Teacher stress & the perils of blogging for others – a parable.

In July I was asked by the Guardian to contribute a piece on teacher stress from a psychological perspective. I think it was given to me at the last minute and the original deadline of two weeks was then reduced to five days, meaning that I was working to a tight deadline for the first time since writing for the Guardian Teacher Network blog. One thing I knew was that writing about stress in teaching requires a very thick skin as, for some reason, once you begin to offer advice or explanations you are immediately set upon for not understanding the situation and, indeed, the comments section soon became a mixture of positive support and aggressive defense. To be honest I think I got off very lightly, perhaps because I’m still a fully functioning teacher rather than an educational consultant or ‘former’ teacher as many other contributors to the topic have been. Without being too critical of the profession, I often find many teachers are more content with telling other people how stressful the job is than trying to rectify the situation themselves.

In the end the deadline was met but it took another week for the piece to reach the blog. Strangely, a blog post I referenced in my piece from a headteacher in York was (re)-published in the Guardian a week before my piece on stress. The link was then erased from my blog post which appeared the following week. I’ve become used to editorial slicing and dicing over the past year or so but for some reason this irked me more the usual. I think that is was probably a combination of factors that annoyed me, including the chopping and changing of deadlines, the delay in publishing a piece I had to find extra time to complete and the publication of material that I had originally linked to (and the deletion of the aforementioned link).

So, as a kind of antidote to my irrational annoyance I have included the original post below. The Guardian version can be found here.

The psychology of stress and how teachers can manage it

(First published on the Guardian Teacher Network blog, 8 July 2013)

Despite much discussion concerning the nature of workplace stress, our jobs are getting more and not less stressful. While stress certainly isn’t unique to the teaching profession, working in schools does throw up a number of situations that are unique to education while the current climate of uncertainty and criticism further undermines the professionalism and confidence of many hard working teachers. Ofsted inspections, changes to pay and conditions and new appraisal systems all add to the feeling that we are far from in control. Identifying those things that we can control and those that we cannot could help to prevent daily hassles from becoming major problems – but we can’t do it on our own.

Stress is a natural biological response and back in the day when wild animals roamed freely and early humans spent much of their time hunting and gathering the body’s response to stress was vital for our survival. Stress allows our biological system to prepare itself to do something – either attack (fight) or run away (flight). Acute stress represents that immediate panic which drives the fight or flight response but if this stress continues we begin to suffer from a more chronic condition, this can not only impact on us psychologically but can also lower our immune system, making us more vulnerable to physical illness.

Psychologically, the stress we feel is often based on our individual perception of a situation and this is why some people appear to suffer more than others. American psychologist Julian Rotter describes this as our ‘locus of control’ or the extent to which an individual feels that they have control over a situation. Locus of control can be internal, in that we believe we have control over our lives, or external, where we believe that the environment controls events. Realistically most of us fall between these two dimensions but we may favour a particular one. Unfortunately, our locus of control is very difficult to change because it probably developed through a combination of genetics and early socialisation.

Some things we can influence more than others and quite often the trick is in identifying which is which and concentrating our efforts on the things we can actually do something about. Constantly striving for the elusive work-life balance can often increase these levels of stress and for some it might be more appropriate to abandon the quest altogether.

Sadly, many of the stress management techniques on offer simply aren’t practical in a school setting. There is little to suggest that any organisation that runs after hours yoga classes or adventure training days is contributing anything to the reduction of stress in any real terms – the main issue faced by teachers is workload and the work will still be there even after the yoga. While cognitive techniques like reframing the problem work for some people, others find that a more practical response is required. Similarly, stress management tends to treat the symptoms of stress rather than identifying and tackling its causes. More practical perhaps are what are called ‘daily uplifts’, those little treats we give ourselves at points during the day – everything from a five minute sit-down with a cup of tea to a ten minute walk at lunchtime.

If workload is the main reason for our levels of stress and anxiety then our efforts are best directed towards finding ways of taking control of it and making it more manageable. Reducing workload is easier said than done but remember that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness and there are many resources out there to lighten the load (for example, you can take the hassle out of lesson planning by using the 5-minute lesson plan). Getting involved with the growing number of teachers using Twitter for support and advice is also a simple and free way of discovering that you’re not alone.

