I am not your spirit guide: the intoxicating narratives of teaching

Earlier in the week this Slate article, loftily entitled ‘Spirit Guides’, ricocheted through my timeline.  Putting aside some of its more ‘interesting’ touches – ‘[t]he mind has “hands”‘ (huh?); its use of a moment from fiction as exemplar; its paraphrasing of Socrates on student-teacher relationships (!) – the piece attempts to take the well-travelled path of presenting the teacher as something more than a teacher: the mentor, the parental figure, the titular spirit guide.

Oh Captain! My Captain!

It is a time-honoured and usually very convincing vision of a teacher, so quite how the article fails to stir the emotions of the reader-teacher and have us ripping up textbooks is a feat in and of itself. Perhaps it is the seemingly conflicting ideas presented in the same argument – ‘a genuine teacher teaches students, not courses’; ‘”The teacher, that professional amateur teaches not so much his subject as himself.”‘ Or maybe it is just the downright silliness of some of the views presented: ‘”If a professor didn’t mention something personal at least a single time—a reference to a child, an anecdote about a colleague—then it was a pretty good bet that I had nothing to learn from him.”‘

But where that article fails, the image of the teacher as avuncular genie or fairy godmother endures elsewhere. In books, television and the movies, the trope of teacher as more-than-just-a-teacher is ubiquitous.

I wouldn’t argue against the suggestion that teachers are often inspirers, mentors, or even parental figures by proxy. And, as the article suggests in its bland finale I’m certain that teachers do change many of their pupils’ lives.

But the problem with these pervasive grand narratives of teaching is that there is a suggestion that we should do this – or at the very least a consequence that we do try to do this – by design. That is to say that we are compelled to exert much of our effort in trying to be more-than-just-a-teacher. Indeed, that seems to be what the Slate article is suggesting.

And that, I think, is wrong. I think it is vitally important that, whilst surrounded by the eddying current of all these intoxicating narratives, we avoid getting carried away by them and we focus our efforts on being a teacher. Just a teacher.

Because being just a teacher is what we can do for every pupil. It is the most we will ever be to the most of our pupils. And it is tangible. Unlike being a muse or an angel or a guardian spirit, it is what we are trained to do and it is an area where we have at least some knowledge of what is required of us. Whilst the Hollywood narratives are thrilling and bewitching, they take us away from what we really are.

So be a teacher. Just a teacher. And I think you’ll find that, in being a teacher – in teaching and imparting knowledge – pupils might find their mentor, their inspiration, their spirit guide.

Why I think selling resources to teachers is wrong

Shut up and take my money

This is just a quick post in response to a brief discussion I had earlier.

After seeing a new website that was charging around £8 for a 31-slide Powerpoint and a few worksheets, I tweeted this:

A few people tweeted agreement. A couple of people defended the selling of resources to teachers and questioned why I felt this way. Here’s why:

1. It is generally teachers that pay for these out of their own money, not schools. If anyone wants to suggest that it isn’t, then why do these companies sell individual accounts and pay-as-you-go schemes? Teachers spend enough of their money on things like: subject knowledge books, teaching practice books, stationery, printing, class rewards, etc. (I’m sure you can all add plenty of things to this list). Charging them for things they could and should get for free is just exploiting their commitment to their job.

2. If the resources were produced by a jobbing teacher for their classes, the teacher has technically been paid for producing them. And as the state has paid for them, I feel uneasy that they are making extra income from selling them to somebody else working for the state. Why not just sell the pens out of the department stationery cupboard?

3. If the resources were produced specifically to be sold and not to be used in the creator’s classroom at all (i.e., by a business that solely produces resources), then it’s worth asking: are they selling something that has not been tried, tested and developed in a classroom first? How effective is that resource? New/desperate teachers might just assume it is worthwhile and spend money on it anyway. I’d also question the quality of a resource if the incentive for producing it is purely financial.

4. I don’t think there are many off-the-peg resources that can be taken straight from a third party to one’s classroom. Teachers will spend time developing and altering it to suit the needs of their class. I think it is fair to question the quality of a resource that is produced for generic classes, rather than one that is produced for a specific class.

5. Obviously, one could level some of those last criticisms at resources from third parties that one can get for free. The difference is that with free resources one can pick and choose. When you pay for a resource, you have sunk costs into that resource  – this is a bias that means you will probably be committed to using it, no matter how good it is. I’ve written about the dangers of sunk costs and consistency before.

6. The resources we create are a product of everything we have learnt as teachers over our careers – they are, in part, ideas that we have picked up from other teachers. Nothing is entirely original. If I were to sell a resource, I may have put the effort into typing up the slideshow or worksheet, but the ideas are partly made up of things I’ve picked up from others. I’d be profiting from something that was given freely to me. Again, that makes me uneasy.

