experiential learning; and discovery learning, to name but a few. You have to say though, they did a good PR job naming their ideas "progressive" - who doesn't like progress, after all?

Daisy Christodoulou is one of the relatively un-trendy educators who rails against progressivist ideas rather than campaigning for them. A former teacher in the English state school system, after several years she left her job to study cognitive science. As a teacher, she followed all the advice and guidance of her superiors and training bodies and institutes, but found that, despite this, her students weren't learning much. During her subsequent degree, she feels that she found out why - because the progressive ideas that she was being taught as a teacher in training are completely out of line with the actual science of how people think and learn.

Although it's a slim little volume, I've had to split it into two parts to cover it in enough depth. I try my hardest not to be biased and to be fair to all sides of this debate, and any failings on this point are my own. It's hard remaining neutral on such a hot topic, I have to say! I hope that the ideas in this book help to enrich your own understanding of this controversy in education, whatever your views.

Enjoy the episode.

May 9, 2016

We are now moving on to a series of episodes answering the question: How do people get good at things? In Bounce, Commonwealth champion and Olympian table-tennis player Matthew Syed shares his research into this topic.

May 2, 2016

The funny thing about Malcolm Gladwell is that everyone seems to enjoy reading him, but few remember many details of what he actually wrote. I had a conversation with a parent of one of my students not long ago about the overestimation of the importance of IQ, referencing some studies done by Lewis Terman. She listened with rapt attention and deep in thought. The information seemed new, original, and surprising to her. I mentioned that Malcolm Gladwell wrote about this in his book Outliers, to which she responded, "I read that book!" Apparently these things don't stick!

Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking is one of Gladwell's many bestsellers. He seems to have an enduring interest in both psychology and in education, which means that he'll make several appearances on the podcast, even though he's "just a journalist". He seems to draw people in with his combination of Viking-quality storytelling and modern statistical and scientific thinking. It seems to me that his later books are more knowledge- and idea-rich, and his earlier ones are a bit more take-one-idea-as-far-as-you-can.

The idea in Blink is that some apparent thinking is done without conscious processing (although Gladwell puts it in much sexier terms). For example, art critics know whether something is a genuine Greek sculpture or not because they can *feel* it, and they often can't explain why. Their intuitions can be - tend to be, in fact - more accurate than careful and detailed analysis and background investigations. What's going on here?

If you've been paying attention to the podcast so far, you should see where this fits in with the themes we've been exploring. Several books so far have been concerned with something similar. Thinking, Fast and Slow is about cognitive biases, which are subconscious "wrong" thinking. The Power of Habit looked at how people can learn even when they can't form any long-term memories. "Picture yourself as a stereotypical male" dealt with stereotype threat, i.e. how people subconsciously fulfil stereotypes about groups they belong to.

Apart from the idea of subconscious thinking, Gladwell also discusses some cases where this thinking is accurate, and others where it is wrong, or even disastrous. Surprise surprise, experts tend to have valid intuitions, whereas novices shouldn't trust their gut feeling. This idea of the differences between experts and novices is one reason why we're covering this book now, as our next theme for the coming weeks will be the question "how do people get good at things?".

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 25, 2016

A natural continuation from last week. Habit formation, and breaking habits, takes willpower. So how does willpower work?

Like a muscle.

  1. Willpower gets tired. You have a limited "store" of it, and it gets drained over the course of a day. So, if you had a stressful day at work, then you are much more likely to cave in and have that chocolate cake / cigarette. (Sound familiar?)
  2. Willpower gets stronger with use. People who adopt strict exercise regimes, for example, start eating healthier, studying more (if they're students), and drinking and smoking less. This is also true when people take up some other willpower-heavy scheme, such as trying to improve their study habits.
  3. This is the weirdest one - willpower is more or less directly related to blood glucose levels. If you've just eaten, you'll have more willpower; if you're hungry, you'll have less.

The book gives numerous examples of people who have demonstrated vast amounts of willpower, and shares strategies from those people. Like a typical Gladwell, it blends scientific research with individual cases into a sort of easily digestible yet nutritious risotto.

And then it spends a chapter giving ill-advised parenting advice based on a lack of proper research on the subject. Well, you win some, you lose some.