The benefits (be they financial or in terms of academic achievement) of a healthy and happy school should be obvious to all and headteachers who are serious about long-term investment in their staff must play a major role in tackling stress through prevention rather than management. If a major cause for stress in the feeling that we are losing control, how can headteachers attempt to restore that sense of control? Involving staff in decisions that impact on them can help. Training and professional development is an area where teachers often feel they are wasting valuable time so consulting with staff about what they feel they need hands much of the control back. What about those meetings that appear to be scheduled for no good reason? If they are necessary, keep them brief; if they aren’t then find another way of getting the information to all relevant parties. Effective use of IT systems can ensure that banks of teaching resources are held centrally, reducing the possibility that staff are spending time producing resources that are already available. Small things are just as effective; individual praise for a job well done costs nothing but studies have found that the rewards are high. Those headteachers embarking on a school-wide wellbeing initiative could find a great deal of inspiration from this little gem written by John Tomsett, a headteacher from York.

Finally, remember that what we really need to understand in that successfully tackling stress isn’t just about individuals, it’s about the whole school – and this requires a serious combined initiative, not just another box to tick.

Posted in Psychology, Teaching. Tagged with , .

Computer Games – violence creator or cognitive enhancer?

It’s been some time now since psychologist Albert Bandura conducted his seminal work suggesting that children are heavily influenced by media violence by allowing young children to beat the living daylights out of an inflatable clown. Ever since (I suspect) parents, teachers and a host of politicians have been trying to blame violent behaviour on media exposure and as time and technology has moved on it’s no wonder that computer games have become a major target.

Research suggesting a correlation between virtual and real violence has always tended to be on the weak side (for no other reason that it’s correlational) – and as all my students know, correlation doesn’t (on its own) imply causation. Analogically, I know that I can get angry when playing computer games – but the games need not be violent. I also know that most of that aggression is the results of not being able to get the damn controls to do what I want them to. Psychologist Chris Ferguson sees no causation through the correlation and has pointed out that even though the volume of such games has increased significantly, teenage violence has not (in fact incidence of teen violence has decreased). Suggestions that tragedies like Sandy Hook are the result of the increase in violent computer games creates a smokescreen and prevents real investigation into why such things happen.

Recently attention has turned towards the benefits of computer games. Computer games might in fact enhance concentration and other cognitive skills such as visual perception and help the elderly to stave off the symptoms of dementia. Of course it’s early days yet and some remain dubious. Gary Stix has discussed much of this in his article in Scientific American and cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham has suggested that games designers and neuroscientists get together and try and formalise the research and innovation.

Once we get past the violent computer games = violence obsession we can actually begin to look at the evidence, rather than relying on our not-so-common sense. In the meantime I’ll be off playing Assassins Creed!

Posted in Education, Psychology. Tagged with , .

Guardian Blogs

I wrote a couple of posts for the Guardian Teacher Network blog recently on A-level psychology, looking at current issues from different perspectives:

Could this be the end of A-level psychology?

Teaching psychology in schools would encourage more girls into science (8th February, 2013)

Posted in Education, Psychology. Tagged with , .

A-level Psychology – More than just semantics.

In my recent blog post for the Guardian Teacher Network I suggested that psychology might be a good way to get girls back into science. I was immediately accused of attempting some kind of semantic shift, in that simply calling psychology a science would serve the desired purpose. This was, of course, never my argument, not only because I view psychology as both scientific and a science but also because I am well aware of the problems plagued by the subject at A-level.

What I would advocate is the design and implementation of a high quality science A-level (a topic discussed as far back as 2007 by Martin Conway and current BPS president Peter Banister). Indeed, since then the British Psychological Society and other ‘stakeholders’ have been investigating ways in which we could, at least, begin heading in the right direction. In 2010 I discussed some possibilities in the journal Psychology Teaching Review and others (far more qualified than I) have been involved in much of the same.

As I currently see it, problems surrounding all this can be divided into two interconnected issues: What goes on within A-level psychology and how external bodies view the subject.

Within psychology there remains a problem surrounding appropriately qualified teachers and the funding available (or rather not available) to train more. While many non-specialists are more than capable of teaching the subject (after all, there are many non-specialists teaching other subjects) this remains one of the criticisms leveled at psychology from the higher education sector (predominately from those institutions within the Russell Group) – in this way the internal factors spill over to the external ones. Of course this might also lead to inconsistencies between schools but, once again, many subjects suffer the same problem (I discussed these in my piece, Failing boys, failing psychology). Also, many so-called non-specialists might have been teaching the subject for many years and now consider themselves as specialists by experience.

