Wellington Festival of Education 2014


The theme that ran through Wellington’s 2014 Education Festival as I experienced it was a focus on teaching becoming a self-improving profession.

Michael Wilshaw said discipline must not be seen as a dirty word by school leaders. When asked by Stuart Lock whether he had difficulties with inspectors, he said ‘We have had inspectors in the past who’ve disagreed with the ideas I’ve set out but they have been rooted out.Stuart, and everyone around him, looked sceptical.


Tom Sherrington denied that progressive pedagogy is problematic, said that children who haven’t had the grounding at home can’t just be lectured at, and that ‘one of the issues with teacher transmission is there’s too much to know.’  Bodil Isaksen challenged him afterwards on why decorating a Maths hat for homework wasn’t good enough for his own son, but that engagement and enjoyment was important for some kids. She tweeted her notes:



Robert Peal made a compelling case for his history of the education system in England, and argued that we need a school system that allows more teachers to teach traditionally, and fewer teachers in thrall to progressive ideology.


Jonathan Simons said that the balance had tipped too far, and that it was vitally important to counteract the tenacious forces and bias in schools.


John Blake said teaching isn’t a mature profession, and argued that it’s undeniable that progressive ideology is pervasive and continues to have a pernicious influence.


Daisy Christodolou summarised the evidence and statistics to show that standards have stagnated and even declined in education in England.


Sam Freedman endorsed Rob and Daisy’s case that standards have not improved, citing additional research.


Dylan William said teacher talk is more intelligent than student talk, and that testing and spaced practice were the two things the science shows work best for learning; David Didau challenged the cult of outstanding; both concurred that the aim of instruction is long-term memory retention.


Michael Gove said that he loves teachers, and that many, many more children are capable of access to a far broader range of knowledge.


Tristram Hunt did not turn up.


Andrew Adonis set out a vision of teaching as the foremost profession in the country. Afterwards Jonny Porter and I challenged him on the research-practice gap in Initial Teacher Training, a challenge he seemed to acknowledge, though he said ‘I haven’t got it cracked’.


David Weston reminded us that only 1% of CPD has a transformative impact on teaching practice and student learning.


Claire Fox said the year of her PGCE was probably the low point of her life, it was so bad.


Kris Boulton suggested that a codified body of knowledge in Initial Teaching Training could improve the status of teaching as a profession. It will be fascinating to see how the profession reacts to the suggestion of codifying subject expertise for new teachers, and I hope Kris writes about it to answer the questions it raises.


Katharine Birbalsingh gave a talk arguing that performance-related pay would destroy the staff ethos in schools.


Katie Ashford and I cited the statistic that 96% of private school children reach University, whereas only 16% of our poorest pupils, and told some stories around that stat. We argued that many of the ideas in the system, particularly weak ideas on discipline, the curriculum and teacher training, exacerbate educational inequality.


Stuart Lock did an epic job of covering the festival on Twitter. It was also excellent to meet Wellington’s Head of Research Carl Hendrick, and fantastic to see my former sixth form English teacher, Tom Wayman, who is now Head of Wellington College’s English Department. It’s a very impressive team, and one I have lots to learn from.


In brief, Wellington’s annual Education Festival is fast becoming an arena for confronting the tenacious orthodoxy of the current status quo in education.

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Motivation and peer pressure

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Odysseus faced the peril of the Sirens and their irresistible song. He told his men to fill their ears with wax so they would not be tempted by the music, and to tie him to the mast so he could hear it, but be restrained from submitting to the temptation to steer closer to the fatal rocks…


A casual stroll through a students’ union bar on any weeknight will tell you peer pressure is one of the most powerful influencers out there. Peer pressure is at its most visible and visceral when it comes to drinking alcohol. Just try ordering a glass of water when out with the rugby club.


In schools, peer pressure is just as visceral. Whether it is a force for good or ill, depends. Where it pressurises kids into bullying or bystanding, disrupting lessons or disrespecting teachers, it can be monstrously damaging. Where it creates a virtuous circle of friendly competition, encouragement, hard work and useful revision, it’s a big, friendly giant. Where it tips over into unhealthy competition, sleepless nights and agonising stress over grades, it’s just as dangerous a beast.


How do we harness the daunting power of peer pressure, especially when it comes to motivation, willpower and self-control?


Thaler and Sunstein explain:

‘Problems arise when people must make decisions that test their capacity for self-control. Self-control issues are most likely when choices and consequences are separated in time. Costs are borne immediately, but benefits are delayed. On the other hand, for some things we get the pleasure now and suffer the consequences later.’


This sounds to me exactly like the decision that pupils have: ‘do I make the costly effort to work hard now for some hazy, eventual, potential future? Or do I have fun, muck about and disrupt the lesson, earning street cred now from my peers, which pays off right away?’ The options of effort exertion and lesson disruption have opposite reward profiles: the first has immediate costs and delayed benefits; the second has instant benefits and delayed costs.



