Education Bookcast

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

Jan 11, 2016

Common sense tells us that in order to get someone to do something, or to get them to do it better (faster, more thoroughly, more carefully), you might offer them a reward - or if the offer is already there, increase its size. All kinds of clever-sounding people hold this view - principally economists and management consultants, but more or less anyone else too, as it seems to be so basic and so widespread an idea as to not merit further inspection.

Daniel Pink's book Drive introduces us to the research that seems to turn much of this "common sense" on its head. It turns out the rewards such as financial incentives usually make people perform worse. It's not limited to financial incentives (although Pink focuses on these), and not even limited to people - the initial example given is of how giving contingent food rewards to monkeys makes them worse at learning how to open latches than literally just leaving the monkeys alone.

In place of the carrots-and-sticks theory, Pink introduces us to a new theory, which is about 40 years old and yet still isn't all that well known. According to MAP theory (not the only name), the most important components of motivation are mastery, autonomy, and purpose. The author explains to us in more detail quite what each of these mean, but in short, people are motivated to do things when they can apply their existing expertise and develop it further; choose what they get to do, when, how, and with whom; and do something that they think is important, and/or connects them to other people.

One of the reasons that it's taken so long for the ideas to catch on is the prevalence not only of the "rational agent model" of economics, but also of the psychological field of behaviourism. Behaviourism, along with psychoanalysis (a very different and mostly incompatible worldview), was the leading theory in psychology in the first half of the 20th century, and remains influential today. It turns out that behaviourists aren't completely wrong that rewards can motivate behaviour, but it also turns out that rats pushing buttons isn't the same as humans doing creative work. Separating out when using rewards is a good idea and when it isn't is an important question, and one that Daniel Pink also addresses.

Behaviourism is a huge topic in its own right, and we will have to tackle it in a separate episode (or three). For now, though, Daniel Pink's book gives us a fascinating and, to be honest, heartening new way of looking at human motivation and behaviour.

Enjoy the episode.


Jan 5, 2016

The ideas from Carol Dweck's research, explained in her book Mindset, seem to be very popular nowadays. They are even part of the curriculum of the Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE) for new teachers being trained in the UK.

And, I believe, with good reason. The ideas here are very powerful. They almost read like self-help, but (thank goodness) they are grounded in many years of research by her, her colleagues, and other researchers. 

In brief, "mindset" here refers to what somebody believes about their own (and other people's) traits, skills, and abilities: are they an unchangeable part of who you are, written in to your genes, so to speak; or are they mutable, flexible things which change and develop with effort and experience? Those with the former belief have a "fixed mindset", while those with the latter have a "growth mindset". Dr Dweck spends most of the book explaining what effects each of these have, and makes it abundantly clear that it's better to have a growth mindset than a fixed mindset - and that it's possible to develop a growth mindset even if you don't have one at the moment.

Written for a general audience, Mindset has more examples of famous people with one or the other mindset and the resulting effect this had on their lives than references to research and experiments. On the one hand, I find this to be a bit of a shame, as her examples are mostly personal interpretations of life stories of people she hasn't met rather than anything more epistemologically sound; but it does have the advantage, if you believe what she is telling you (and I do - the research is sufficiently convincing), of getting you to more fully understand the workings of the mindsets, and to see the huge influence they have in many real-world situations. 

It's a somewhat repetitive book in the sense that after she introduces the central idea, she spends the remaining 200 or so pages mostly just going over example after example after example, but I don't mind that myself - in fact I find it useful as it helps me learn the concept more thoroughly. I don't believe that it's very controversial that repetition is good for learning. I remember how excited I was when I was learning Armenian (as you do - typical summer holiday for me) and discovered that the word for "education", կրթություն krt'ut'yun, was the same as the word for "repetition". (This turns out to be wrong - the word for repetition is կրկնությւն krknut'yun. Silly me.)

What's more, she actually covers a range of different fields with examples of cases where the idea of mindset applies. In the UK edition, there is a bullet point list on the front cover of the areas she focusses on: business, parenting, school, and relationships. She also spends a fair bit of space writing about sports. After reading this, you might come away with a feeling that there's nothing that the idea of mindset doesn't touch - that there's no field of human endeavour where it doesn't apply. I often get this feeling when I read a good, trendy non-fiction book. There should be a word for this feeling. Gladwell syndrome? I'm sure the Germans have a word for it, they have a word for everything.

Overall it's a good book to start from - accessible, fascinating, broadly applicable, and (to my mind) fundamental. It's one of those books which, after you read it, makes you start looking at things all around you differently. You might find yourself saying "That's what's wrong with X person!" or "That's why Y person is so amazing!".

I'd rate this book as "totally awesome, you should read it". But then that's why you're here, right? To listen to me talk about it so that you don't have to read it? ;)

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 4, 2016

This is the very first episode of Education Bookcast, in which I introduce myself and the podcast. I will leave a brief introduction here in the description also.


Brief introduction to the podcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which I talk about one book or article relating to education per episode. The intended audience is mainly teachers and parents who would like to know more about education, but do not have the time and energy to read stacks of books or chase up references. Topics covered are very broad, and include:

- various aspects of educational psychology (such as motivation, intelligence, exam anxiety, and self-esteem);

- cognitive science (including memory research, expertise research, flow and optimal experience);

- neurology;

- cognitive, social, and character development;

- history, philosophy, and economics of education;

- teaching techniques and approaches;

- studies of great teachers;

- types of educational institutions and experiences (such as Waldorf-Steiner schools, Montessori schools, Bell-Lancaster schools, homeschooling and unschooling);

- international comparisons between education systems and outcomes;

- fields of work related to education, however tangentially (e.g. sports coaching, life coaching, mentoring, management, therapy, animal training);

...and many more.

Some of the materials I will be covering are not available in English, as I speak seven languages and sometimes read books about education in a language other than English.


Questions I answer in this episode:

- Who is this podcast for?

- What topics will the podcast be covering?

- How is the podcast structured?

- Why did I decide to make this podcast?

- Who am I?

- What's my ideology? Who's side am I on? [hint: nobody's, hopefully - I'm trying to be as objective as possible]

- Who's paying me? What am I advertising? [hint: nobody]

- Where can I be found? How can you contact me?

I'm super excited about getting this podcast off the ground! I'm looking forward to our journey together.


Credits: Music by

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