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 18, 2016

Up till now, we've had several episodes looking at the question of "why do people do what they do?". Most recently, we asked and answered that question from the perspective of persuasion, in a sense addressing the sub-question "why are people persuaded to do what they do?". Now we get a chance to look at it with the lens of habit: "why do people do the same things so often? How do these habits form? And how can we get rid of them?"

In case you think that habit is unimportant, my first priority would be to disabuse you of that notion.

  • Psychologists estimate that around 40% of people's day-to-day behaviours are based on habit. To put that more strikingly, almost half of our day-to-day decisions *are not decisions*, but things that we do automatically.
  • Doing things according to habit requires little or no willpower, whereas going against it quickly depletes that limited mental resource. People who appear to have strong willpower usually just have deeply ingrained good habits.
  • Habits never really go away. (What?) It is possible to "break" an old habit, but only by replacing it with a new one.

Now that you're convinced about the importance of the topic, it's time for me to persuade you to listen to the episode. 

  1. You're a smart, curious person. You're just the kind of person who would listen to this. And you've listened to other episodes of the podcast, and other podcasts about psychology and learning. (commitment & consistency)
  2. Thousands of people just like you have listened to it already... (social proof)
  3. ...and if you delay, the server will be overloaded and there will be none left! So hurry, while stocks last! (scarcity)
  4. I've spent all this time making it just for you, won't you do me the kindness of listening to it? (reciprocity)
  5. Professor Carol Dweck says you must listen to it. (authority)
  6. Nice phone, by the way. (liking)

If you're confused about what just happened, try going back and listening to episode 14 again. If you need any more reasons, here are some episode 11-style attempts...

  • Give me 10 reasons why you shouldn't listen to it. (cognitive difficulty)
  • Listen to the Bookcast, it'll have you hooked fast! (cognitive ease)
  • You have to admit, it has a nice logo. (halo effect / judgement by basic assessment)
  • I know you. You pride yourself as an independent thinker, and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. However, you have a great need for other people to like and admire you, and you tend to be critical of yourself. Luckily, you have a lot of unused capacity, which you are yet to turn to your advantage. This episode can help you with that. (Barnum effect)
  • You've already spent so much time reading this, do you want all that time to go to waste? (sunk cost fallacy)
  • Ok, ok, if you don't have time, just listen to the first hour. Oh alright, jeez! The first 20 minutes then! (anchoring) (contrast effect)

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 11, 2016

So far in the podcast, among other things, we've looked at the topic of motivation. In the last few episodes, we've also started to look at human irrationalities and their consequences. In this episode, we look at a topic that combines "why people do things" with human irrationality: persuasion.

Robert Cialdini spent most of his working life searching for the answer to one question: what is it that persuades people to do things that they wouldn't otherwise do? In this classic book, Cialdini summarises his findings over the length of his career as a psychologist.

He focuses on the six key "weapons" of influence, as well as a number of specific techniques that "compliance professionals" (salespeople, negotiators, and the like) use to get better results. In particular, he also explains how some of these methods have been used by educators to great effect. And in explaining these methods to us, he gives us an insight into how people's minds work, and a more detailed look at people's irrationalities. 

Enjoy the episode.

Apr 4, 2016

Last week, we saw the destructive effects of a psychological phenomenon not many people would have heard of known as "stereotype threat". This week, we look at some ways of mitigating the effects of stereotype threat. How can we stop children and students from stereotyped groups from underperforming in exams because of their knowledge of their own backgrounds? David Sherman and Geoffrey Cohen summarise the results of recent research showing that a technique called "self-affirmation" can be used to stop not only stereotype threat, but a host of other irrational behaviours, and gives us a new, different, and somewhat more optimistic view of people's irrationalities.

Based on self-affirmation theory, people's irrationalities more often than not don't stem from a "lazy controller" as described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow (see episode 11), but rather from a need to protect one's ego. For example, people will ignore evidence against what they currently believe not because of some in-built, immovable bias, but because the evidence is threatening to their sense of self. All that it takes for them to approach the new evidence rationally is to remind them that their sense of self is strong and multi-faceted enough that changing this one opinion won't lead to an identity crisis.

