"The Power of Bad" - lessons for a positive teacher

I've been enjoying "The Power of Bad - and how to overcome it" by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, which explains and analyses the negativity bias inherent in being human and discusses ways of harnessing this for our own good by recognising and compensating for it in many areas of life, whether it be in coaching sports teams effectively, maintaining a successful marriage or running a global economy. When it comes to schools, the authors are scathing about the negative impact on education of the self-esteem movement in schools in the 1970s, and bracing when it comes to prescribing a 'no excuses' regime, especially for boys, students from lower-income families and those who face extra challenges in their lives. "Teachers are trained", they say "to focus on praising children rather than highlighting their mistakes... schools are reluctant to penalize ether teachers or students for failure." Hmmm. I'm not sure this is true in the UK. I don't think that anyone is suggesting that mistakes go unhighlighted. When I briefly taught English, I used to take issue with the idea that you would only correct a small number of spellings in a student's work. I understood that getting work back with a sea of red would be discouraging for a student who had really done their best to make their work as good as it could be, but it seemed to me counter-intuitive that a teacher marking writing should leave in incorrect spellings, thereby leading the student to believe that those spellings were correct. And frankly, I didn't think some of that work DID represent their best effort. When you see the same word spelled incorrectly in several different ways in the same piece, it is difficult not to conclude that it has been rushed off. Most of the disapproval is reserved for the culture which discourages competition and celebrates participation and cooperation over all. There is an interesting comparison of some male students' disinclination to involve themselves in their learning and their enthusiasm for video games. "Teachers lament that boys waste time mastering video games instead of schoolwork, but instead of simply blaming the boys, they should consider the games' appeal. Players learn by competing for points and higher rankings. Instead of being shielded from failure to protect their self-esteem, they're repeatedly killed and forced to start over. The penalties enable them to learn from their mistakes and eventually earn success by outscoring other players. If school offered them the same incentives, they'd learn there, too."

In her excellent book about enthusing students about languages, "Getting the buggers into Languages", writer Amanda Barton explicitly recommends using competitive activities to capture the attention of boys. MFL is an area where historically it has been considered more difficult to engage boys than girls, so I duly took notice. In my time teaching, the reason I tried to incorporate a competitive activity, however short or simple, in any lesson, was to get the boys' attention. I found that generally this worked well, although it was obvious that the girls were on the whole less stimulated by games and competitions. This is obviously a howling generalisation, but a valid observation nonetheless, I think.

When we as a department introduced an app called Memrise, which claimed to "turn vocabulary learning into a competitive sport", results in vocab tests improved noticeably. Classes had league tables - raw scores, weekly as well as rolling totals. Engagement soared and we could often set vocab learning ahead of lessons, and have many of the students already familiar with the vocab.

The further point made in the Power of Bad regarding gamers' preparedness to die over and over again and have to start from scratch is one which bears consideration, and one which teachers would do well to consider.

There is much discussion of the benefits of strict discipline in schools in The Power of Bad, especially those with challenging or vulnerable cohorts or those in deprived areas. The evidence quoted points strongly to the efficacy of such methods in such schools. This speaks to the current debate around silent corridors, the latest educational outrage-trigger to be doing the rounds on Twitter. Looking at the success of some schools who have chosen a highly-disciplined and controlled regime such as Michaela, it is difficult to condemn their methods, and frankly if you're not leading a school with their problems, then it's probably not appropriate to leap to condemnation.

In summary, there is an awful lot to make you think in this book, and I don't feel on balance that there is much conflict between my brand of STRICTLY positive teaching and the advice given. As with so many things it is all about balance. The positivity which I preach can only exist within strict boundaries, and for teaching to be kind, within those strict boundaries has to be positivity.

Brilliant book. I thoroughly recommend it!

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