Instant reward

Long-run costs


Instant costs

Long-run rewards


But this isn’t a simple, rational incentives problem. Thaler and Sunstein again:

‘Self-control issues can be illuminated by thinking about our minds as containing two systems, a far-sighted Planner and a myopic Doer. The Planner is trying to promote your long-term welfare but cope with your tempted Doer. Self-control strategies are our Planners taking steps to control the actions of our Doers often by trying to change the incentives our Doers face. Doers are often difficult to reign in (think of controlling Homer Simpson) and they foil the best efforts of the Planners. For example, alarm clocks lead to fierce battles between the Planner and the Doer. Stickk.com is a way planners can constrain their doers by committing to a specific action or habit. It uses peer pressure such as emails to family & friends, group blog. Alarm clocks are external commitment devices people use to solve their self-control problems. ‘

But remember, internal control systems are vital. You still have to overcome the snooze button!



There’s a fantastic TED talk on exactly this problem by Daniel Goldstein, who personifies it:


‘There’s this unequal battle between the present self and the future self. I mean, let’s face it, the present self is present. It’s in control. It’s in power right now. It has these strong, heroic arms that can lift doughnuts into your mouth. And the future self is not even around. It’s off in the future. It’s weak. It doesn’t even have a lawyer present. There’s nobody to stick up for the future self. And so the present self can trounce all over its dreams.’




So, Odysseus used one of the first commitment devices to strengthen his future self over his present self.


For pupils, the battle is even more unequal: the present self prefers fun to effort, and their thirty peers do too. Against these forces, weakly voicing the need for effort, are only the feeble future self and the lone teacher. The temptation to give in to distraction is very high. It’s a classic self-control issue, and as we know, demanding self-control for extended periods of time (like the school day) is depleting.


Given that peer pressure is a reality, how do we turn peer pressure from negative to positive influence? Goldstein gives us a clue: external commitment devices like alarm clocks (or, for pupils, sanctions like detentions) don’t always work, so intrinsic commitment is vital.


Making positive peer pressure more visible just might work. Goldstein does this with finance: he makes the future self more powerful by building visual products that let people ‘see’ the future consequences of their present actions. I ham-fistedly tried to do this with this graphic in my first year of teaching:


I started using visible tracking, and it tapped into the undertapped resource of healthily competitive peer pressure, as I share in this story.


Why might this work? Behavioural economists have shown in scientific research that the urge for conformity is strong. ’We like to conform, we don’t want to face disapproval of the group and we so we do as others do.’ For instance, on tax returns, messages that say ‘more than 90% of people have already complied’ increased compliance. So visual, public display of pupils’ effort across subjects would harness the power of peer pressure for effort exertion.


‘But everyone else is doing it!’


Kelly McGonigal explains the science behind peer pressure:


‘Humans are hardwired to connect to others. Our social brains catch willpower failures contagiously through unintentional mimicry, emotion contagion and seeing others give in to temptation. We eat more with others than alone, and spend more when shopping with friends. Rule-breaking is contagious. Researchers have shown this with passers-by of signs: when rule-breaking was planted, people took their cues and ignored the signs. When we see others ignoring rules and following their impulses, we are more likely to give in to any of our impulses. We catch willpower weakness from others.


‘This is called *social proof*: it has an enormous sway over our behaviour. For instance, researchers tested social proof with energy usage: they went door-to-door with different messages: ‘99% of people in your community turn off unnecessary lights to save energy’ was by far the most effective for reducing energy usage. Social proof can strengthen self-control when we believe that doing the right thing (or the harder thing) is the norm. If we want people to have more willpower, we need to make them believe that self-control is the norm.


‘Research has also shown *goal contagion*: it is surprisingly easy to catch a person’s goal in a way that changes our own behaviour. In one study, students caught the goal to work hard just from reading a story about another student who worked hard over the Easter holidays. These students worked harder towards tests. Seeing another person pursue one of your competing goals can tip the balance in your own mind. To a remarkable degree, our brains incorporate the goals, beliefs and actions of others into our decisions. The flip-side is also true: our actions influence others, each choice serving as inspiration or temptation for others.


‘Self-control is influenced by social proof, making both willpower and temptation contagious.’


Chimps, Bees and Elephants

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, explains further:

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‘We care more about looking good than being good. Our minds are 90% chimp, 10% bee: we have primate minds with a more recent hivish overlay. People are simultaneously selfish and groupish. We evolved to live in groups, we are designed by natural selection as conditional hive creatures. Groupishness was a key innovation that took us beyond selfishness and into civilization.’


Ultimately, external commitment needs to be internalised in pupil mindsets, as I wrote last time. What does this mean? The key insight is the difference between automatic system 1 and the reasoned system 2. A brilliant metaphor for this is Jonathan Haidt’s: the powerful elephant and the reasoning rider:


‘The mind is divided in many ways, but the division that really matters is between reasoned processes and automatic processes. These two parts are like a rider on the back of an elephant. The rider’s inability to control the elephant by force explains many puzzles about our mental life, particularly why we have such trouble with weakness of will. Learning how to train the elephant is the secret of self-improvement.’


