Don’t reward failure in education!

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Hand&redlightI have a thing about people being rewarded for failure, whether it’s CEOs, bankers 0r teachers.

Back in 2010 Alice Thomson wrote in the Times (14/07/10): “Don’t overpay gifted teachers. Pay off the duds“. Her article started off well. She said it wasn’t the fabric of schools, class sizes, or even “free schools”, but teachers we should worry about.

Referring to the then head of Ofsted Zenna Atkins’ comments about useless teachers being good for children she suggests that having a series of sub-standard teachers is one reason why 20% of children leave school without any GCSE passes.

In America an economist at Stanford University studied 5,000 teachers and concluded that with good ones you got 18 month’s worth of learning in a school year but with incompetent ones only 6 months. And Malcolm Gladwell, author of “Tipping Point” concluded that children were better off in a bad school with an excellent teacher than the opposite.

She also criticised the overpaying of good teachers following revelations about a primary head earning almost £300,000. I agree it does seem an obscene amount given all the other shortages and it included overtime payments. Where else would senior managers or professionals be paid overtime, even in the public sector?

But then we parted company because her solution was to pay off the bad teachers – the bed blockers she calls them – with early retirement. She said it’s hard to prove they are incompetent so we should bribe them to leave. Because they sap children’s talents and other teachers’ morale. This is wrong in so many ways.

First, education authorities have tried this in the past, giving early retirement to less competent teachers. That’s what saps other teachers’ morale – seeing incompetent colleagues being rewarded for failure while they struggle on.

Secondly, it’s an easy option for (now very highly paid) head teachers who should demonstrate the management and leadership skills they are being paid for and performance manage, and dismiss if necessary, poor teachers rather than give them a reference to move them on to another school.

Thirdly, what kind of message does it send to parents and children? That you can be rubbish at your job and still retire early on a good pension while they struggle to make ends meet?

Perhaps we should follow the example of other countries and set higher standards for our teachers in the first place. Outstanding organisations know that good performance starts at the recruitment stage. The government could probably do more to support schools that need to weed out incompetent teachers and heads need to earn their money as managers and leaders and deal with the problem.

Isn’t that the least that good teachers and our children deserve?

Originally posted on SGANDA in 2010


Self-control (those marshmallows again)

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Latest research from New Zealand demonstrates that childhood levels of self-control are clearly linked with outcomes later in life.

1,000 NZ children were assessed at 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 years of age and then interviewed at age 22.

Participants with poor self-control were more likely to become one-parent families, more likely to have credit and health problems, and more likely to have a criminal conviction. This was true even allowing for the effects of intelligence and social class.

  • In the top fifth – in terms of childhood self-control –  11% had serious adult health problems compared to 27% in the bottom fifth.
  • 13% of the top fifth were involved in a criminal offence compared with 43% of the bottom fifth.

Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues argue that this is a strong case for introducing universal self-control training into schools for children and adolescents. This would not carry the stigma of one-to-one interventions and would benefit everybody in society.

Source: February 2011 Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences

NB Marshmallows refers to Mischel’s famous experiment often cited in connection with emotional intelligence.

Here is another article about self-control with an embedded video showing 4-year olds using distraction to avoid eating the marshmallows.

Are entrepreneurs intelligent?

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Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, Associate Professor of psychology at Goldsmiths College, University of London recently posted a blog on Psychology Today about IQ and how it is still the best predictor of success in life, including at school, at work, and in health.

He says that many people however associate high IQs with geeks or nerds and don’t accept how useful it is as a predictor of job performance, particularly since the publication of books on emotional and multiple intelligences.

There is also more knowledge about intelligence now, about the effects of interaction with the environment and competition on IQ scores.

He also acknowledges that much of the research has been carried out on traditional types of jobs, albeit requiring different skills and qualifications.

He is therefore interested in people in non-traditional jobs, the self-employed and entrepreneurs, on which there are few if any studies and who will form an increasingly large proportion of the working population in years to come.

So he wants to know how important IQ is in entrepreneurial success and has designed a survey to explore this. If you want to read the background to this in more detail and would like to be part of some research to find out, click here.

If you don’t want to read the Psychology Today blog just go straight to the on-line test and get your free report  here.

Some people believe that entrepreneurs just have lucky personalities and it’s nothing to do with how intelligent they are. But imagine if you had both the brains and a winning personality!

Updated 19 May 2011:    The link above is to Dr Mark’s Business Psychology Blog, one of my favourites,  and he has posted another one on “Bottling the Entrepreneurial Spirit”. Well worth reading.

See also: How do you know how intelligent you are?

Blue is the colour

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that keeps you awake and alert.

Teenagers are often drowsy – not just because they spend all night on Facebook or playing computer games – but because their body clocks lag behind in the morning and they don’t perform well until the evening (That applies to me too so maybe I’m still a teenager at heart!).

