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Monday, March 25 2019

The Dishonourable Lie

How often have we all sat through those frustrating meetings where someone from head office or a university articulates with such commitment the first lie – if you can’t measure it then it’s not worth doing.  This quantification of education based on an economically rational approach started in the sixties.  This was the dawn of outcomes-based learning. 

As a young teacher I remember how excited we were expected to be.  So much easier, set the curriculum in such a way that we could ‘measure’ just how successful our students were and it soon followed that our quality as a teacher or a school could also be determined.

The culmination of this approach is our current addiction to standardized tests such as PISA or more locally NAPLAN.  Now we have those clever statisticians comparing different nations, different schools and even different teachers.  Of course, they consider a whole range of checks and balances, these are not stupid people they know how to read data.

Now there has always been a group that rejects the importance of such tests but for the academics and bureaucrats, ‘it just makes sense’, we can make judgements and more importantly politicians can understand its simplicity. 

There is a problem, it seems that our children are falling behind, not reaching their ‘milestones’ so we must try harder, re-design curriculum, get better teachers, set stronger goals – we never question the value of the outcome and that is the first lie – we know what is best for the children, after all we are the adults!

The second lie is to place the blame for failure on the kids – ‘all kids can succeed they just have to try hard enough, have ‘true grit’!  This belief that you can think yourself to success has been around for years.  Those of you who are of my vintage remember Norman Vincent Peale’s best-selling book ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’.  This book informed a whole generation that, on the words of the little tug boat, ‘I think I can – I know I can’.

Now I understand that professional educators don’t buy into these mantras, we’re too clever.  However, we have evidence that tells us that with a ‘growth mind-set’ we can succeed.  This approach was first formalized by Carol Dweek from the University of California who demonstrated that children who make more of an effort were more successful than those who thought they had a set amount of intelligence.  More success with more effort, sounds familiar!

Since the original publication of this work questions have emerged, there has been little success in confirmation studies.  In the UK a study of 36 schools who professed to promote a growth mindset could find no correlation, a US meta-analysis conducted in 2018 showed no validation of this approach.  To her credit Dweek has never claimed this to be ‘the answer’ to student improvement but those who long for ‘the answer’ to student learning have been attracted to this approach; if only it was that easy – we can think ourselves to success!

The final lie is that of meritocracy – that in our society, those who have made the best effort will reach the top of their field.  How often do we hear our politicians, the leaders in commerce and industry proclaim our society is a form of meritocracy!  Of course, they state case after case where an individual has overcome amazing obstacles to reach the top of their field.  The thing is these individuals who do excel are the exception not the norm.  Have a look at the board rooms of our top companies, how many come from disadvantage, how many attended a local public school – the numbers are miniscule, and I’ll wager in some companies no board members came from a public school!  Everywhere there are positions of power and/or wealth meritocratic membership is the exception not the norm.

The purveyors of this lie are quite quick to point out examples of success.  Blaise Joseph from the right wing think tank The Centre for Independent Studies recently published an independent study where they investigated 18 schools from low socio-economic areas that were highly achieving in the NAPLAN tests.  A few points:

  • Naplan is a discredited test that can be manipulated by teaching to the test or ensuring poor performing students absent themselves from the test.  This is easy and unfortunately not uncommon
  • The sample of 18 schools I assume is from 6,616 public schools.  This means the sample size is about 0.003% of the population.  Hardly a significant sample!

The message is that if all schools followed the specific criteria outlined they would succeed and not require the extra funding these schools are demanding.  I could find no statement from Blaise about the massive savings for the government if they reduced the funding to the top private schools to the same levels of their public cousins.

However, the lie of meritocracy continues, everyone at the top ‘level’ claims they are there because of their ‘merit’!  If they really believed in meritocracy there would be no private schools, no tutoring businesses everyone would go their local public school that was equally funded and staffed!  If they believed in meritocracy there would be no inheritance, every child would have to make their way in the world based on their ‘merit’.

And now for what psychiatrist Scott Alexander calls ‘the noble lie’ – if the above conditions are true, that is if a growth mindset works, if outcomes-based learning works and if meritocracy works then children from poor communities are not trying!  Therefore, it’s their fault they fail, at school and later in life!  The rich and powerful love this lie, it allows them to sleep well at night because they are successful because they earned that success and those poor people only have themselves to blame!