Stakeholders aren’t ignoring it either. The BPS will shortly release their latest report on the future of A-level psychology and the Higher Education Academy have been in consultation with other parties including the Royal Statistical Society. While I still stick by my view that A-level psychology is in danger of extinction, I am pleased that so many are coming to it’s aid, but while some Russell Groups universities are supportive (York, for example) others are not. One anonymous individual left this comment on my Guardian blog:

As a member of a Russell group psychology department, I can say this: if we could, we would not admit any students with psychology A level.

A damning indictment indeed but not one shared by all universities (Russell Group or not). Nevertheless, if such an attitude does truly inhabit higher education then the need to resolve all these issues is more urgent than ever.

Posted in Education, Psychology. Tagged with , .

The Death of A-level Psychology

Psychology is the fourth most popular A-level in England; I’ve said that before in so many different places that you should all be aware of it by now. It’s also the most popular science subject and, unlike the other sciences, is a magnet for girls. In fact, more than 70% of the fifty-odd thousand A-level psychology candidates are female and it’s turned more girls onto science than any other subject.

It must be safe then, right? After all, it’s science and it’s popular.

Ah, but there’s a catch – and a massive one at that. The Russell Group of top UK universities don’t seem to think that much of A-level psychology. In fact, they’ve excluded it from their list of ‘facilitating subject’ (those subjects that are deemed important in order to study at the best universities). This means that the more academically able students are less like to choose it – not because psychology isn’t academic or rigorous (a number of studies have found it to be both) but because it’s not the ‘right type of science’.

I suspect that the ‘right type of science’ is one that doesn’t find itself constantly at the mercy of media confusion, misunderstanding and downright ignorance.

Psychology isn’t the glamorous blonde on the This Morning sofa discussing Big Brother or The Love Machine. It’s science. It’s what goes on in top universities and the National Health Service; it’s brain scanners and empirical investigations and all those things we associate with science. Psychologists investigate memory and learning, perceptual development, Alzheimer’s disease; they assess children in schools for learning difficulties, advise big business and care for the mentally ill.

Did I tell you that psychology is a science?

Oh yes it is. Unfortunately most schools don’t admit this, which is odd, seeing as so many of their students are studying it. You might find it in ‘Humanities’ or (if your lucky) the school will have a ‘Social Studies’ department (because psychology is just like sociology, right?).

The most recent announcement from a man whose only motivation is to be PM one day (that’s Michael Gove if the hint wasn’t obvious enough) is that AS level will be decoupled from the full A-level. Now, I have no idea how this will work but the problem with psychology is that most pupils won’t have studied psychology before. This makes them more likely to study AS psychology rather than the full A-level (just in case they don’t like it). Oh, and their parents will be busy encouraging them to take ‘proper’ (i.e. Russell Group facilitating) subjects. What teenager in their right mind would do a one-year AS in psychology and then spend another two years getting the full A-level (you could get a degree in that time)?

Now can you see the problem?

There is a great possibility that A-level psychology could vanish within the next five years (that’s my prediction). AS might hang around for a little bit longer but that too will die out like every other endangered specie. This would be a shame (not just because I’d lose my job). It would be a shame because it has so much to offer young people and has been so successful in getting them interested in science.

Am I being sensationalist?

Probably – but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Posted in Uncategorized.

Real learning in virtual worlds

The tide might be turning in the computer games debate. While some sections of the media continue to vilify computer games and blame them for everything from the London riots to cancer, there appears to beminecraft2 a growing number of studies that suggest many of these games can have a positive developmental impact on children, young people and even older adults through the enhancing of a number of cognitive skills such as attention, visual perception and control.

Contrary to media hype, the increase in aggressive tendencies in game players might be so small as to far outweigh the benefits. Suggestions that such online-based activities are actually re-wiring the brain have failed to produce any significant evidence and it is perhaps better to rely more on the evidence and less on the opinion.

Enter Minecraft

minecraftWhile the debate continues into the benefits and dangers of computer games, many educators are turning to them in an attempt to encourage and motivate students in disciplines as far apart as creative writing and physics. A growing number are now adopting the so-called ‘sandbox’ multiplayer game Minecraft, developed in Sweden by programmer Markus ‘Notch’ Persson. Minecraft allows players (either on their own or with groups of like-mined souls) to explore huge landscapes and provides them with blocks made from various materials that can be used to construct pretty much anything their imagination allows.

All this might sound a little tame when compared with the more conflict-based games but Minecraft has taken the world by storm – in 2012 the United Nations even began using it to aid in its regeneration projects. Now educators are getting in on the act by using the game to assist in everything from engaging boys to construction, engineering and physics. One school in Stockholm has even made Minecraft lessons compulsory in order to encourage children to develop thinking skills.