Some schools have responded by starting classes later to accommodate this. Others are experimenting with special blue-tinted lighting which keeps pupils alert.

The body clock is synchronised by light falling on part of the retina in the eye which responds most strongly to blue light. When stimulated the cells trigger alertness hormones so by exposing pupils to a dose of blue light the schools hope they will be more wide-awake in class.

The lighting system used has been developed by Philips at Eindhoven and is used in schools in Germany and the Netherlands. Apart from the intense blue light used to focus and energise the pupils the system also has more red tinted light to calm people down at the end of the day when pupils are usually more disruptive.

So the system is using light almost subliminally to trigger physiological responses. Early studies show reading speeds increased under the focused blue lighting and mathematical problem solving improved under the calmer settings.

Surely it’s only a matter of time that offices replace those headache inducing fluorescents, not just with LEDs, but with lights that might help improve productivity.

Other researchers have found that apart from the rods and cones there are cells in the eye which respond to blue light specifically. Blue light appears to enhance mood – both up and down – compared to other colours such as green.

Light therapy has also been used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which affects people who live in parts of the world that has only short periods of daylight during the Winter months. Recent research suggests that blue light might be more effective than white light.

There is a downside however. Some doctors warn that exposure to high intensity blue light can lead to macular degeneration which causes blindness.

Updated 5 July 2011: Epsom and Ewell High School have been using the SchoolVision lighting system since last September and found it has had a positive effect on pupil’s behaviour.

The school can change both the intensity and the colour temperature and the children can ask for changes to be made when they are actually in a class.

Apart from the normal setting, used as pupils arrive at and depart from classes, there are three other settings: focus, calm, and energy.

Focus is bright blue to wake them up, red is calmer and used after break periods, and focus is a bright white light used during exams and tests.

The experiment is only being used in the science labs at present to encourage more people to study science at post-GCSE level. It seems to have worked. Physics students are up from 3 to 30, chemistry up from 1 to 17, and biology up from 28 to 44.

The lighting seems to improve student performances too as concentration and mood levels improve and further research is being carried out by the Centre for Performance at Work at City University in London.

How do you know how intelligent you are?

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You might be surprised to learn that there is no agreed definition for intelligence. And there is no absolute measure as there is for your height and weight.

You may have completed a test, such as a Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) which measures comprehension, vocabulary, arithmetic and comprehension, or a test of numerical, verbal, or critical reasoning ability when you applied for a job. Most of these tests are useful as they indicate how smart you are compared to other people and correlate with how well you do at school and in your job.

Now an article in New Scientist; “The 12 pillars of wisdom” explains how there are different views about whether or not there is a “generalised intelligence” – which is based on the fact that people who do well on one particular test tend to do well across the board – or whether intelligence is actually a combination of many different and independent cognitive abilities.

Howard Gardner, not mentioned in the article, proposed, almost 30 years ago, his multiple intelligence theory (MI Theory).

Although adopted by many educationalists and teachers, as it provides a broader framework than traditionally used in schools, it has been criticised as being more about ability than intelligence.

MI Theory includes: spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential.

There have been additions over time from the original 7 and some of these ie inter-  and intra-personal are also included in models of Emotional Intelligence (EI).

The authors, Adrian Owen and Roger Highfield, at the UK Medical Research Council’s Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, describe how they are carrying out research to find the smallest number of tests to cover the broadest range of cognitive skills that they believe contribute to intelligence. They intend to couple this with exploration of the brain’s anatomy.

The twelve pillars they refer to in their “ultimate intelligence test” are:

  1. visuospatial working memory,
  2. spatial working memory,
  3. focused attention,
  4. mental rotation,
  5. visuospatial working memory and strategy,
  6. paired associate learning,
  7. deductive reasoning,
  8. visuospatial processing,
  9. visual attention,
  10. verbal reasoning,
  11. verbal working memory, and
  12. planning.

Updated 23 November 2010: Scientists have now identified over 200 genes potentially associated with academic performance in children. Those with the right combination do significantly better in numeracy, literacy, and science.

The study of 4,000 children attempted to find the genetic combination that influences reasoning skills and general intelligence. Researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London believe their work will help predict academic potential based on a genetic test.

They believe intelligence is controlled by a network of thousands of genes rather than a few powerful ones. They checked the million or so more common ones and looked for variations which occurred most often in the children who tested with either a low or high level of achievement.

Although some aspects of human physiology such as hair or eye colour, multiple sclerosis and breast cancer, are controlled by only a few genes, more recent research suggests that for most aspects it is far more complex than that. Height for example is influenced by 300 genes but even that they only account for 15% of the variation in height.