Frew Consultants Group is dedicated to helping teachers giving every child the best chance at life and of course our focus is on those who come with the greatest disadvantage.  Because of this, we have spent our professional life trying to understand how we can best help students learn.  So far - no definitive answer but a few things have become obvious.

The first is that success, students being the best they can be is directly linked to self-perception.  A child’s sense of themselves is the best predictor of their achievements.  Students who see themselves as failures will fail and those who see themselves as worthwhile will participate.  At first look this mind set approach appears to be just another form of positive thinking.  The subtle difference is the positive thinking is a top-down action, the students are told to be positive however, an approach to learning based on the child’s sense of self, a bottom-up approach is a true reflection of the child’s core sense of themselves.  In their book ‘Effective Teaching’ Muijs and Reynolds point out that ‘at the end of the day, the research shows that achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept based on achievement’.  In other words, if you build the child’s self-concept the achievements will follow.

Consequently, the best we can do for our students is to build a positive sense of self - but how?  The answer is, as in all things about education is the relationship between the student and the teacher.  This is why effective teaching defies rational analysis and quantification, good teachers know how to foster such relationships but struggle to explicitly explain what they do.  As Michael Polanyi explained way back in 1958, we can know more than we can tell!

Children build their sense of self through the interactions with significant adults, generally their parents.  We have seen the damage done to children when those significant others provide an abusive or neglectful environment.  It is these children, as well as all children but I could say more than others, rely on their teacher to be that significant other.  Your role is to provide the correct amount of support according to the child’s current ability to meet their needs independently.  You must be able to assess each individual’s developmental status at the time remembering that each will be coming from a different background. 

In simple terms you must provide them with a structured environment where you provide them with what they need, not what they want and what they need is to develop a strong sense of a positive self, the ability to think independently, to relate with others in a responsible way and to have a purpose in their life.  This what good teachers do!

Posted by: AT 07:35 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 18 2019

Converting Teachers' Lessons to Intrinsic Motivation

How often do we hear the comment ‘anyone can teach’ and I have to agree.  I see ex- footballers, netballers, etc. most afternoons ‘teaching’ youngsters how to play their sports.  The thing is anyone, who has the knowledge can teach someone who wants to learn that topic.  What defines a professional teacher is one who can teach a child something they:

  • Don’t want to learn
  • Don’t think they can learn
  • Have no reason to learn

Yet every day we go into our class armed with a syllabus full of topics that children, not only have the above attitudes, they often have no idea what the teacher is talking about.  But, every day successful teachers meet this challenge and they do this by motivating their students.

In a previous Newsletter, I discuss human motivations and how they are related to our physical and emotional wellbeing.  When we are dealing with the curriculum we are dealing with the child’s intellectual ‘wellbeing’!  The challenge is to create a level of stress that will motivate the child to learn.  We want our students to ‘want to know’ about the topic we are presenting; we want them to be motivated to learn.

In 1985, Edward l. Deci and Richard M. Ryan published ‘Intrinsic Motivation and Self- Determination in Human Behaviour’ and this underpinned what was to become Self-Determination Theory.  This theory explained how motivation supports the journey to independence, to make one’s own choices and control one’s life.  Of course, I can’t argue with this as a goal although I would add a few things like being ethical, responsible and contributing to make your community a ‘better place’.

Deci and Ryan discuss motivation that is underpinned by three drives:

  • Relatedness – A sense of belonging, interacting with others.  Caring for them and having that support returned
  • Autonomy – To be the causal agent in your life.  Your behaviour is self-endorsed and you are the master of your own destiny
  • Competence – You control the outcomes of your behaviour, you have the knowledge and skills to be successful in your community

These drives are very specific and can be part of any model of human needs but they have in common being involved with the cognitive processing of behaviours.  From the previous Newsletter this type of motivation is only possible as an active drive if our physical and emotional needs are generally satisfied.  The following discussion will describe this model but keep in mind that a successful fulfilment is limited to children who have a secure sense of self.

There are two further facets to be considered and these are:

  • Extrinsic Motivation – A drive that comes from an external force or demand to achieve nonessential goals.  In the extreme this motivation will be to get a pleasant reward or to avoid a disagreeable punishment.
  • Intrinsic Rewards – These come from the individual’s core values and a desire to seek new challenges and experiences.  The behaviour is at the heart of curiosity and enhances their expression of their ‘best self’.