Design Tool

minecraft6-planeOne particular study saw researchers in Australia ask year 8 and 9 boys to design a low-energy, sustainable virtual city using the game. They found that the boys became engaged in the task because they saw it as authentic while also allowing them to work collaboratively in order to create something original. The fact that it was online encouraged them even further and made the task even more engaging. Meanwhile, a school in Auckland, New Zealand asked pupils to design their classrooms in the Minecraft virtual environment. Closer to home, some UK schools are using it to encourage reluctant writers to create imaginative context and content.

Games like Minecraft, therefore, allow learners to work creatively and collaboratively and become more engaged in the learning process. However, the use of Minecraft in learning doesn’t end here. The game also has the ability to teach young children about basic physics through the use of electricity conducting ‘redstone’; indeed, researchers in the United States have been incorporating Minecraft into the teaching of physics with interesting results.

Entry level coding?

Experienced players often turn to coding in order to produce ‘mods’ (short for modifications) that can alter many aspects of the play experience. Minecraft is therefore many young players’ first foray into programming, and with the computer games industry in the UK now so successful, children are teaching themselves valuable skills for the future that can only strengthen their employability.

Bringing computer games into the classroom is still controversial, especially if such things replace traditional methods. However, given that the world we now inhabit is so reliant on technology, using computer games as an adjunct to current methods can only bring rewards in the long-term. Neither are virtual worlds intended to replace the real world of outdoor activities and face-to-face social interaction.

Nevertheless, learning environments used creatively and constructively improve learning outcomes – whether those environments are real or virtual.

Posted in Education. Tagged with , , , .

The Rise of the Pop Psychologists

Apologies to the British Medical Journal for borrowing the title of their 2012 article. I thought it appropriate due to the similarity of this rant to the aforementioned BMJ piece.

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‘Psychologist’ Kenny

I was unfortunate enough to see Emma Kenny ‘psychologist’ on BBC Breakfast recently discussing the impact of month of birth on educational attainment. The suggestion is that those children born during the summer months are disadvantaged because they are developmentally behind many of their classmates (almost a year in some cases) and as a result they never really manage to catch up educationally. I certainly have no arguments with this – the extensive research seems to support the hypothesis in many ways.

My problem was the inclusion of Kenny in the discussion as an authority on children’s intellectual ability. Kenny is often seen on the TV, including appearances on BBC Breakfast, GMTV and Big Brother. She often appears as the resident ‘psychologist’ – the assumption being that she is qualified and trained in psychology. To be fair to Kenny, she has every right to call herself a ‘psychologist’ as it isn’t a protected title. In further defence of Kenny, she only states on her website that her qualifications are recognised by the British Psychological Society (BPS) and the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) – even though this represents a relatively empty statement.

Qualifications do not a psychologist make.

Most undergraduate degrees in the UK are recognised by the British Psychological Society and, as I understand it, Kenny has a psychology degree. To become a Chartered Psychologist requires more training and experience and those Chartered Psychologists who work with the public must also be registered with the Health Professions Council (HPC). Emma Kenny is neither a Chartered Psychologist nor HPC registered.

So how does this make her an expert? More specifically, how does this make her an expert who is qualified to speak on matters such as educational attainment (or anything else for that matter)?

And herein lies the problem.

Kenny isn’t the only self-styled celebrity psychologist. It seems that the media will readily drag anybody out in front of the cameras who calls themselves a psychologist – I used to put this down to ignorance on the part of the media outlet but now I think it’s just laziness.

The main issue for me is that the public face of psychology is actually the face of those who have the audacity to label themselves as such when they are clearly nothing of the sort. Luckily many of them (including Kenny) talk lots but say very little – so no real harm is done.

Who does get harmed?

Psychology gets harmed. The public will either get the wrong idea about psychology or grumble about how psychologists just “talk a load of crap”. It also harms me because my students get the wrong impression of psychology – and that pisses me off!

So next time you see a ‘psychologist’ on the TV, remember that they might not have anything to do with psychology.

Posted in Psychology. Tagged with , .

It might surprise you to know but…

Kids aren’t always tuned into technology. In fact getting my sixth formers to engage with anything even slightly tekkie is like trying to get Michael Gove to listen to teachers.

Take Twitter… I am a firm believer that twitter could be one of the most powerful tools in any teacher’s kitbag. What’s more, it’s social media – that one thing that teenagers just can’t get enough of. I could Tweet the latest research from the world of psychology, get them to tweet all the wonderful psychology stuff they find, engage them with witty and fun question and answer sessions, offer prizes for the strangest psychology-related link.

