The scourge of motivational posters and the problem with pop psychology in the classroom

Fifteen years ago I watched David Brent give this masterclass in motivation. This was before I started teaching, and when I entered the profession I was horrified to learn that this kind of stuff appeared to be embedded in so much of education from the Monday morning assembly to the top-down CPD session. I remember attending a leadership training day that featured one bit that was almost word for word, a carbon copy of the hotel role-play scene where Brent ‘fazes’ the trainer.

Nowhere is this pseudo-profundity more alive today than in social media, and the weapon of choice for this kind of stuff is the motivational poster. More than ever, we seem to be drowning under a tidal wave of guff exhorting both pupil and teacher to ‘reach for the stars’ and ‘be all that you can be.’ While seemingly benign and well intentioned, these missives in mediocrity signal a larger shift towards the trivial and sit alongside a set of approaches that may well be doing more harm than good.

Carol Dweck’s work on Growth Mindsets is often mentioned in relation to interventions aimed at shifting student self perception but like a lot of promising areas, the transition from research to practice is often a dysfunctional one. The hallways of many schools are now festooned with the obligatory mindset motivational posters and “failure walls” (Always wondered about these, they’re like a 12 step recovery programme with 11 steps missing) with whole school assemblies exhorting kids to embrace failure and choose a more positive mindset, often reductively misrepresented as “you can achieve anything if you believe.”

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This type of stuff is obviously well intentioned but beyond symbolising a culture that privileges the media-soundbite over critical reflection, it does I think signify an increasing shift towards psychological interventions aimed at changing student self perception and represents a somewhat base and quite reductive approach to an extremely complex set of issues. Done well, certain interventions can be highly effective as in the case of coaching or the aforementioned promising field of Growth Mindsets. However, done poorly they can be not only confusing for students, but can take up valuable time and resources for things that might actually improve student self perception in a far more powerful way. On a more serious level, Nick Rose has written about the worrying rise of soft psychotherapy in schools and warns that these interventions may be poor substitutions for woefully inadequate mental health provision for children.

There are two central issues with these generalised attempts at trying to manipulate student’s perception of themselves. Firstly, student self-concept is both multi-dimensional and hierarchal. (Marsh et al.,1983; Muijs 1997) A student might have a very positive concept of self in English but a very negative one in Maths. Secondly student self concept is both academic and non-academic and can be broadly categorised into seven subareas such as physical ability/appearance and peer relations as well as academic ability (Shavelson, 1986.) So tying to manipulate these domain specific issues through ‘all-purpose’ positive interventions attempting to boost general self esteem are likely to be ineffective.

The other major issue here is that we may have got things back to front. Research shows that while there is a strong correlation between self perception and achievement, the actual effect of achievement on self perception is stronger than the other way round (Guay, Marsh and Boivin, 2003.) It may well be the case that using time and resources to improve student academic achievement may well be a better agent of psychological change than psychological interventions themselves. Daniel Muijs and David Reynolds (2011) note that:

At the end of the day, the research reviewed shows that the effect of achievement on self-concept is stronger that the effect of self-concept on achievement.

So there is a strong case to say that that focusing our efforts on students being taught well (surprise, surprise) and given clear and achievable paths to academic success creates a more positive perception of themselves anyway than those given unproven interventions such as the kind of pop psychology churned out in so much of school life. A key question then is why is so much time and energy invested in it?

One of the best initiatives I’ve seen is from a school in New York where they use blocked periods of time in the school week called ‘Lab Time’ where both teachers and pupils were free and where the onus was on the students to book appointments with particular teachers and go over work they had missed or didn’t understand or just needed to improve on. This gave pupils a real sense of agency, responsibility and choice and a series of opportunities to address their own problems. How much time do we waste on assemblies, tutorials and numerous interventions that are costly, time-intensive and ultimately ineffective? Would an approach like this not only give pupils more chance of improving academic achievement but also concomitantly, their own self-perception?


Motivational posters are a a “daily boost of inspiration” for some and vomit-inducing for the rest of us but they also encourage us to take complex ideas and reduce them to something utterly trivial, and seemingly life-changing and often far removed from their original premise. There are complex ideas that should be given time and space for us to critically reflect upon and resist the urge to summarise into a soundbite. Education research in particular shouldn’t be represented as some kind of ersatz profundity summarised in a single sentence, it should embrace Keats’s notion of negative capability and seeking a richer, more complex and ultimately elegant elucidation of these difficult ideas that we hope will improve student experience.

As my old English literature tutor Prof. Chris Baldick once quipped in a lecture “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus and pop psychology is from Uranus.”

Why has practitioner research had such little impact in schools?

One thing that has always baffled me is how school leaders have marginalised staff involved in research or practitioner inquiry. If a teacher wants to do an MA or PhD in an area related to their own professional development, they are often given little or no financial or time support. Certainly research has not been a central part of the mission of being a classroom teacher, it has in effect been seen as an expensive hobby.