The Model describes motivation being on a continuum based on the amount of external/internal motivation.  The continuum runs from an ‘amotive’ position, a point of no motivation, no prospective outcomes and no drive to behave through to a situation where all behaviour is driven by the internal drives outlined above.  The relevant behaviour is driven by self-interest and will satisfy the person’s desires; this is the point of authentic, intrinsic motivation.  Because the outcome they are working towards is so ‘rewarding’ the students will be fully focused on the task.

The point of interest for the teacher is how do we get the students to this point when we present them with another lesson on ‘simultaneous equations’?  This is particularly challenging when dealing with disengaged students.  In a previous Newsletter (Consequences Neither Punishment or Reward – 2nd April 2018) I discussed the problem of using rewards as a form of motivation however, when you are faced with a student with no interest you may find offering a reward is the only option.  This should only be the point of entry into the student’s world on motivation.

The task is to somehow link the pursuit of a ‘reward’ with a student’s sense of control.  That is, they have some power in the transaction that drives participation.  If you can then link this with an attachment to their values system, that is, if they can understand simultaneous equations it will enhance their drive for:

  • Relatedness - they are accepted by their peers and admired by the teacher
  • Competence – they have mastered a difficult skill
  • Autonomy – They have become independent in dealing with this mathematical problem

The teacher can support this change by teaching their students about goal setting.  Explain that to learn to solve simultaneous equations can have long term benefits; depending on the maturity of these students this could range from next week’s test for very young or disengaged students to university entry for those rare, mature, students.  Then teach them about breaking this task down to short term achievable goals that give them, and you a chance to reflect and celebrate.

The result is the student will become more engaged in the lesson.  As success breeds success the more you can develop this intrinsic motivation the most successful your students will be.  Sounds easy but it is not however, it can be achieved with patience and persistence.

Posted by: AT 10:39 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Thursday, March 14 2019

Motivating Students – What Drives Them?

Please go to the Resource Page, Frew Consultants Group for a copy of Chapter 2 ‘Human Needs and Drives’ from my book ‘The Impact of Modern Neuroscience on Contemporary Teaching’ for a detailed description of my model of human needs and drives.

It has long been the ambition of teachers to understand how to motivate their students and apply that theory.  There has been a history of attempts to present a model that explains this phenomenon.  The most successful being Maslow’s who presents a hierarchical model.  He argues people can only pursue higher, more complex endeavours after their more basic drives are satisfied.  Maslow holds that it is only when lower drives linked to survival are satisfied, that humans could reach self-actualization, the highpoint of development.  I agree, in a limited sense that we can only seek ‘self-actualization’ when we have satisfied more basic drives.

My theory reflects our tri-part brain, that is we have three relatively distinct parts of the brain that reflect the evolution of our species.  The lower part focuses on the maintenance of our physical survival and is often referred to as the reptilian brain because reptiles’ cognitive development hardly progresses from this point.  The next level is referred to as the social brain and this developed as our species learned to live in cooperative groups to increase their chances of survival.  The last is our thinking brain, the area of development that is behind the dominance of our species.  It is in this region we can make predictions into the future based on previous experience allowing us to plan ahead.  It is this last part of the brain that we need our students to bring to the classroom.

It must be remembered that the brain is at the centre of all motivation and all drives are underpinned by our need to survive and reproduce.  This is inspired by Richard Dawkins’ seminal work, ‘The Selfish Gene’.

The following are the major points of my model:

The principle of homeostasis states that when we are in equilibrium we are satisfied.  When we are in homeostatic dis-equilibrium we will experiences stress and that stress will cause the brain to initiate behaviour that will return us back to balance.  Our behaviour is much like an air conditioner, when everything is at the right temperature nothing happens.  If it gets too hot, or too cold the thermostat is activated and the machine is turned on.  In our case, when we are comfortable there is no motivation to change but when we are ‘uncomfortable’ our behaviour is turned on in an attempt to return to a point of equilibrium.

The brain has evolved, from the bottom up to manage our physical status, the area of our:

Primary drives – predominantly controlled in the brain stem/mid brain to make sure we are physically composed

Secondary Drives - our need for emotional regulation is controlled in the limbic system

Tertiary Drives – here our intellectual satisfaction is under the influence of the cortex, predominantly the frontal lobes

A person’s motivation will be focused on dealing with that area that is generating the most stress (i.e. that part of the brain that looks after our needs).  For example, if you are out of breath your dominant motivation will be to get oxygen to survive.  If you are excluded from your peer group your limbic system will be engaged to return to the group.