So, were the self-esteem and self-help pioneers right in suggesting that we look at ourselves in the mirror and say how much we love ourselves? It turns out that the "self-affirmation" that Sherman and Cohen refer to is very different - indeed, almost diametrically opposed - to that which has been advocated by numerous self-help gurus. Self-affirmation works when it is *subconscious* and in a *different* field to the one in which one's ego is threatened; the gurus, meanwhile, suggest that we actively face difficulties in learning, for example, by saying "I am intelligent" to ourselves. In short, make sure you understand self-affirmation theory by looking at the evidence first, rather than jumping in with whatever sounds like it might work.

An absolute gem that seems not to be much talked about, self-affirmation theory gives us both practical approaches to dealing with problems, and a fresh and surprising theoretical viewpoint on various issues in cognitive science. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.

Enjoy the episode.

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.

Feb 29, 2016

Psychological "urban myths" come in a few flavours. Some, such as the idea that high self-esteem leads to less violent behaviour, are so completely, hilariously, overwhelmingly, unambiguously wrong* that you'd be hard-pressed to make up something so deliciously ironic. Others, such as the idea of "motivating" people with contingent external rewards, are deeply flawed, though not utterly wrong under all circumstances**. Then there are the cases where the popular thinking may be more or less right, but the benefits have been overstated and costs overlooked. This article targets one such case.


The power of a clear goal is regularly extolled by people from fields as disparate as game design and life coaching, and has a significant body of scientific evidence going for it. In particular, specific and challenging goals are thought to be the best kind. Specific goals allow for clear feedback, another powerful feature of good learning and work environments. For example, "go to the gym three times a week" is something that you can be clear about whether you're achieving, in a way in which "exercise more" doesn't allow you to be. Challenging goals encourage you to stretch yourself, to get the most out of yourself while not being so difficult that you abandon hope of achieving them.


What could possibly be wrong with this? Lisa Ordóñez and her co-authors consider a number of problems. I counted seven, which neatly fits in with Snow White's seven dwarves, except that I had to give them different, rather more unfortunate names. Specific, challenging goals [dwarves] can do the following:

1. Degrade performance ['underachiever'];

2. Shift of focus away from other important goals ['absent-minded'];

3. Harm personal relationships ['tactless'];

4. Corrode organisational culture ['antisocial'];

5. Motivate risky and unethical behaviours ['thoughtless'];

6. Inhibit learning ['rigid']; and

7. Harm intrinsic motivation ['ennui'].


In reading the paper one thing in particular struck me: there were no nasty side-effects of goals that were challenging but not specific. It was the specificity of goals that was causing all the above problems. Challenge could cause specific goals to "go wild" even more, but on its own, challenge doesn't seem to be causing these ill effects.


So how do we square the above side-effects with the known benefits of specific, challenging goals? The authors give us the following analogy: although a strong medicine may be very good at curing a disease, giving it to a healthy person would only make them feel worse due to the side effects. Similarly, specific and challenging goals should be given out carefully, only in situations where they are needed and can fix a problem, rather than willy-nilly to everyone, even those who are already performing well.


Enjoy the episode.


*Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem. Roy Baumeister, Laura Smart, and Joseph Boden, Psychological Review, 1996.

**See Drive (episode 2 of this podcast) and Punished by Rewards (episodes 5a and 5b).


Feb 22, 2016

So far, we have seen a several books with messages relating to the psychology of motivation, particularly to the conditions under which people have greater motivations to do difficult tasks (Drive, Punished by Rewards), as well as what kinds of attitudes lead to greater learning and improvement (Mindset). In The Practicing Mind, we get a look at the phenomenology of these conditions, i.e. what does it feel like to be intrinsically motivated and have a growth mindset?


Thomas Sterner is a jazz pianist and piano restorer. As a child he found practice to be boring and frustrating, but with time he came to both enjoy it and see greater progress, which he puts down to an originally mostly subconscious understanding of how practice should be carried out. He was particularly struck by the need for a greater public understanding of practice when he took up golf in his mid-thirties.


On the golf course, he would see people who had been playing golf for ten or twenty years who still didn't look much better than beginners. They would be terrible at the game, and yet not know why, or how to change their game. He compares them to musicians who have been playing the piano for twenty years and yet still didn't know that they were supposed to play with their fingers, not their elbows.


Sterner shows us his philosophy of the power and meaning of discipline, focus, and the quieting of the mind. Laced with insights from eastern philosophies, the author shows us the futility of expecting perfection, and the contentment we can gain from an honest relationship with what we are doing. His ideas are applicable in almost any domain of life, if we are to believe, as he does, that "all of life is practice".