7. Why not just be kind? What you give someone else will benefit other classes – classes the other side of the country, maybe the other side of the world. Even if altruism isn’t enough, what about the reward that your reach as a teacher is even greater than the walls of your own classroom? Doesn’t that give off a lovely glow to bathe in?

Please note that this is what my opinion. You may disagree entirely. I am merely responding to those questioning why I feel this way.

The key to good CPD? Inconsistency

“Americans don’t really have opinions. What we have is bumper stickers. Once you’ve committed to a bumper sticker, there’s no changing your mind then.”

Rich Hall, comedian

Furby, Buzz Lightyear, Tickle Me Elmo. What have they all got in common? Yes, they are all toys (not that kind of toy, tsh). What else do they have in common? Well, along with Star Wars figures, Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, Nintendo game cartridges, Tracy Island playsets, Xbox 360, Playstation 2 and a whole host of others, they are all massively popular toys that have found themselves with a supply shortage at Christmas.

Wild scenes at the release of the Michael Gove's autobiography.
Wild scenes at the release of Michael Gove’s autobiography.

This happens almost every year: a toy or game is deemed the number one most desirable ‘must-have’ present for kids at Christmas only for it to be in very short supply, meaning that thousands of children have to go without it over the festive season.

So surely toy companies would learn from these mistakes and ensure that they are fully stocked for Christmas? Why has this been same phenomenon been happening for decades?

Psychologist Robert Cialdini (yep, him again) has a friend who worked in the toy industry who gave him an explanation for this. The explanation is based on the idea that there is a huge lull in sales during the first quarter of the year as people had already spent their toy budgets during the Christmas boom. Despite investing financially in extra advertising or dropping prices, toy companies found that this slump persisted. So the companies came up with another approach. An approach which cost them nothing.

The theory goes that companies advertise these must-have toys in the run-up to Christmas. Kids then nag their parents for these toys and parents promise that they will get them in their stockings. Companies then undersupply the toys to the market and so parents, facing an upset child as they can’t follow through on their promise, buy toys or games of equal value.

The companies then advertise the must-have toys again after Christmas, during the first quarter sales slump. The kids see these ads, remember the promises made to them, and go back to their parents citing those earlier covenants. The parents then go back to the shops and buy the original must-have toy that they promised their children. A toy which is now, funnily enough, in plentiful supply. This theory means that the toy companies double their profits.

Now this story is repeated in Cialdini’s book, ‘Influence: Science and Practice’, as an anecdote from somebody who used to work in the toy industry. Regardless of whether we believe it or not, the idea behind it is based on something interesting: the consistency principle. This is the idea that we have an innate drive to be  – and to appear to be – consistent with our prior behaviour or beliefs. So, in the case of the toy companies, they are tapping into the human desire of the parents to be consistent with their earlier commitment to buy the toy. They know that a large number of the parents will be consistent with a decision they had made earlier.

There are a number of studies where the power of this principle has been shown. An interesting one cited by Cialdini is a 1968 study by Knox and Inkster that noted how people at horse races are more confident of their horses’ chances of winning just after placing the bets than they are immediately before. Despite nothing changing in the horses’ chances, the consistency principle ensures that the gamblers have convinced themselves that their decision is the right one and so feel better about it. This is a close cousin of the sunk cost fallacy, which I wrote about here.

Now consistency is largely seen as a desirable trait, which is difficult to argue with – as Cialdini acknowledges, “[w]ithout it our lives would be difficult, erratic, and disjointed”. But he also notes that, whilst “it is so typically in our best interests to be consistent, we fall into the habit of being automatically consistent even in situations where it is not the sensible way to be.”

One of the reasons consistency appeals to us is that once we have made a decision, if we stay consistent to that decision we don’t have to think too hard anymore. And as Daniel Willingham points out, “our brains are designed not for thought but for the avoidance of thought.” So consistency is a useful shortcut to stop us from having to think too much.

Rodin's most famous sculpture, 'At the End of  the CPD Day' (1880).
Rodin’s most famous sculpture, ‘At the End of the CPD Day’ (1880).

The other reason Cialdini cites for being consistent is that, sometimes, we just don’t want to face the reality of what may happen if we think differently: consistency is “a safe hiding place from troubling realisations: Sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.” In this way, consistency can be seen as harmful to our best interests: we eschew something that may be helpful, or indeed truthful, and fall back into the safety net of our consistent beliefs.