How do we train pupils’ elephants? How do we tap into pupils’ hivish and chimpish nature? How do we strengthen pupils’ self-control and willpower? How do we empower their future selves over their present selves? How do we give pupils’ restrained, far-sighted planners control over their impulsive, myopic doers? How can we ensure they choose effort over disruption every lesson, no matter who teaches it? How do we strengthen their weak system 2? That we can ask these questions, which I think get to the core of motivation, is thanks to the insights of behavioural economists and social psychologists.



  • Design and share regular visual trackers of your classes’ effort and progress
  • Influence the influencers: tackle disruptive ringleaders head on
  • Share stories of exemplary kids who worked hard and succeeded with great effort
  • Strengthen your pupils’ immune system: remind them of their future goals


School leaders

  • Design and display regular visual trackers of pupil effort and progress
  • Reinforce the message that 95% to 100% of students are working hard
  • Influence the influencers: choose and coach role models carefully
  • Make self-control contagious: bring role models to mind often in assemblies



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Motivation and mindset anchoring


When I was at University, a running joke was how little we’d all worked on our papers, how late and last minute we’d left them, and how little effort we’d put into them. A couple of things jolted me out of this mindset. International students I knew, from China, India, Europe, Africa and South America, didn’t seem to share English students’ view that slack effort was funny and clever. And my Dad told me that what actually happened at his University was that people boasted publicly about not working, but then worked feverishly in private. The joke was on us.


Beliefs matter; mindset matters; work ethic matters. Kids’ ideas about effort stem from their mindset. The research from Carol Dweck is much acclaimed, and rightly so. If you believe in effortless intelligence, it leads to fear of effort and failure. If you believe in hard work and overcoming setbacks, this leads to success. Mindsets change the meaning of embarrassing mistakes, tough challenges, hurtful setbacks, negative criticism and long slogs into opportunities. They internalise the questions: ‘What can I learn from this? What can I do to improve for next time?’ 

So a vital ingredient in the motivation mix is the belief kids bring to lessons in their minds. Either they believe hard work leads to success, or they don’t. If they don’t, they’ll avoid challenge and give up easily when failing. If they believe their intelligence grows with practice, effort and discipline, they’ll seek challenge and persist when failing.

The promise of the growth mindset is that kids no longer see tough, challenging work as long or boring: they ‘not only seek challenge, they thrive on it’…‘Students with the growth mindset completely took charge of their learning and motivation.’


Perhaps the best way to understand this is through a scenario. What would you do in this scenario? You’ve coached a student debating team all year through practice debates. Your team is strong and aim to win the annual competition against other schools. They’ve even imagined taking the trophy home. In the event, your team starts strong but is defeated on points. They are devastated. How would you react as their coach?

  1. Tell them you thought they were best
  2. Tell them they were robbed of the trophy
  3. Tell them debating isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things
  4. Tell them they have the ability and will surely win next time
  5. Tell them they didn’t deserve to win

Now, which did you choose?

Dwek argues that choices 1-4 don’t help them improve. Instead, she recommends 5:

‘I know how you feel. It’s disappointing to do your best but not win. But you haven’t earned it yet. The other teams have practiced harder. If you really want this, it’s something you’ll have to really work for.’ 



This reveals that you choose your mindset; it’s a choice within everyone’s sphere of control.

And that brings me on to choice architecture.


In their book Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein make the case for us to think about ourselves as choice architects:

‘Choice architects have responsibility for organising the context in which people make decisions. People’s decisions are pervasively, unavoidably and greatly influenced by the design elements selected by choice architects.’

One of the most important choices we are responsible for as teachers and school leaders, is organising the context around the decision every pupil makes on every task in every lesson: ‘do I make the effort on this, or not bother?’


One of the greatest design tools a choice architect is understanding cognitive biases. A comprehensive list of fifty is available in the book, The Art of Thinking Clearly: I’ve summarised the key biases that teachers seem to fall into on posts here and here.

One of the greatest cognitive biases in pupils’ minds is status quo bias, or the default effect. Inertia is sticky: we tend to go with the status quo. Here’s how Thaler and Sunstein explain it:

‘Status quo bias is the preference for inertia. Research shows that whatever the default choice is, many people stick with it. Teachers know students tend to sit in the same seats in class, even without a seating plan.

‘The default option is perceived as the normal choice; deviating from the normal choice requires more effortful deliberation and take on more responsibility. These powerful forces guide the decisions of those otherwise unsure of what to do.

Never underestimate the power of inertia. That power can be harnessed’.


An excellent example is organ donations. There’s a shortage of organ donors: only about 40% of people opt for it. But when asked whether people wanted to actively opt-out of organ donation, the take-up increased to 80%. Opt-outs as default options are powerful. Because we have such a strong tendency to stick with the way things are, by changing the default setting, you can change a lot.


Behavioural economists and cognitive psychologists are finding how much anchoring matters. Anchoring guides and constrains our thinking. Once your mind is hooked onto the anchor, it’s much harder to stray away from it. Kahnemann in Thinking Fast and Slow gives this demonstration:

‘What if I said Gandhi was 144 when he died, then asked you, how old was Gandhi when he died?’ People’s average answer was over 100; in reality, Gandhi died at 79. The unreasonably high anchor hooked them in to a higher number than was probable.