Scientists attempts to develop profiling methods, so they can predict academic potential and devise methods of helping children who might otherwise be disadvantaged, is not as easy as originally thought despite massive computing power now being available to them for their analyses.

It is still difficult apparently to name even one gene that is clearly associated with normal intelligence in healthy adults although there are 300 known to be associated with mental retardation. So it seems that having your DNA profile available at birth is still not going to book you a place at Oxbridge just yet.

Updated 26 April 2011: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania say that they have found that high IQ scores are a result of high intelligence plus motivation whereas low IQ scores could be because of the lack of either intelligence or motivation (published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

They say that students offered incentives can improve their IQ scores and suggest that people with high IQs may be not only more intelligent but also more competitive.

IQ is often used as a predictor of success later in life but it may be that it is the competitive element that makes the difference rather than the actual level of intelligence.

Finnish top of the world

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Finnish top of the world Economists and social policy experts have decided that Finland is the best country in the world.

Newsweek magazine asked the expert panel to decide based on education, health, quality of life, economic competitiveness, and political environment. Finland, the small country that gave you saunas and Nokia telephones, rally drivers and probably the last real blondes in the world, classy designs and IT expertise, full of forests and lakes, came top ah … Read More

via Mike the Psych’s Blog with permission

Danes are the most satisfied people – how about you?

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Danes are the most satisfied people – how about you? No sooner had Finland won 1st place in “best country in the world” category than their Nordic neighbours Denmark have to go and spoil the party by coming 1st in Wikipedia’s “satisfaction with life” index.

Finland ranked 6th, just ahead of Sweden, in this 2006 study which asked people directly how satisfied they were. Interestingly Switzerland came second in both surveys. The USA came 23rd and we came a measly 41st, behind Germany but ahead of Spa … Read More

via Mike the Psych’s Blog with permission

Sleep – are you getting enough? 

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Sleep. Are you getting enough? Probably not if surveys in the UK and America are anything to go by.

The UK’s Sleep Council survey of over 2,000 adults and found that half of them didn’t know how much sleep their children should be getting viz 12 hours for a 3 year old, 10 hours for a 6-12 year old, and 9 hours for a teenager.

Whilst 80% of parents recognised the importance of sleep in relation to school performance, many didn’t understand exactly why.

Chris Idzikowski, at the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, says that sleep is essential for good physical, mental, and emotional health and is crucial for memory, learning and growth. “Bad sleeping habits in childhood can lead to long-term sleep problems and have been linked to obesity and heart disease”.

The Sleep Council believes that knowledge of the subject should be taught in schools alongside healthy eating and exercise and have published a guide for parents: “The Good Night Guide for Children”.

And it’s not just children who might be sleep deprived. The Harvard Business Review in October 2009 also reported on the problem in the USA. There the National Sleep Foundation reported in their “2008 Sleep in America Poll” that nearly a third of adults who work at least 30 hours a week have either fallen asleep or become extremely drowsy on the job.

Earlier that year a report for the National Academy of Sciences showed that a nap with REM or “dream sleep” improves your ability for creative problem solving and there are several studies that show that sleep boosts memory. For example if you memorise a list of of words then take a nap you will remember more words than if you hadn’t slept.

Robert Stickgold and his colleagues found evidence that important memory processing occurs as you are falling asleep as well as linking ideas and separating the wheat from the chaff. Evidence they say that  napping helps you to be more creative.

And when you are tired your visual discrimination skills fade. You need a 30 minute sleep to stop the burnout and 60 to 90 minutes including REM sleep to improve visual discrimination.

Some organisations have introduced napping periods; Google has sound and light-proof sleep pods. Such companies believe that it fits into their flexible working policies and boost productivity for little cost. Perhaps more seriously in New Zealand air traffic controllers on night shifts were more alert and performed better if they had a 40 minute sleep break.

Even micro-naps of just 6 minutes – not including the time it takes to fall asleep, which is 5 minutes if you are really tired – can make a difference.

Perhaps the siesta loving countries have had the right idea all along. There was a public outcry when the Portuguese government tried to ban them a few years ago to improve productivity.

Updated 2 July 2010: A new book by Tony Shwartz and colleagues: “The way we’re working isn’t working” the 4 forgotten needs that energise great performance” includes a section on taking care of your health including sleep. Some interesting facts include:

  • Melatonin is produced mainly between 1100 and 0300 so working during those times reduces our cognitive ability
  • Research at Stanford University shows that extending sleep improves performance
  • Chronically sleep deprived people are significantly more likely to suffer from heart disease than people who sleep only 6 hours and who in turn are significantly more at risk than people who sleep the necessary 7 hours (General McCrystal allegedly only sleeps 4 hours)
  • Sleeping only 6 hours a night for two weeks  has the same effect as someone who has been sleep-deprived for 48 hours

Updated 10 August 2010: Several newspapers in the last week reported that the holy grail of sleep had been discovered. Not so said the Times “Quack Quack – we debunk the myth behind the headlines“. The research at the University of Pennsylvania showed that the performance of volunteers who were restricted to 4 hours sleep a night for 5 nights slumped but made up some but not all of the difference when they were allowed to sleep for ten hours on the 6th day. Basically lie-ins don’t make up for sleep loss.