So I set up a Twitter account…

Two people followed, then another two (but they weren’t students). Eventually there was a tiny trickle of followers while I spent valuable time looking for things to entertain them with.

More followers (yay)… but not my students (boo).

Academic psychologists followed, sports psychologists, professional psychologists of all kinds, other school psychology departments, the local MP.

…But if success is measured on how well the tool serves the intended purpose, things were not looking too good.

I was crestfallen. This was supposed to revolutionise the way I engaged my students.

A asked them why they didn’t follow…

“We don’t like Twitter,” they replied.

“Oh.”

…Facebook, yes, all kids love Facebook…

I opened a psychology Facebook page and linked it to Twitter.

1 like… 2 likes… 3 likes (but not a student). The trickle slowed to a drip. To date the Facebook page has 8 likes (not all my students).

Is it that they see this as some kind invasion of their space? Am I the intruder into their world?

Or are they just lazy?

…And it’s not just social media.

I’ve recently decided that (for some work anyway) students should complete their essays on a word processor and email it to me. I can then comment, mark and return it without ever having to deal with (or lose!) a piece of paper.

“Can’t we just write it?”

“ I’d rather you didn’t”

“But I don’t like word processing stuff. I’d rather write it”.

…I was rapidly loosing the will to live.

There is common view that teenagers are excited about technology and will engage with it whenever it’s offered. What, I think, many of us in teaching fail to grasp is that they have all grown up with technology – to them it’s nothing special. In fact, most of it is ‘kinda boring’.

Those who use Twitter do so in order to chat to their friends. Likewise Facebook is simply a way to stay in touch (like us oldies used to write letters or speak on the telephone – the kind which is wired to a box on the wall). These things have nothing to do with education or learning.

…The older they get, the more they seem to turn off.

I’ve always been amazed at how little older teenagers know about technology. That might seem odd, but to them engaging with technology is about playing Assassins Creed, using social media or uploading and watching videos of exploding frogs on YouTube

…this isn’t really what we mean by “engaging with technology” is it?

Of course it might just be me (or the pupils and schools I’ve experienced) but somehow I doubt it.

Posted in Education. Tagged with , .

Oxford, the Internet, and Educational Disadvantage.

An Oxford University study claims that teenagers are being educationally disadvantaged because they don’t have access to the Internet. The study carried out by Dr Rebecca Eynon was based on a large-scaleScreen Shot 2013-01-02 at 23.56.09 study of over 1,000 households in the UK and included face-to-face interviews with more than 200 teenagers and their families between 2008 and 2011. The press release for the study is available on the Oxford University website under the heading “UK teenagers without the internet are ‘educationally disadvantaged’”. The piece was also covered by the Daily Mail under the headline “Teenagers who don’t have internet access at home are ‘missing out educationally and socially’”.

But the headline doesn’t fit the evidence.

Now, lets have a closer look at this. The claim is being made by the teenagers themselves who stated that they missed out because other pupils could conduct research for coursework at home while they could not. Others said that they missed out on socialising with their classmates because they couldn’t access MSN and other instant messaging and social networking. Of course many teachers would certainly argue against the latter comment, as pretty much every teenager seems to have social media access through smartphones and other devices.

The headline doesn’t in fact fit with the evidence. Teenagers ‘consider’ themselves to be disadvantaged and this in not the same as being disadvantaged. Conducting interviews with young people can be very problematic, as anybody involved in education will tell you, as the answers you get are often based on self-interest rather than for the benefit of research.

Oh, but there are books to sell.

The study itself, contained (hopefully) in more detail in Teenagers and Technology (published by Routledge this month), is perhaps a very well conducted and relevant piece of research – as one would expect from a university such as Oxford, despite the headline grabbing title of both the Oxford university piece and the Daily Mail article (presumably as a way of publicising the book).

Reluctant pupils.

I only wish my own students were so eager to use technology and social media in order to further their own education. Students (mine at least) are incredibly reluctant to use social media sites like Facebook and Twitter when associated with their schoolwork and, despite using both in my teaching, very few have engaged fully – if at all. The assumption appears to be that teenagers will embrace these strategies because their lives have become so dependent on them; however, many may see this as intruding on something that they feel belongs to them.

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Who’s Bright?