Many teachers I’ve spoken to have essentially felt like rogue agents, “pale students of unhallowed arts” wielding dangerous knowledge. Their work is not aligned with a whole school focus and very little of it is even linked with their own professional development.

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How many senior leadership meetings features the phrase “What does the research say?” or even taken the position that it might be something useful? In my experience many younger staff who want to do research are not sure exactly what it is they want to research but just want to improve and be more reflective about their practice. Why aren’t school leaders harnessing that kind of enthusiasm towards whole school improvement?

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Whole school research focus.

In order to maximise the impact of school led research we need to move towards a model where there is a common focus of inquiry that has many stakeholders One way of doing that is to:

  • - Establish an issue to be solved that is aligned with whole school vision.
  • - work with HEI to survey the literature around this area and help design methodologically robust approaches.
  • - Opportunities given for practitioner research embedded across all departments/faculties not just a self-selected few.
  • - Involve the student body with this focus using student journal clubs.
  • - Establish a Research Centre to act as a conduit.
  • - Build in time for staff to conduct research and disseminate findings.

If we are going to maximise the impact of research in schools then it needs to be more than a clandestine bunch of mavericks practicing some kind of weird alchemy that no-one even understands (especially themselves.)

Opportunities need to be given for practitioner-led research that is aligned with a clearly defined whole school vision of improvement, that is well communicated and where all staff feel they can have an impact.

Podcast no. 6 – Glenn Whitman “Can you change the culture of a school through research?”

In October I went to visit Glen Whitman at St. Andrew’s School near Washington. He is the Dean of Studies there but is also a force of nature who runs an in-house research centre that has completely transformed the culture of the school. I asked him how he did it.


Glen Whitman



For more on Glenn see him speak here at the Center for American Progress.

Education Research and ‘Negative Capability.’

In 1817 John Keats wrote a letter to his brother in which he detailed for the first time the phrase ‘Negative Capability,” which refers to the capacity to hold two seemingly opposite positions in equal measure without trying to reconcile or privilege either one:

“ once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

A challenging concept in an age which often deals in absolutes, which audits itself in terms of ‘better or worse’ and which seeks to impose an order where often there is none. Currently in education research there is the constant refrain, ‘What works?’ A better phrase for me would be “what works in your context?” By privileging one approach over another divorced from context-specific perspectives, we are in danger of creating a set of clinical taxonomies that will ultimately serve no one, and that undermine precisely that which they are attempting to serve: the empowerment of students via the classroom practitioner.

The recent collation of research into digestible meta-analyses has gone a long way to give teachers at least a clear sight of the wood from the trees. In particular the EEF toolkit is an incredibly pragmatic and useful resource but I worry that many school leaders are using it in a ‘Moneysupermarket’ kind of way, that is at best superficial and at worst, damaging. An example of this is the research on Teaching Assistants which yielded findings suggesting that their impact was “low for high cost.” Many seemed to read the headlines on this and come to the conclusion that teaching assistants ‘don’t work’, that they are not effective and costly, whereas the research actually suggests that in many cases they are not being used effectively by school leaders and that in certain contexts teaching assistants are having an huge impact on students, especially those with particular learning difficulties. Earlier this year I met with Rob Coe who was largely involved in the Toolkit’s inception and I came away from that meeting feeling hugely positive about education research, not because he was claiming to have any answers but rather the opposite: he is someone who embraces uncertainty and views it as a place of potentiality where the field can be pushed forward. If you have ever seen Rob talk you will be familiar with him use the phrase “we just don’t know” a lot. I find this refreshing to hear because it means that those at the forefront of the field are not entrenched in dogmatic partisanship and allow for the possibility of growth and new understanding.

The binary opposition is instructive here. Traditionally we can think of a linear plane where one extreme is on one end and its ‘opposite’ is on the other. We might make the seemingly reasonable claim that the opposite of love is hate for example. However, those of us who have experienced those states knows that they are in many cases, not opposite but rather different sides of the same coin, and that it would be more ‘truthful’ to suggest that the opposite of love is not hate but rather indifference. When we think in terms of axiomatic ‘truths’ we find that the more extreme you go, the more that plane begins to bend and fold in on itself. Extremists on ‘opposite sides’ often have more in common than those with a more moderate view.


                                      “The centre cannot hold.”

Anyone who has actually taught in a classroom knows that the inherent problem with research in that domain is the high degree of variability, the often unfathomable nature of the process and the difficulty of comparing like for like. What may work for one particular teacher with one particular set of students, may be wholly inappropriate with another teacher and another class. There is then also the problem of the “unknown knowns” or the things that we ‘don’t know that we know’ such as unconscious prejudices or biases. So when we begin to think along axiomatic lines of ‘truth,’ as Yeats reminds us; “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

Instead of passively accepting the ‘stone tablets’ of research we should be engaged in a constant dialogue with research, questioning it, challenging dogmatism, teasing out relevance to our own context and our own individual problems in a sort of ‘detached attachment.’ We should be constantly reviewing our own preconceptions and refining our practice through this process of oscillation and reflection. We should reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable nature of the classroom. What may work on Tuesday period 3, might be a disaster on Thursday period 2 with the same class and the same teacher for a variety of reasons, some that we may ‘know’ but many that are simply unknown.