Scare stories last year said lie-ins ie more than 8 hours sleep, doubled your chance of dementia. And on the one hand research at the University of California showed that people who sleep longest are 15% more likely to die early whilst on the other research at Portland State University showed that people who sleep 10 hours a night have a better chance of reaching a hundred.

There seems to be no optimum length of sleep – it seems a very individual thing. If you stay alert during the day you are probably getting enough.

Updated 20 September 2010:  But now experts are saying that if babies and pre-school children don’t get 10 hours of sleep a night they are likely to be overweight when they get older.

A lack of sleep may cause an imbalance in appetite controlling hormones making those short of sleep to feel hungrier and crave snacks during the day. Previous research has linked sleep deprivation with obesity in adults and teenagers but this research from the USA, published in the Archives of Paediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, covered 1,00 under-5s. Those with less than 10 hours sleep were twice as likely to be overweight 5 years later.

The researchers concluded; ” Insufficient night-time sleep among infants and pre-school age children appears to be a lasting risk factor for subsequent obesity” and ” these findings suggest a critical window prior to age 5 years when night-time sleep may be important for subsequent obesity status”.

Newspapers picked up this story and reporter Sophie Borland  included some data from other countries to strengthen the case. For example, researchers in China looked at 5,000 children and found that those who were able to catch up on their sleep at the weekend were less likely to put on weight. And in Canada researchers found that people who didn’t get the optimum 7 – 8 hours sleep were two and a half times more at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Updated 4 March 2011: 10% of us are relying on medication to help us sleep. That’s according to a survey of 40,000 families funded by the Economic & Social Research Council.

Apparently 1 in 8 of us now gets less than 6 hours sleep a night and 60% of us take 30 minutes to drop off with 10% of us using medication three times a week to help us do that.

Experts say sleep is as important to our health as diet or exercise and long-term deprivation will have long-term health risks such as diabetes, obesity, and heart problems. This is because hormones controlling your appetite and blood pressure are affected by sleep patterns.

Rather than using medication to give you drug-induced sleep it is better to look at the environmental and life-style factors in busy modern lives to solve the problem.    

Updated 2 May 2011: Finally some firm evidence on how much sleep you really need. Experiments at the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania divided people into 3 groups. Some slept for 4 hours, some for 6 hours, and some for 8 hours a night over a two-week period.

Every 2 hours during the day the researchers tested their subjects to see how alert they were using the psychomotor vigilance task which requires you to sit in front of a computer screen for 10 minute sessions where you had to press the space bar when randomly timed numbers came up.

The PVT test measures the kind of vigilance needed by pilots, truck drivers and astronauts. and also for staying focussed when reading or attending meetings.

Those who had 8 hours of sleep had hardly any attention lapses over the 14 days of the study. Those who had only 4 or 6 hours got steadily worse as each day passed. By day 6, 25% of the 6 hour sleepers were falling asleep at their computer. By the end of the study the 6 hour sleepers were as impaired as those who had been sleep-deprived for 24 hours.

In real life you have more distractions than in a sleep laboratory: regular coffee, bright lights, interaction with colleagues etc but you will still feel the effects of sleep deprivation after five to seven days.

Some of the people who needed 8 hours felt the impact of a 4 hour sleep immediately while others coped for a few days before deterioration inevitably set in. Some people insist they can manage on 5 hours sleep but the 4 and 6 hour sleepers felt that although they felt sleepy they were unaffected. This wasn’t true but people aren’t good at judging their own sleep needs.

Researchers think that there might be a small percentage of people who, because of their genes, can maintain their performance with  less than 5 hours sleep just as there are people who require 9 hours or more.

Source: New York Times April 15 2011  

Meanwhile scientists at Northumbria University have been studying “short sleepers”. People like Margaret Thatcher, Da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who were too busy to sleep.

These sleepless elite tend to be more ambitious, outgoing, optimistic and energetic than those who would rather have a lie-in. The scientists think that there are perhaps only 3% of the population who can thrive on less than 6 hours sleep and research is being carried out world-wide to try to identify the gene responsible for this.

The short sleepers are both owls and larks as they often go to bed after midnight but get up before dawn.

The UK researchers believe that Britons are already sacrificing 4 hours sleep a week because of stress and work commitments and risk chronic insomnia and in America about 15% of adults report sleeping less than 6 hours a night.