Combined, the promise of the growth mindset with the effect of anchoring, the default option and status quo bias could be powerful for increasing pupil motivation in schools.

So how do we anchor the growth mindset on challenge, effort and setbacks as the default option?


Senior leaders

  • Teach the message that all our teachers and pupils choose a growth mindset, from the moment kids enter school onwards; that’s ‘just the way things are done around here’
  • Share mindset stories of how setbacks, failures and practice led to eventual success
  • Practise scenarios in teacher training on challenges, praise, criticism and setbacks



  • Teach the science: challenges, practice, effort, self-discipline, mistakes, setbacks and feedback are the keys to improving intelligence and successful learning
  • Model the mindset: share anecdotes of persistence, share frustrations and acknowledge mistakes, keep asking ‘what can we do to improve for next time?’
  • Contrast and correct fixed mindset mentalities and expressions with ways to think more productively about things when they get tough: ‘You’re in charge of your mind. You can help it grow strong by using it in the right way’


How would you know when a school has succeeded in growth mindset? I’d argue that when it’s become the default option for every pupil, the school is on autopilot to achievement. You’d go in to any classroom at any time and every kid would be on task on every task.

Motivation isn’t just up to school leaders and teachers, though. Over the next two weeks I’ll consider the crucial roles peer pressure and parental priming play in anchoring the growth mindset as the default option.

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Motivation and emotion


What makes kids motivated? And how can teachers and senior leaders get all kids working hard? In a five-post series, I’m exploring a few different ways of thinking about these questions. Last week, I borrowed from game theory and behavioural economics to illuminate motivation deficits and short attention spans. This week, I want to look at expectancy, emotions and trust.


Self-fulfilling prophecies


According to ancient Greek legend, Pygamalion invested so much love and care in sculpting a statue of the most beautiful and inspiring woman he could imagine, that the gods fulfilled his hopes and metamorphosed her into reality.

Teachers’ expectations have an impact on pupils that is hard to overstate. In 1968, Rosenthal & Jacobson ran a landmark experiment. When teachers were told that top sets were actually bottom sets, results declined. When teachers were told bottom sets were actually top set, results improved.

This has been replicated ever since. For instance, in a landmark study, researchers told teachers certain students had performed well on a test of intellectual ability, though they had actually been randomly selected. After 8 months, these students significantly outperformed their peers, and the teachers described them as better motivated to succeed than other students.

Researchers have dubbed this the Pygamalion effect. What a teacher thinks of a class impacts on their motivation. People live up to your expectations of them. Student success depends on teachers’ beliefs.


As a student, what makes you look forward to the lesson? It’s not so much what you have next, as who you have next. Emotional interactions between teachers and students are some of ‘the most powerful hidden dynamics of teaching’, according to Robert Marzano, as they are ‘typically unconscious’.


Three Charioteers



‘They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’

This chiasmus enlightens us to an enduring truth about influence recognised long ago by the Ancient Greeks.

Rational, forceful persuasion is far from the most powerful form of influence: it comes third out of the three charioteers of ethos, pathos and logos. This philosophy helps us see a teacher’s influence on pupils’ motivation through the eyes of the pupils. There are questions that all pupils implicitly, subconsciously ask of teachers when being taught by them:


Ethos: How much credibility does this teacher have?

  • Who is my teacher? What do they want for me? Do they mean what they say?
  • The subconscious mindset is this: ‘I can’t hear what you’re saying because who you are is shouting too loudly in my ears.’

Pathos: How much does this teacher care?

  • How much do they care about me as a person? How much do they understand and encourage me?
  • The unspoken mindset is this: ‘why should I care about learning from you, if you don’t care about me?

Logos: How much does this teacher help me succeed?

  • What do they have to teach me? Do the challenges they set make me feel successful?
  • The subconscious mindset is: ‘The more I experience success, the more effort I’ll put into succeeding.’

I suggest that the more pupils (implicitly) answer these positively, the more pupils feel motivated to work hard by their teacher. The harder you work on your empathy for them, the harder they’ll work for you.

Given that these questions are always subconsciously asked by pupils, there are some things that teachers should be thinking about:


Ethos: How can I do more to build my pupils’ trust?

  • How can you demonstrate that you want great things for them?
  • How can you encourage their efforts with genuine, sincere praise?
  • How do you model hard work and self-control?

Pathos: How can I do more to understand my pupils?

  • How can you take the time to understand each pupil by asking them about them?
  • How can you affirm each pupil, catching them making the effort?
  • How can you show you see their viewpoint – ‘I know this isn’t your only subject!’

Logos: How can I do more to help every pupil succeed?

  • How can you trust them with rewarding challenges?
  • How can you hold them to ever-higher standards?
  • How can you support them even more patiently?


Science here tells us what we always knew

Trust is the best motivation. It is a better predictor of teacher success than expertise, according to Hattie & Yates (2014). A teacher can know their subject inside out, but if their pupils don’t trust them, they won’t feel very motivated. It works both ways, though: subject expertise builds trust, as pupils love being taught by someone who loves their subject and knows how best to share it.