I quite often discuss subjects such as edtech and SOLO taxonomy and, in debating it, it may seem that my sceptical position on the value of both of these is quite consistent. Unmoving, even.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth. My beliefs on these two issues are entirely inconsistent with my prior positions. I have, in the past, been a torch-carrier for iPads in the classroom, opening up my classroom for many to observe the use of these and other new technologies. Furthermore, I actually delivered sessions on new technology in education for four years on a university ITT course for both primary and secondary trainees. My position on the value of new technologies in the classroom has shifted considerably over the past few years, but it is a position that shifted through the spectrum. I don’t hold my position as a sceptic through a lack of experience or through Luddism. Largely, the shift is down to an understanding of opportunity cost, alongside facing a poverty of evidence.

Likewise, I also read heavily on SOLO taxonomy and put my ideas together for about 6 months before applying them to the classroom. I then spent about two years experimenting with SOLO in the classroom, during which time I led a school improvement group which trialled its use. Again, my position on SOLO has developed to one of scepticism. This is largely because of the value it places on ‘thinking skills’ over and above knowledge. As knowledge is the third stage in the hierarchy, I have reservations of how important both pupils and teachers see knowledge in the learning process. These are reservations I noted over many months of seeing teachers and pupils approach the process.

The reason I chose to look specifically at edtech and SOLO is that they seem to be areas where automatic consistency is prevalent. As in the opening quote from Rich Hall, SOLO enthusiasts often have the bumper sticker of their beliefs in their Twitter bios. Likewise, I don’t know how someone can be objective about the use of iPads in the classroom if they include an Apple symbol in their online username. With these sorts of behaviours, automatic consistency is so pervasive that challenging such a belief is often akin to challenging someone’s faith.

David Didau recently wrote a defence of how some of his views have changed, in the face of accusations that he somehow lacked conviction by changing his mind. Likewise, plenty of my views are entirely inconsistent with what I thought about them just a few years ago. I don’t think such development of thought needs defending, but the fact that it does is entirely compatible with our default nature to see consistency as the desirable trait.

The fact is that by eschewing the drive to be consistent, my thinking and practice has developed in ways that it wouldn’t have had I just stuck to a consistent position  – and that goes for many areas of pedagogy, not just edtech and SOLO.

So my advice for great professional development is: be aware of your drive to be consistent and don’t be afraid to be inconsistent at any time. Inconsistency can – and does – bring about real development.

And, by the way, I reserve the right to think that this is a terrible approach at any time in the future.


Bibliography:

‘Influence: Science and Practice’ by Robert B. Cialdini

‘Why Don’t Students Like School?’ by Daniel Willingham

Inspector who? What to make of Ofsted’s latest regeneration

Lada Riva advertHere’s something you can try at  home:

Take three deep bowls (each large enough to immerse your hands in). Fill one with cold water, one with water at room temperature, and fill the final one with hot water. Place them in front of you in a row, with the bowl of room temperature water in the centre. Now place one hand in the bowl of cold water and one hand in the bowl of hot water and leave them for about 20-30 seconds. Take your hands out and quickly  place both in the room temperature water. Interesting, eh?

Now let’s stop pretending that you actually did all of that (but kudos to anyone who did: you’re in my fraternity now – I’d show you the handshake but, you know, you have wet hands). The sensation that one feels when placing both hands in the room temperature water is that the hand that was in the cold water first now feels as if it is in hot water, and the hand that was in hot water now feels as if it is in cold water.

This is called perceptual contrast – the idea that our perception of something is affected by the context in which it is placed. In this instance – as in most examples – by presenting two different things directly after one another, our perception of the second thing is altered. It’s a form of anchoring, which I wrote a little about here.

This phenomenon isn’t just present as a physical sensation – it also works psychologically. You will have seen lots of optical illusions like the one below. They basically work on the same principle – we perceive the contrast between the two orange circles to be greater than they are. In fact, as your relentless experience of this type of trick has probably told you, the two orange circles are actually the same size. It is the context that makes you perceive the contrast.

Which of these two orange circles is bigger?
Which of these orange circles is largest of the two?

But where perceptual contrast really comes into its own is in the world of retail as, in the words of psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, a “weapon of influence”. In his book ‘Influence: Science and Practice’, Cialdini refers to how both clothing retailers and car dealers use perceptual contrast to make more sales. He writes:

Suppose a man enters a fashionable men’s store and says that he wants to buy a three-piece suit and a sweater… Clothing stores instruct their sales personnel to sell the costly item first. Common sense might suggest the reverse: If a man has just spent a lot of money to purchase a suit, he may be reluctant to spend very much more on the purchase of a sweater; but the clothiers know better. They behave in accordance with what the contrast principle would suggest: Sell the suit first, because when it comes time to look at sweaters, even expensive ones, their prices will not seem as high in comparison. The same principle applies to a man who wishes to buy the accessories (shirt, shoes, belt) to go along with his new suit. Contrary to the commonsense view, the evidence supports the contrast-principle prediction.