The Practicing Mind is something of an unusual book for this podcast in that it proposes ways of practicing better without any evidence other than the author's own experiences to back up its claims. In a bookshop, it would quite possibly be filed under "self-help" rather than "education". And yet, I find this first-person account to be refreshing after speaking about these issues at length from a detached, scientific standpoint. I hope that taking the personal perspective of this individual expert will be something that benefits you as much as it has me.


Enjoy the episode.


Feb 15, 2016

Finally! An episode with the word "teacher" in the title. What kind of teacher is Andrei Toom? And what interesting comparisons does make between education in Soviet Russia and in the USA?


Andrei Toom is a mathematician, and "teacher" here refers to his teaching of undergraduates. The fact that he self-identifies as a teacher should already strike many as strange. In the US, and to some extent in the UK as well, university research staff generally see undergraduate teaching as a burden that is best minimised or gotten rid of, rather than a duty to be fulfilled, a chance to inspire the next generation, or a central part of their job description. Toom not only doesn't see things this way, but is rather disappointed that American professors do, which is one of the things that he communicates to us through his essay.


Starting us off with a description of the difficulties of being an intellectual in the highly censored, dictatorial environment that was Soviet Russia, he then discusses the strange paradoxes of being a professor or a student in a country held up as a paragon of freedom. US students and professors find themselves in an odd situation, he tells us, whereby "the market" seems to play a similar autocratic role to the one that "the system" played in the USSR.


For example, American undergraduates are usually only interested in gaining a piece of paper to certify that they have gained knowledge, not in actually gaining the knowledge - the kind of bureaucratic absurdity that he thought could only exist in a communist state, and yet in Russia students were actually interested in learning something. Not only this, American students seem to frame learning as a loss, in the sense that if they can get all their grades without learning anything, then they would much rather do so. It is as if they are "buying" their degree certificates with learning, rather than thinking of the learning itself as intrinsically valuable. And as with any transaction, the less they have to "pay", the better.


The knowledge that the students do get is brittle. It is only considered to be applicable within the context of exam questions, and ones structured exactly the same as the ones they had seen before. Any, even minor, deviation from what they have seen before is considered irrelevant or too difficult. Toom found that he needed to shore up students' basic mathematics to get them to be able to take the course they were enrolled in, but the students were mostly unwilling to cooperate. Their reaction of defiance rather than shame at not knowing basic maths leads him to question their apparent "right to ignorance".


And yet, the strange power dynamics of American universities mean that the situation stays this way. The students who only want the grades complain, but those who want knowledge don't. There have been cases where students have sued universities for better grades, but no cases where they sued them for more or better knowledge.


I felt that this would be a good time to have an episode on something a bit different to what we've had so far. The focus has been on psychology, and will continue to be for some time, as I feel that it's important to have a good grounding in psychology before going on to such topics as teaching methods and international comparisons. Here we can at least have a flavour of some interesting topics in higher education, international comparison, and the effect of the nature of society, to broaden our perspective and give us a little break from the subject of psychology and cognitive science. It should hopefully also convince you that we will be talking about teaching in this podcast, not just animals and management!


Enjoy the episode.


Feb 8, 2016

Well well, the grand finale. We've seen in the previous episode how laboratory studies have shown that extrinsic rewards lead to reduced motivation and lower-quality work, as well as a priori arguments for why it's a bad idea to incentivise behaviours with rewards. For those of you who are still unconvinced, I'm losing hope a bit since I've spent a total of about 3 hours so far over two episodes (last episode and episode 2) talking about why rewards are a really bad idea. Here goes my last chance at convincing you, and your last chance to see the light.


With one more chance, what will I talk about? I imagine that those people still saying "yeah, but..." might be most convinced by research based on real-life situations, rather than on laboratory studies. Well, as luck would have it, this is exactly what Alfie Kohn covers next in his book. Picture a group of company directors from various industries talking to one another about their observations that incentive plans have caused damage to their organisations. Picture teachers, "incentivised" by controlling external accountability measures, becoming more authoritarian to the kids in their classrooms in turn - and children learning less as a result (research* has shown this, no kidding). Picture children becoming less cooperative and generous as they are given rewards for good behaviour.