Catch 22

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The difficulty is this: while pupils with the most difficult emotions are precisely the most difficult to deal with, they’re precisely the kids in most need of emotional affection, affirmation and encouragement. All too often I hear difficult conversations between a pupil and a teacher where the teacher is saying, ‘Adam, you’re so bright, but your behaviour isn’t good enough and you’re not working hard enough.’ The message Adam hears is: ‘I’m so bright, I don’t need to behave or work very hard.’ Eventually, interactions turn hostile, and both teachers’ and pupils’ emotional reactions are resentful.

If pupils grappling with the most tangled emotions are the ones most at risk of a downward spiral of complacency, negativity, resentment and hostility, what can we do about this? Levelling the unlevel playing field for those who experience negativity at home by rewarding their intermittent efforts whilst neglecting those pupils who quietly and consistently work hard seems unpalatable: when the worst behaved kids get rewarded most, the school perpetuates disruption and disincentivises effort.

Ultimately, this is a dilemma as much for school leaders as for classroom teachers. Every kid has to find a way to internalise the habit of self-control that will last them a lifetime. A culture of trust is vital, and it starts with modelling: unless we as teachers and the school at large practise what we preach on being motivated and loving learning, how do we hope to inspire enduring motivation in kids? The happier teachers are in their work, the happier pupils are to work hard. The higher the standards of behaviour that we hold kids to, the more they realise that we care about them in the long-term. We shouldn’t permissively indulge them by placating and pleading, then lose patience and snap into anger and annoyance. Instead, we should embody purpose, not power, as guiding adults making tough choices, especially when it gets difficult.

So here are some things school leaders might think about across the school:


Ethos: How can we do more to build our pupils’ trust?

  • How can we make 100% on task every task in every lesson the enforced expectation?
  • How can we follow through relentlessly with consistent consequences?
  • How can we encourage everyday effort with public, sincere positivity in assemblies?

Pathos: How can we do more to make our pupils feel understood?

  • How could we survey pupils on how committed they feel to the school ethos?
  • How could we share the results of the survey visibly and see their viewpoint?
  • How can we know every name, to affirm pupil’s individuality in corridors?

Logos: How can we do more to help every pupil succeed?

  • How can we teach all pupils to understand their emotions and self-control?
  • What teacher training can we run on how to help pupils with self-control?
  • Which roleplay scenarios could we play out on what to do when it gets difficult?


Emotions matter. Those of us excited by the potential of cognitive science to improve instruction should not blind ourselves to pupils’ emotional connection with us. To neglect the affective domain is to miss an important piece of the puzzle of pupil motivation. And the more difficult the emotions the kid brings to the classroom, the greater the emotional impact we have a chance to make on their lives. Tender, loving care can make all the difference.


Hearts matter as much as minds.

Next week, I’ll look into pupil mindsets, and borrow from choice architecture to see how to turn the growth mindset into the default option for all our pupils.

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Motivation and instruction


Why do some kids arrive at secondary school already motivated to work hard, while some arrive demotivated to exert much effort at all in lessons?

Picture two students you’ve taught: one who works incredibly hard, and one who seems incredibly lacklustre and avoids making effort. What explains this difference? How does motivation work?

In a series of five blogposts, I plan to explore what we as teachers can do about motivation, self-control and willpower in school. There’ll be stories of elephants, chimps and bees; mindsets, biases and self-fulfilling prophecies. The heroes of the story will be Carol Dwek, Daniel Kahnemann, Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein, Jonathan Haidt, Kelly McGonigal and the Heath brothers. Going beyond the cognitive psychology I’ve been exploring, this is a journey into our social, intuitive minds.

In the first post of the series, I want to see how two approaches from the field of economics might apply to the question of motivation: game theory and behavioural economics.

But to start with, why is motivation so important? I think Hattie and Yates capture it well:

  • Learning requires effort, attention, concentration, discipline and motivation
  • Material is subject to rapid and substantial forgetting
  • Concentration spans are short, and attention is easily disrupted
  • Concentration and self-control place great stress on mental resources, which are subject to overload
  • Self-control strategies are insecurely learned, relatively unpracticed and easily depleted

The Willingham hypothesis is that what drives motivation is not so much the relevance of the content as the challenge of the task. ‘Curiosity has staying power if we judge that the mental work will pay off – we quickly evaluate the mental work it will take to solve the problem’.

For instance, when you are given a Sudoku puzzle, crossword or mental arithmetic problem that is too hard, like working out 23 x 79 in your head, how much do you feel like attempting it? How about a question that is far too easy, like 5 + 5? We are motivated by problems that are both challenging and attainable – otherwise we get frustrated, bored or complacent. Teaching should stretch but not overwhelm students.

But that’s certainly not all there is to motivation. What about pupils’ perceptions and expectations? That’s where game theory comes in.

Effort Exertion & Game Theory: Rational Expectations


In one of the most thought-provoking blogposts I’ve read all year, Trying is Risky, David Thomas used game theory to model a pupil’s choice in a lesson: whether to exert effort or not.


