23 November, 2011


Coming to the close of my PGCE at long last, it has been a long slog and I am just brimming at the seams waiting to find the perfect teaching job and actually get on with the job of coming up with exciting lessons and having a class to teach. One of the last things to do is some reflective writing about teaching.
I heard yesterday on Brain Culture (Radio 4) about how children do not respond well to being congratulated on how intelligent they are. The studies they feature showed that children performed better when being rewarded with the old carrot for how hard they are working. If congratulated for being intelligent, when children are struggling with something the displeasure of this not meeting their identity as someone who can do things causes them to dispair, whereas those who think of themselves as hard-working are more likely to work hard ata problem. The programme then continued withthe presenter giving a very leading interview with some advanced maths students, but we'll gloss over that.
There is no reason that these theories shouldn't work with adults, too, we may just take a bit more prodding as we are somewhat stuck in our ways.

Anyway I've been thinking a lot about influence and persuasion and how they matter as a teacher. I read Freakonomics last Christmas and read Superfreakonomics cover to cover whilst I was ill the other week, which starts in its' introduction that the authors' writing had a unifying theme; "people respond to incentives". An interesting point in both of these books were what incentives people respond to. Self-image was very important; Acting in accordance with our self-perceptioon of our identity to re-inforce who we think we are was a strong imperative in many cases. Another book I read whilst ill was Yes!: 50 secrets from the science of persuasion which had an excellent example of how social pressure (what others are doing, using the hook of keeping up with the Joneses) can be even more persuasive. Customers staying in a hotel were more likely to re-use their towels if told how many others had done so than if they were told of the environmental benefits.

Persuasion can be broken down into 6 , "universal principles of social influence." says Robert Cialdini:
  1. reciprocation
  2. authority
  3. commitment/consistency
  4. scarcity
  5. liking
  6. social proof

The final book I wanted to mention, unlike my usual selection is a little older: The Brain Book is almost as old as myself, but the theory in it is still strong. It shows how the brain sets about remembering things through association. In Brain Culture(2011) the plasticity of the brain was discussed and children who visualised this idea of neurons making connections said they were better at remebering other topics. This may be less to do with self-aware neurons and more to do with consciously forming patterns of images and associations. The stronger your images and associations, the more bizarre and multi-sensory the more imprinted upon your brain they become (Brown, 2007; Russell, 1979).
So, for example I've (tried to) memorise Cialdini's list above by imagining teaching someone to cook from a recipe (reciprocation). The person being taught is particularly objectionable and needs persuading in a forceful manner, so the recipe is barked out like a Seargant Major (authority), which transforms the learner froma  nobody into the lowest in the kitchen (comi chef= commitment), magically putting a  chef's hat on their chavvy smelly unwashed greasy hair and forcing them into the servitude of stirring treacle (consistency).  However the learner runs off with a girlish whimper when a spider (audibly) plops down onto a pool of treacle (scare-city) and starts licking (liking) it. The spider than invites all it's friends to eat treacle and they all get drunk (social) and  have a spider party because the mixture is alcoholic (proof). It's not a the best example but you get the idea. To improve it I would make the images more personal and more rude/offensive/sexy (this emotional context would make it more memorable). The more layers of meaning and multi-sensory you make your images the better. Similarly in teaching there are many ways that youshould show subject in a variety of ways (PLTS, Domains of Learning and Bloom's Taxonomy all being examples). Not only can techniques be described to learners so that they can remember well, but but bringing a subject to life in - and to some extent out of- context, it can add layers of meaning to the learning and make it more memorable. This not only means you are doing what you have a basic responsibility to do as a teacher, enabling learning in those who struggle with a subject by presenting in a way accessible to them but also that you are making different associations for other learners and engraining this knowledge in their neuron patterns.

Brain Culture: Neuroscience and Society [Radio broadcast] BBC, BBC Radio 4, 22 November 2011 16.00 [online] Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b017cfkq [Accessed 23 November 2011]
Brown, D., (2007) Tricks of the Mind London: Random House
Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R.B. (2007) Yes!: 50 secrets from the science of persuasion London: Profile Books
Levitt, S.D. (2006) Freakonomics London: Penguin
Levitt, S.D. (2009) Super Freakonomics London: Penguin
Russell, P. (1979) The Brain Book London: Routledge
Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills - Skills - Key Stage 3 and 4 - National Curriculum [online] http://curriculum.qcda.gov.uk/key-stages-3-and-4/skills/personal-learning-and-thinking-skills/index.aspx [Accessed 24 November 2011]

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