We should acknowledge that there is an elegant intuition about teaching that resists absolutism and certitude. In the face of a tidal wave of league tables, target grades and accountability, we should always be aware that there is an ephemeral mystery about the process and that it is something worth protecting. It is utterly rooted in the context of a specific classroom at a specific time, and that far from disappearing into a rabbit-hole of relativism where ‘anything goes,’ sometimes there is certainty in uncertainty.

 Keats, John: The Complete Poetical Works and Letters of John Keats, Cambridge Edition. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 277. 
Yeats, William Butler:  “The Second Coming.” Norton Anthology of English Literature. Eds. M. H. Abrams, et al. 6th ed. Vol. 2. New York: Norton, 1993. 1880-81.

#rED14 Lunch of Research Champions: A Tabula Rasa.

Yesterday I had the most surreal experience of my career. I found myself sitting in a circle with some of the most influential people in the field discussing the role of research lead or research “champion.” (name change needed) Among those encircled in the chapel at Raines Foundation were Dylan William, Rob Coe, Tom Sherrington, Alex Quigley, John Tomsett, Daisy Christodoulou, Oliver Quinlan, Jonathan Sharples, Keven Bartle, Helene Galding O Shea, Sam Freedman, Andy Tharby, Chris Brown and many more fascinating people who I sadly didn’t get to speak with. For me however, what made the moment so utterly surreal was having the AFL demi-god Paul Black in our presence in the ‘benevolent grandfather’ role. In my PGCE year at King’s College I saw give a lecture on assessment and have been in awe of him ever since. 


There was some pre-reading sent around in the form of an article from Dylan Wiliam; ‘What Should Education Research Do, and How Should It Do It?’ which offered an excellent ‘state of the union address’ on the condition of education research. Essentially the article claims that the three intellectual virtues identified by Aristotle—episteme, techne, and phronesis—are related to the requirements of the “pure” education researcher, the skilled practitioner, and the clinical researcher, respectively, and also promotes the validity of “tacit’ teacher knowledge. This seemed to be a running theme at the conference; the notion that we must not lose sight of innate teacher “wisdom” in the face of the oncoming avalanche of evidence based practice. 

Before we started, several pizzas were delivered by Caledonian Pizza boy Tom Bennett along with some crates of orange juice cartons, which we all descended upon before sitting down. Having Rob Coe next to me slurping the dregs of his orange juice, and trying (unsuccessfully) to be quiet was one of the funnier/surreal moments.

There was very much a tabula rasa feeling to the meeting with four broad questions to explore chaired by the fantastic Jude Enright:

1. What are the benchmarks for quality educational research?

2. How should schools be using research ?

3. What is the “Research Champion’s  role?

4. How can a national ResearchED network help Research Champions in their roles?


We didn’t discuss the pre-reading (so much for checking the learning from the previous lesson) and went straight into an example of how research can be harnessed in schools by a really interesting few minutes from Caroline Creaby and her excellent work with , notably the Sandringham learning journal. 

We then dived into a fairly loose exchange around the issues of using research in schools with Jude asking myself and Alex Quigley to outline our roles and how we envision them. I spoke about how I felt an integral part of the role should be to help schools own their own question and not have research imposed upon then. Research in the university is a central part of the mission of that institution, and that is not the case in schools and until there is a change then research/evidence based practice will always be an afterthought, or simply “just another thing we have to do.”

Dylan Wiliam felt that teachers just need to dynamically “do it” and make research happen in schools regardless of the leadership culture, and that it only takes one or two to do so, which I think might be slightly idealistic considering the current capacity of most teachers. Other contributions made the point that research should be linked to CPD and school improvement plans with excellent points made by Kevan Bartle on Teaching Schools and Daisy Christodoulou on how research is being deployed within the ARK academy chain. I am interested to read the minutes and hear from others there what was said/agreed. 

All too soon we were told to “do one,” as there were 60 people outside waiting to see Andrew Old, who I only just realised had been creeping around the room during the meeting trying to set up his powerpoint presentation for his talk, arranging tables in groups, and laying out lollipop sticks, sugar paper and post-it notes for his “lesson.”

It was a fascinating assembly of voices that could have yielded so much more given time. I am going to be working with Tom to have a #rED “Research Leads” (Shall we change that name now?? ©Alex Quigley) strand to meet this December in London. I think it will be very important to keep this conversation going, and to share strengths and failings as this is a role that is very much a trip into the unknown, as is the whole enterprise of embedding evidence based practice in schools, and central to its success will be collaborating and supporting each other in this way.