For those of you who are convinced by now (hopefully most of you!), you might still be saying something like "I can see the importance of these findings, but what realistic alternatives are there to using punishments and rewards?" Thankfully, Alfie Kohn spends Part 3 of the book tackling just this issue. I don't want to spoil it for you too much, but let's just say, it can be done.


Even if just one teacher reduces or eliminates the use of contingent sweets or stickers, class rankings, inappropriate praise, or grades as a result of having listened to these past two episodes, then they will have been worth producing. Aiming a bit higher, wouldn't it be great if we could turn our society, and our world, into one that realises the value and the potential of intrinsic motivation, and the dangers of extrinsic motivators?


Enjoy the episode.


* "Controlling Teacher Strategies: Undermining Children's Self-Determination and Performance" by Cheryl Flint, Ann K. Boggiano, and Marty Barrett; Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1990.

Feb 1, 2016

You'll remember from Daniel Pink's Drive (episode 2) that common assumptions about how rewards affect motivation and behaviour have it all wrong. Common sense tells us that to motivate somebody to do a better job, we should offer them a material reward, but scientific experiments show us that this is one of the best ways to demotivate people.

Perhaps you weren't so easily convinced. Well, good news! Alfie Kohn has written a book which argues in the finest detail and with the most colossal empirical support that rewards are bad for you and for everyone else. Starting off with an argument from principle, that there's something sinister and potentially immoral about offering rewards in the first place, he continues with a book-length exposition of all the terrible things that rewards can do, according to experimental psychology.

Why should you care? Because, if you're a teacher giving out grades for assignments, then the evidence strongly suggests that you are undermining your students' motivation. If you're a parent and you reward your child for studying, then you are reinforcing the idea that learning is a useless chore with no intrinsic benefits, done only for the goodie at the end. And if you offer praise when somebody does a good deed, scientific evidence shows that you are making them less ethical and less likely to do a good deed in the future in the absence of an external reward.

The really great thing about Alfie Kohn is his reliance on evidence as opposed to common sense or rhetoric to get his points across. Although he does use the latter where appropriate, it is clear throughout all of his books, no less this one, that his conclusions are well-supported by scientific enquiry. This book is a shining example of well-grounded argumentation (and of myth-busting). At the risk of not sounding impartial anymore, I'm willing to say that, as far as his approach to evidence is concerned, I personally consider Alfie Kohn to be a kind of professional role model.

So much is said in this book, that I can barely even attempt to fit it into a blog post. I've had to split up the episode into two parts to fit it all in. I hope this week's episode leaves you hungry for more.

Enjoy the episode.



Jan 25, 2016

Last week's episode served as an introduction to behaviourism. This week, in the name of balance, we are looking at another theory of animal training, the so-called dominance approach.

Cesar Millan is a Mexican dog trainer who emigrated to the US in his youth. He now has a TV show called The Dog Whisperer. Unlike Karen Pryor, he taught himself his approach to dogs through experience and exposure from an early age. He is said to have "a magical way with dogs", which is something that comes across, at least to the layman, in his show.

Millan's approach to dogs concerns thinking about the dog's needs. Perhaps that should read the Dog's needs, as he believes that all dogs have the same psychology, "dog psychology", which is different to human psychology and necessary to understand in order to solve "dog problems". His famous motto, "I rehabilitate dogs, I train people", is a reflection of the philosophy that the reason that dogs have problems is that humans aren't meeting their needs.

If it seems presumptuous to you that Millan claims to have a theory of psychology for all dogs, bear in mind what we heard last week: that behaviourists claim to have a theory of psychology for all animals. Everything! Dogs, cats, moles, crabs, bears, whales, elephants, prawns, beetles, fish ... and humans. Millan's theories are infinitely more modest in breadth than those of behaviourists.

However, Millan is more ambitious in terms of depth. What I call "fundamentalist" behaviourists - those who adhere to the original philosophy of behaviourism, that internal states either don't exist or don't matter - score a 0 in terms of depth (unless you agree with their assumptions, in which case they score 100%). Cesar Millan making the kinds of claims about what a dog is, and what a dog is like, that fundamentalist behaviourists would never care - or dare - to talk about.