 In any lesson, students can make one of two choices: to exert effort, or not to exert effort. The lesson can be a good lesson, or it can be a bad lesson. A good lesson is one where a student will learn if they exert effort; a bad lesson is one where they may not. For each pair of inputs there are two outcomes: the student’s level of academic and social success.

‘So how does a student make their choice? It depends on how likely they think the lesson is to be a good one. Call the student’s perceived probability of the lesson being good, p. If p is high, then they’re more likely to choose to exert effort, as it’s more likely they will get the best available outcome. If they perceive the probability of it being a good lesson to be 50%, most students would, quite rationally, opt to not exert effort. They are risk averse: they’d much rather choose a strategy that guaranteed them an okay outcome than a strategy that gambles between a good outcome and a bad one.

‘The goal for teachers is making p as high as possible so that all students exert effort in lessons. This is affected by prior experience of the subject, self-esteem and school culture, not just teacher quality. Students believe they’ll do badly in Maths because they’ve always done so before. Raising p is about breaking this damaging chain of reasoning, and the only way to go is by forcing them to experience success. This means that you plan your lesson to make sure that if they exert any effort at all, they will have some measurable success.’


Motivating demotivated pupils is about ensuring they experience success in your subject. What I like about this model is that it’s subject-specific, and it locates the solution in the teacher’s sphere of control, whilst acknowledging other factors outside the teacher’s influence.

I’d like to unpack those external factors in the next few blogposts, whilst also challenging game theory’s assumptions.

The greatest challenge to economic modelling is that of the rationalist delusion. People – especially pupils – don’t always act rationally. There’s little rationale for sabotaging their own learning in the way some seem to, and it doesn’t always result in social success.

Behavioural economics offers another way of looking at motivation. Daniel Kahnemann is the chief exponent of this approach, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. In this view, our minds are made up of two agents: fast, intuitive, effortless and automatic system 1, and slow, deliberate, effortful, and reflective system 2.


Effort & Attention: the Lazy Controller

‘System 2 requires attention, is disrupted when attention is distracted, and requires continuous effort exertion. Conflict is common in our lives between an automatic reaction and our intention to control it. System 2 is in charge of self-control. System 2 prevents us from reacting foolishly to insults, for instance. A defining feature is that its operations are effortful, and one of its characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is necessary or comfortable. We conduct our mental lives by the law of least effort. The effortful thinking that we demand of pupils requires discipline and self-control.’


‘The law of least effort is operating here. He’s thinking as little as possible.’

‘Both cognitive work and self-control are forms of mental work. Several studies have shown people simultaneously challenged by a demanding cognitive task are more likely to yield to temptation. People who are cognitively busy are more likely to make selfish choices and make superficial judgments in social situations. Cognitive load is not the only cause of weakened self-control – a sleepless night is too. Self-control requires attention and effort.’

Ego Depletion

‘Effort of will or self-control is tiring. If you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes up. This phenomenon has been names ego depletion. Ego-depleted people succumb more quickly to the urge to quit. Later, they give up earlier than normal when faced with a difficult cognitive task. The results of depletion can be reacting aggressively to provocation; persisting less; performing poorly in cognitive tasks.’


‘Activities that impose high demands on system 2 require self-control, and the exertion of self-control is depleting, unpleasant and involves a loss of motivation. After exerting self-control in one task, you do not feel like making an effort in another.’ 

Incentives and training

‘In several experiments, people were able to resist the effects of ego depletion given a strong enough incentive. University of Oregon researchers explored attempts to raise intelligence by improving control of attention. Training attention not only improved self-control, scores on non-verbal tests of intelligence also improved and the improvement was sustained for several months.’

We demand extraordinary efforts of cognitive work and self-control from pupils every day. Some pupils have weaker system 2 than others. The paradox is that our pupils with weak self-control need it most but find it hardest. David Thomas is right to say that self-control depletes, habit rescues.The only way out of the paradox is this: we must strengthen their system two by building the habit ofself-control to get it increasingly on autopilot. Where might we, as teachers and school leaders, start?




School leaders

  • Reinforce effort exertion and set the bar at 100% of pupils on task every task
  • Train pupils’ control of attention and teach self-control explicitly
  • Ensure social incentives reinforce system 2 effort exertion and self-control
  • Create a summer school with practice routines to automate the habit of self-discipline


On exploring the rationalist delusion, Jonathan Haidt said: ‘It just seemed too cerebral. There was hardly any mention of emotion’. Next week, I’ll look into the emotional side of motivation, and how trust, empathy and relationships affect how hard pupils work.

Posted in Education | 22 Comments

Why aren’t rewards working?


“Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.”

Lewis Carroll’s Dodo, Alice in Wonderland

Reward systems hold the promise of digital tracking of students’ effort and decisions in lessons. But sometimes they backfire, as this teacher points out:

“When the new system was introduced, one of my pupils shouted: ‘You get points just for showing up! What does that teach us?’ Looking later at the stats, I noticed that the top five reward earners were the worst behaved students in the entire school. Prizes were simply being used as a way of getting kids to do what they should be doing anyway, rather than to reward students for going the extra mile. The attitude was ‘oh well, I’ll get more later anyway, I can’t be bothered to answer these questions, so I won’t’. That’s when it struck me: giving out unmerited rewards all the time actually legitimised their poor behaviour.”