Learning is the result of trial and error in generating behaviours that assist the reduction of the stress and return us to a state of equilibrium.  When we find a way of achieving this we repeat that action and through repetition our brain develops a ‘neural wiring’ or memory that allows us to quickly repeat the chosen behaviour when the same conditions occur.

The easy conclusion would be that our most powerful drive would be to physically survive.  But, unfortunately the many people who commit suicide make this statement untrue, they deliberately kill themselves.  Suicide is most often the result of emotional problems and the source of these is in the limbic system.  My argument is that our behaviour is driven where the most stress or distress exists.  I will also contend that our mortality depends on both our physical and emotional status and so will have primacy over any tertiary drive. 

Finally, we can only fully access our tertiary brain when the lower parts of the brain are in relative equilibrium.  That is if we want our students to fully concentrate on our lessons it is important that they are reasonably comfortable.

So, what are the consequences of these ‘fundamentals’?  In the classroom the teacher’s goal is to have the student ‘learn’ to respond to a set of circumstances.  For instance, if the lesson is on how to solve simultaneous equations we have to have the child stressed enough to be motivated to learn how to do this.  At first the presentation of this problem should make the student ‘uneasy’ a condition that could be described as curiosity.  I don’t think I would be alone thinking I could count the number of students who would jump at the opportunity to learn about these equations; I could name these students on one hand. Teachers need other ways to motive their students to be ‘curious’ about the classroom’s ‘simultaneous equations’ (in the next Newsletter I will continue this example hopefully giving you help in doing this).

What is important is that for the student to even give these intellectual problems their attention, they need to be in a relatively state of equilibrium in their physical and emotional worlds. 

In comparison to much of the world it is easy to assume our children come to school with their physical needs fairly satisfied.  Every night, on the ‘news’ you see children starving in areas of drought or in the many war zones.  It is easy to see how these children would be unable to learn such complex problems as solving our simultaneous equations, they just want to survive.  However, in every school there will be students who have missed their breakfast, are suffering an illness or believing that when they get home they will receive a belting from their father. 

Of course, bullying is a problem for all schools and if your student is the subject of a physical threat the resulting fear/stress will take their attention away from the lesson.  We can’t assume their physical needs are satisfied and if not, their attention will be on relieving this stress in preferences to studying maths.

A more likely distraction from the cognitive lesson would be a deficit in the student’s emotional world.  As mentioned above bullying is a potential stressor in the physical world but it is just as distracting in the child’s social world.  The fear of rejection is just as life threatening as a physical threat.  Studies have shown that the very same areas of the brain are activated when people are either physically threatened or socially excluded.  Just being a child is a tough time as it is the time children learn social behaviours and this learning is a result of their being stressed.  If this is occurring in the classroom, the student will focus on getting the emotional state back into equilibrium; the equations can wait. 

In secondary schools the drive to reproduce begins and that produces another set of ‘stressors’ that will distract students.

When you consider the number of possible distractions a child can experience it is no wonder teachers face a most complex task.  To address a lot of the physical and emotional problems an individual student may face is beyond the teacher’s capacity, they are faced with up to thirty of these individuals with all their experiences. In fact, in most cases they won’t even know these problems exist. 

When they are known, or the potential is understood schools can help.  For instance, the school can have, as many do a breakfast club to cater for those students who are hungry or to reduce levels of bullying provide a strong, effective school anti-bullying policy. 

But, the thing the teacher and the school can do is provide an environment that is supportive and reliable, one of the most important factors of a successful classroom or school is the level of trust.  When students are at school, in a classroom where they are safe and secure they, and us teachers have access to their cerebral cortex and together complex learning can take place. 

Our newsletters, in the blog and our books are predominantly about building such an environment.

Posted by: AT 11:11 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
Monday, March 04 2019

A Timely Reminder

The recent imprisonment of George Pell has focused our attention on the evil abuse suffered at the hands of those whom children should trust.  The atrocious revelations, uncovered by Julia Gillard’s Royal Commission and reported across the globe, confirms the magnitude of this appalling cruelty.  Unfortunately, the numbers of children damaged by a range of secular and non-secular organisations is most likely to be exceeded by those children who are abused those who they are programed to trust - their families and friends of those families.