We’re all used to words such a ‘bright’ and ‘clever’ when it comes to describing those children who appear more academically able than others. By doing this we are all somehow assuming that we understand what is meant by such terms. Ultimately, by saying that a child is ‘bright’ we are buying into the concept of intelligence even though many of us are still unsure what we even mean by that.

So what exactly is intelligence?

Intelligence describes, in scientific terms, that fitness of our brain and nervous system, often concerned with the speed at which signals pass from one neuron to another. The faster this takes place, the more intelligent we are thought to be (intelligent people really are ‘quick thinkers’). This theory would suggest that if you were good at maths then you would also be good a verbal reasoning – and research appears to support this view. This evidence led psychologist Charles Spearman to offer up the view that intelligence can be measured in terms of g (that is, general intelligence) as skills in one area can be positively correlated with skills in another area.

Emmelyn Roettger joined Mensa when she was 2 years old.

Emmelyn Roettger joined Mensa when she was 2 years old.

How can we measure intelligence?

This can be a rather controversial area, as can the subject of innate intelligence itself. It was Sir Francis Galton who first proposed the idea of a genetic basis of intelligence and he would use a number of physiological measurements including hat size to ascertain how clever a person was (the suggestion being that the bigger the head the bigger the brain and, therefore, the more intelligent a person would be*). Galton suggested that intelligent people could be selectively bred, an idea that some US states really took to heart, resulting in the forced sterilisation of around 60,000 people of low intelligence during the 20th Century.

The first so-called intelligence quotient (or IQ) test was developed by Frenchman Alfred Binet who (thankfully) improved on Galton’s earlier work. Binet joined forces with Theodore Simon and in 1905 the Binet-Simon scale became the worlds first test of intelligence. Back in the UK, educational psychologist Sir Cyril Burt would adapt the Binet-Simon scale and utilise it in what became the 11+ exam, essentially the entrance exam for Grammar School (now generally defunct but still used to a degree in several UK towns and cities).

So what does IQ tell us?

IQ tests are reliable and consistent over time and the Wechsler tests used today have stood the test of time (although they are not used by Mensa). IQ is also pretty good at predicting academic success. The problem is that we know that intelligence (for want of a better word) isn’t only genetic (although twin studies suggest that much of it is). Other factors play their part from motivation to the ability to bounce back following failure. American psychologist Robert Sternberg has suggested that g is too narrow a measurement and has proposed a theory of ‘successful intelligence’, consisting of memory-analytic, creative and practical components. Daniel Goleman has introduced the idea of Emotional Intelligence, however, EI’s validity continues to be a subject of heated debate.

Ultimately, we can argue that IQ tests only measure a concept of intelligence of which IQ tests were designed to measure. Just because they are reliable and consistent this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are valid.

Do exams measure intelligence?

Exams measure that which they are designed to measure. However, they are more than just tests of memory as some have suggested (but not much more). Rather than measure intelligence, they can suggest the extent to which the exam-taker has used time efficiently, taken advice on board and worked hard. Memory does play a part but there are tricks and strategies that can be learned in order to overcome any deficiencies in this area. In the same way, some have suggested that IQ tests become easier the more times you take them and might disadvantage some ethnic, cultural and socio-economic groups.

So, in short, exams aren’t really a test of intelligence – they are test of something, but we need to understand that they are different kinds of measurements. IQ might suggest the ability to use information more efficiently but the exam itself is more about what you have committed to memory than any other arbitrary measurement. Working memory capacity can influence intelligence (and our ability to pass exams), which is why those with WM impairment often struggle at school.

So who’s ‘bright’?

Well, it depends on what you’re measuring. As teachers we use assessments to gauge if our pupils have remembered and understood the content. The results of these assessments can be to do with us (have we, as teachers, explained it adequately and allowed for activities that enhance learning and understanding? Have we kept the pupils on task, dealt with misbehaviour and so on?) But they can also be about them (have the pupils listened? Have they been distracted? Have they asked for clarification? Have they put in the effort?). Of course, disentangling the ‘about us’ and ‘about them’ is, in itself, complex but it goes to show the number of competing and contradictory elements involved in even the smallest classrooms.

I hate the term ‘bright’. It suggests that there is an innate intelligence that can be used to explain why some pupils get ten A* GCSE’s and others scrape through by the skin of their teeth. There is no guarantee that the former would score any more highly on an IQ test than the latter as they are measuring different things. So think carefully when next you describe a child as bright or clever – what exactly do you mean and what are the implications of describing them in such a way?

*Brain size is proportional to body size. Women, on average, are smaller and, therefore, have smaller brains.

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