A couple of stories from economic research can enlighten us as to why incentives backfire:

‘When people were given a small stipend for donating blood rather than simply praised for their altruism, they actually donated less blood. The stipend turned a noble act of charity into a painful way to make money, and it simply wasn’t worth it.’

‘Nursery schools started fining parents who turned up late to pick up their children at 4pm. The result was striking: the number of late pick-ups more than doubled.’


There are two main types of incentives: economic, and social or moral. The fine and the stipend backfired because they substituted an economic incentive for a moral incentive.



Stephen Covey calls the carrot and the stick approach ‘animal psychology’, ‘the great jackass technique of human motivation’.

Daniel Pink also exposes the flaws of carrots and sticks: ‘Rewards often don’t help and often harm: they end up giving us less of what we want: they extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity and crowd out good behaviour.’ Pink asks: ‘does education put too great an emphasis on extrinsic rewards?


We want pupils to develop their intrinsic motivation. Which extrinsic factors build intrinsic motivation? For many of us at school, our parents’ expectations, encouragement, recognition, and reinforcement over extended periods of time helped us internalise our own intrinsic motivation.

But not all kids can rely on this from home. Some kids arrive at school without it, demotivated. It’s an unlevel playing field within and between schools.


So should school systems compensate for that and level the playing field? Or does this result in the worst behaved kids getting the most rewards, rewarding disruption and disincentivising effort? Schools must avoid the perverse incentives whereby a kid who usually doesn’t try gets a reward for trying a little, once, and all the kids that try hard all the time get nothing.

If we give too many rewards, kids learn attendance and self-discipline only has value for these rewards. Giving out sweets and stickers can actually diminish motivation. Yet some schools are spending up to £30,000 on such rewards as ipads, laptops and games consoles.



Psychological studies to demonstrate the ‘overjustification’ effect were conducted over 40 years ago in 1971 by Edward Deci. The findings were replicable: once an activity is associated with an external reward, people are less inclined to participate in the activity without a reward present.

Deci summarises the lessons of self-determination theory: ‘Do rewards motivate people? Absolutely. They motivate people to get rewards. When people use rewards to motivate, that’s when they’re demotivating. The less salient they are made, the better.’

In Understanding Motivation and Emotion, Jonmarshall Reeve corroborates this: “People use rewards expecting to gain the benefit of increasing another person’s motivation and behaviour, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional and hidden cost of undermining that person’s intrinsic motivation toward the activity.”

There is a large body of research on intrinsic motivation – thanks to Laura McInerney for signposting me to it. Here is a small sample of hundreds of articles on this, which exposes a striking paradox:

Motivation and Education: The Self-Determination Perspective 1991

In a self-fulfilling prophecy effect, teachers’ beliefs about students’ motivation affected their behaviour towards students and their students’ intrinsic motivation. 

Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education 2001

Tangible rewards substantially undermine intrinsic motivation, especially for school-age children; it’s more important to focus on how to facilitate intrinsic motivation, ensuring tasks are optimally challenging.

The effects of teachers’ expectations about students’ motivation on teachers’ autonomy-supportive and controlling behaviours 2006

Teachers are much more controlling with students they believed to be not motivated. Teachers are much more autonomy-supporting when they expect them to be intrinsically motivated.


Daniel Pink popularised this research in his book, Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us. Although it is mainly aimed at the adult workplace (as much of the self-determination research is on University-age students rather than school-age pupils), it does draw implications for schools. He asks whether ‘we’re bribing students into compliance instead of challenging them into mastery.’

Pink argues that there is a mismatch between what the science says and what schools do.


He says what really motivates us is mastery, purpose and autonomy. Deci‘s psychological research suggests competence, relatedness and autonomy are the key ingredients, although to my knowledge these are nowhere in the research split out and measured for their relative importance.

I’d build on this and suggest that pupils develop their intrinsic motivation through three nutrients: mastery, responsibility and relationships. I think responsibility is a more foundational nutrient for young primary and secondary school pupils than autonomy; that you can’t be truly autonomous until you’ve achieved responsibility for your choices and their consequences.

So what might schools do about intrinsic motivation and its nutrients?

The moral of the story from social psychology and behavioural economics is that we might start by limiting perverse economic incentives with unintended consequences, instead applying social incentives. To give a small example, a signed postcard or personal phonecall home connects teachers, tutors and parents in a way that sweets or ipads do not. The most motivating factors are getting genuinely better at something, and getting recognised by those around us. Mastery and relationships motivate most.

Developing internal responsibility is much harder, but much more enduring than giving out prizes. I wrote last week about the scientific evidence on developing self-control and willpower. That research suggests that building self-esteem is a red herring, and that building self-discipline is much more important. The conundrum is that teachers entrust more responsibility to already motivated pupils, whilst denying motivating responsibility to those they expect to be demotivated.