Any attempt to quantify the numbers is at best an estimation as so many of the victims never disclose their history.  Although estimates of the numbers differ it seems to be between 15% to 43% of children will experience a traumatic event and up to 15% will develop PTSD.   This is an increase on the general view that, from 1% to 9% of the population suffer from PTSD.

The accuracy of these records is not relevant to this paper, they are just presented to give a sense of the magnitude of the numbers of kids who carry the wounds of their abuse or neglect.  These statistics indicate that in a school of 1000 students you could expect 10 – 90 students suffering PTSD.  So, in a class of 30 students you could expect between three to nine students who suffer from the injuries inflicted on them through abuse or neglect. 

Also, PTSD is not equally distributed across the landscape; in resource-poor suburbs up to 23% suffer PTSD (in the school mentioned above you would have 230 students with PTSD).  These figures are reflected in behavioural indicators in school systems.    The numbers of suspensions positively correlate with the socio-economic profile of a school as does the number of children referred to child protection agencies.

The high levels of stress suffered during these abusive episodes, if systematically repeated will damage the child’s brain leaving them with a permanent cognitive disability.  This includes:

  • Amygdala is increased in size – resulting in a hyper sensitivity to real or perceived danger
  • Hippocampus reported to have a 12% reduction in size – this is the area where memories are first created.
  • Prefrontal lobes are 20% smaller and have lesions on the surface – this is our executive part of the brain where all the considered decisions are made.
  • Cerebellum is reduced in size – this is an area of the brain that is intimately involved in all the coordination of thoughts and imagined outcomes for given situations.

They have also learned to behave in ways that may well have saved them in their dysfunctional environment, things like exaggerated anger, bullying or unhealthy compliance. 

However, the result of this cognitive damage and their dysfunctional behaviours have created a group of students who:

  • Have significant brain damage
  • Are vulnerable to elevated levels of threat
  • Have entrenched behaviours that repulse and threaten others
  • Have behaviours that push well-meaning people away
  • Have behaviours that damage the physical and psychological wellbeing of other members of their community

Having seen what abuse does to the child’s development it is no surprise that childhood PTSD is linked to almost every behavioural illness in the diagnostic manual (the DSM) used to diagnose psychiatric illnesses.  These include disorders whose symptoms create the difficulties for teachers:

  • Attention Deficit
  • Conduct Disorder
  • Oppositional Defiance
  • Dissociation
  • Anxiety
  • Depression

I can’t emphasise enough these children do not easily attract the compassion from society that those kids who become disabled through a developmental mishap or an accident attract, yet  their ‘injuries’ have been inflicted on them through the malevolent assaults of adults.  They are victims, not of ‘bad luck’ but a cruelty that has never been really identified or accepted by society.

The really difficult issue in dealing with these victims is to foster and maintain an empathetic relationship with these kids.  Beneath their severely dysfunctional behaviour is a child who is precious, special and unique.  When we accept this, we recognise them as victims of such cruelty.  Understanding this sustains our dedication when we are subjected to the very repellent behaviours we might face, particularly when we first encounter them in our classrooms.

Right now, the media is addressing the issue of child sexual abuse and appropriately there is an outcry about the abhorrent nature of this abuse and sympathy for the victims.  Unfortunately, the media will move on and this compassion for the victims will fade and we will return to the consistent position that these bad children should be punished.  The connection between the bad behaviour and the abusive history is forgotten.  But we are a professional teacher and we understand that these kids are victims and so we have a right to help them:

  • Achieve their sense of value
  • Exercise their right to take a place of equity in their communities
  • Access all opportunities that are available to others

It is tempting to make the case that these kids are more deserving of special support but that would be plain wrong; all our kids need all they need.  But, I would argue that these children whose dysfunctional behaviour that has been inflicted on them by adults do not receive the same support as other children with a disability.  This is a task that requires specialist training, resources to support teachers dealing with these children and a professional recognition of the special skills required.  Despite the difficulty in providing the appropriate programs there is promise that, with the proper interventions these children can make significant progress on overcoming their failings, an outcome not always available to children with more acknowledged disabilities.

This is a challenge for all of society but a professional responsibility for us teachers; it’s hard, it’s not fair but addressing the needs of these ‘unpleasant’ children allows us to display those very qualities that make teaching the profession I am proud to be associated with.

Posted by: AT 04:25 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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