This gives us a new dimension for looking at theories of psychology and elsewhere: depth. A "deep" theory is one that relies strongly on internal structures and systems; a "shallow" theory focuses on only those things that can be directly observed or measured. For example, the explanation "the bus came late because the 1pm bus always comes late" is a relatively shallow theory, whereas "the bus came late because promptness isn't very highly valued in our culture" is a relatively deep theory.

A deep theory has the disadvantage that it is hard to test. How do you check whether your culture values promptness or not? And how do you check the connection between this and the tardiness of the bus? This is relatively hard to do. On the other hand, a shallow theory, although easier to test, may be missing something. Although it may be true that the 1pm bus is always late, and it is relatively easy to test this, it doesn't tell us very much about buses, and there may be more to the story than that.

So this most recent pair of books also serves as a case study in epistemology, prompting us to ask that most important of scientific questions, "how do we know if something is true?". I studied chemical engineering at university, took up linguistics as a hobby, and now spend my time on education, and I can tell you that this question gets only more important the more "fuzzy" the subject matter is. And boy oh boy, education can be real fuzzy.

From dogs to philosophy of science. Funny where The Dog Whisperer can take you.

Enjoy the episode.



Links to some articles that I refer to in the episode which criticise Millan are here and here.

You may also enjoy South Park episode 7 season 10 entitled Tsst, in which Cesar Millan "rehabilitates" Cartman. It's one of my favourite episodes. Apparently Millan himself thought that the episode was "fantastic".


Jan 18, 2016

Why should somebody who is interested in education be interested in behaviourism?

  1. Because it's had a huge impact on educational theory and practice over the past more than 100 years. When I started reading books on education, the I was astounded at the frequency with which behaviourist arguments were put forward to support ideas. I felt like I could hardly budge without bumping into another reference to it. And it's no surprise - behaviourist educationalists include figures such as Edward Thorndike, sometimes referred to as "the father of educational psychology". The first book I read about educational psychology said that there were three chief paradigms of teaching, one of which was "behavioural". Understanding behaviourism helped me to better understand what these books were talking about, and to know when they didn't know what they were talking about.
  2. Because it says some pretty crazy stuff, which is nonetheless hard to refute. Burrhus Frederic Skinner, the behaviourist who made the greatest contribution to the field, had some pretty scary ideas. He denied the existence of choice, will, or freedom. He considered dignity to be an empty and worthless idea. (Hence the title of one of his books, Beyond Freedom and Dignity.) He thought that people could be perfectly controlled with the right external conditioning, and he even hoped that the future would be this way, as expounded in his apparently utopian novel Walden Two. The non-existence or at least unimportance of internal states (thoughts, emotions) is at the very core of the philosophy of behaviourism. Outraged yet? And yet the theory has a lot of evidence going for it.
  3. Because, a lot of the time, it works. Behaviourist principles have proven very effective in a range of situations and applications. Their greatest successes have been in animal training, but they've also been effective in various human domains, including making games and gambling machines more addictive. (Hooray?) There have also been some applications in sports coaching (more on this in another of Karen Pryor's books, Reaching the Animal Mind).

Don't Shoot the Dog! serves as an introduction to behaviourism. Karen Pryor takes us through both the basic theory and applications in behaviour modification. She uses a combination of examples from both animal and human subjects in everyday situations. Want your dog to stop barking all night? Need your roommate to start doing the laundry for once? Can't wait to teach your cat to give you a high-five? Karen Pryor tackles all these tricky situations and more.

Behaviourism claims to be a complete model of learning and behaviour - a very ambitious claim indeed. How does it do on this score? Without giving the game away too much, let's just say that the results are mixed. In some situations, behaviourist approaches and ideas work incredibly well. In certain cases, however, particularly to do with motivation, it is clear that it hasn't got all the answers. The fact that it's partially true and partially false makes it all the more intriguing - why does it sometimes work, but sometimes not? This is a question that will take a lot longer than one episode to answer, but it is worth thinking on.

Even if you're not behaviourism's biggest fan, or you don't think you'll be using it much, it is an important thing to have a grasp of to provide context for other theories and ideas. It's like Newtonian physics, which does a good job prior to the arrival of other theories (relativity theory and quantum mechanics), and we can then ask why Newtonian physics works so well in most situations even though it's "wrong" as it has been superseded by other theories.

Enjoy the episode.

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