Over the next five weeks, I’ll suggest five ideas that schools might use to find their way out of this conundrum.

Posted in Education | 15 Comments

How willpower works: the science of self-control



David Blaine spent 35 hours on a 80-foot pillar just 22 inches wide, without a safety harness, fighting hallucinations and the urge to nod off (and fall to his death). He spent 63 sleepless hours in a giant block of ice inches from his face. He spent 7 days inside a coffin with 6 inches of headspace. He spent 17 minutes underwater. He spent 44 days without food suspended above the Thames in a sealed transparent box, ranging from subfreezing to 114 degrees Fahrenheit.

Blaine is an endurance professional, and his stunts are not illusions; they are feats of willpower. Growing up, he trained himself in the discipline of self-control and deliberate practice. He studied the Victorian training of his childhood hero, Houdini, and forced himself to fast for ten days on just water by age 18. Long-term endurance training strengthened his willpower like a muscle.


In experiments beginning in the late 1960s, the psychologist Walter Mischel gave 4-year-olds the agonizing choice of one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. When he followed up decades later, he found that the kids who deferred gratification turned into adults who had better relationships, were better at handling stress, obtained higher degrees and earned more money.

Willpower helps us exercise more, work more effectively, and live more healthily. ‘People who have better control of their attention, emotions and actions are better off, happier and healthier, better able to manage stress, deal with conflict and overcome adversity,’ says Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal.

Can willpower be strengthened? If we want to increase it, which strategies are most effective? And can those techniques be taught? I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading into this. Here’s what I’m learning.


‘In the past decade, our understanding of the neurology and psychology of habits has expanded in ways we couldn’t have imagined fifty years ago. Dozens of studies show that willpower is the single most important keystone habit for individual success. Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than intellectual talent. We now know why habits emerge, how they change, and the science behind their mechanics,saysCharlesDuhigg.

‘There is growing scientific evidence that you can train your brain to get better at self-control,’ says Kelly McGonigal.

What does the science suggest?

Baumeister: willpower is like a muscle


Starting in 1998, experiments in Baumeister’s lab showed that exertions of willpower left people with less self-control.

‘Your supply of willpower is limited, and you use the same resource for many different things. Each day’s stock is refreshed if you have a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast. Low sleep, poor nutrition and low exercise sap willpower and create impulse control and attention problems. Exercising self-control in one area seemed to improve all areas of life.’


Thaler & Sunstein: the planner and the doer

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‘Self-control issues can be illuminated by thinking about our minds as containing two systems, a far-sighted Planner and a myopic Doer. The Planner is trying to promote your long-term welfare but cope with your tempted Doer. Self-control strategies are our Planners taking steps to control the actions of our Doers often by trying to change the incentives our Doers face.’


Kahnemann: the paradox of effort and self-control


Our minds have two systems: system 1 is fast, automatic and effortless, and system 2 is slow, deliberate and effortful.

‘System 2 is in charge of self-control, but requires this effortful exertion. And effortful thinking also requires discipline and self-control. Self-control is tiring. If you have had to force yourself to do something, you are less willing or less able to exert self-control when the next challenge comes up.’


McGonigal: meet your two minds


‘Meet your two minds: the impulsive and wiser minds. When your mind is preoccupied, your impulses – not your long-term goals – will guide your choices.

‘If there is a secret for greater self-control, the science points to one thing: the power of paying attention. It’s training the mind to recognize when you’re making a choice, rather than running on autopilot. It’s remembering what you really want. To develop more self-control, you must first develop more self-awareness. The first step is to notice when you are making self-control choices.

‘Without self-awareness, the self-control system would be useless. You need to recognise when you’re making a choice that requires willpower; otherwise, the brain always defaults to what is easiest. Psychologists know most of our decisions are made on autopilot’.


Duckworth: self-control and grit


Angela Duckworth’s research shows that what most predicts success for pupils is grit. Grit is motivated perseverance for long-term goals. Those with grit have the stamina to persist with the deliberate practice vital for achievement.

To me, the most shocking thing about grit is how little we know, how little science knows, about building it. Every day, parents and teachers ask me, “What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?”

Duckworth divides the mechanics of achievement into two separate dimensions: motivation and volition, or grit and self-control. Grit is long-term stamina; self-control is micro-decisions. ‘A strong will doesn’t help much if a student isn’t motivated to succeed; but motivation alone is insufficient without the volitional fortitude to follow through on goals’.

Duckworth’s research findings into self-control are online:

  • Self-discipline outdoes IQ predicting academic performance in adolescents (2005)
  • Can adolescents learn self-control? (2010)
  • Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents (2011)
  • A meta-analysis of self control measures (2011)
  • The predictive power of the gratification delay test (2013)
  • Self-regulation and school success (2013)

Her research has tested a self-control survey used for pupils:



Tough: motivation is complex.


“That’s the problem with trying to motivate people: no one really knows how to do it well.”

How does this research translate into education practice for school leaders and teachers? That is the challenge I’ll take up on this blog in the coming weeks.

Posted in Education, Student Culture | 16 Comments