The same principle is applied to car sales. Quite often you’ll see an advert for an ‘on the road’ price of a car. Once you’ve acquiesced to pay this price for a car, the dealer will offer you add-ons. After you’ve spent thousands on a new car, a few hundred on some added flashes and gadgets seem trivial and you are more likely to pay for these. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve paid for add-ons to expensive purchases that I’ve made.

This ‘weapon’ is also prevalent in restaurant menu design. Menu Engineer (‘Mengineer’?) Gregg Rapp talks about how he places expensive items on menus as decoys to make other items seem more reasonable. See him expose his tricks in this video (skip to around 2mins for his use of perceptual contrast):

It is with this phenomenon in mind that I think we should have reservations in our reception of Ofsted’s revised school inspection handbook, released this week.

After years of campaigning for Ofsted reform (by the way, that is a brilliant list of blogs compiled by de facto Chief Librarian of the campaign, Joe Kirby), the Rebel Alliance, led by legendary master Old Andrew Kenobi and flaxen maverick Jedi hero David Didau have recently begun to engage the inspectorate in dialogue. This has resulted in reiterations of policy and rewrites of the handbook, culminating in this week’s revised guidance.

"You're my only hope." Deep in the BlogCave, David and Andrew receive a holographic message from new EdSec Nicky Morgan.
“You’re my only hope.” Deep in the BlogCave, David and Andrew receive a holographic message from new EdSec Nicky Morgan.

The revisions have been received quite warmly – who could complain about the reiterations that inspectors – and I might be paraphrasing here – “definitely 110% guaranteed-or-your-money-back won’t be grading individual lesson observations, oh no siree, Bob, not this time and you can take that to the bank”?

But is it enough? Are we in danger of accepting this Gallifreyan regeneration of the inspectorate because, well, it’s a bit different to the last one and the perceptual contrast means we see that difference as greater than it actually is? Is this a reboot or is it just a shot-for-shot remake with a different cast? I must admit, I think that the differences between this revision and the last aren’t as great as I’d expected them to be.

It’s really important that we look at the inspection process from September in isolation and not in the context of the last few years. It doesn’t matter if it is better than what we had before – perceptual contrast has no actual value. What we should be asking is, just as the relentless bloggers have been asking all this time, is this incarnation fit for purpose? Is this incarnation actually right? I’m not sure that it is… yet.

So let’s take up Joe Kirby’s rallying call:

Now, above all, is the time to keep up the pressure. The education blogosphere is organising. We, the teachers, are reclaiming our profession. The momentum is rising. The next campaign target is to stop Ofsted grading teaching altogether.

If we sustain it, radical reform of the inspection regime is within reach.

Now, go and dry your hands.


Bibliography:

‘Influence: Science and Practice’ by Robert B. Cialdini

 

An art history of school inspections

School inspections have long been an important subject for artists, and depictions of such inspections have been noted in the hieroglyphs of the Ancient Egyptians as well as the friezes of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. In this post, I would like to retell the story of school inspections through the works of the great artists from the latter half of the last millennium.

Perhaps no other painter has captured the essence of an inspection quite as faithfully as did Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Brueghel the Elder in the 16th century. One of his most famous works is ‘The Staffroom After “The Call”‘ (1550):

'The Staffroom After "The Call"' (1550) by Pieter Brueghel
‘The Staffroom After “The Call”‘ (1550) by Pieter Brueghel

In this painting, we see how some of the younger, less experienced members of staff have to restrain those that remember the school’s last inspection. It is also interesting to note that some of the members of staff take a more practical approach to the inspection by hiding or – more creatively – stripping down, putting their underwear on their head and defecating in the corner in an act of feigned illness.

Pieter Brueghel (1566)
‘Direct Instruction’ (1566) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder

This later painting (above) by Brueghel depicts the moment when the lead inspector (far right foreground, light blue smock) informs the headteacher (dark smock, looking perturbed) that John the Baptist’s lesson has had far too much ‘preacher talk’ and not enough group work.

Interestingly, when this work was reproduced (below) by Brueghel’s son some time later, the bearded man – facing away from the preacher, in the centre foreground – was removed. According to documents attributed to Brueghel the Younger, he and other disruptive members of the group were taken to Olde Thorpe Parke for that version of the painting.

Reproduction by Pieter Brueghel the Younger (after 1616)
Reproduction (after 1616) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Brueghel the Younger also painted a reproduction of the work below, ‘Grading the Lesson Observation’ (1480) by Heironymus Bosch.

'Grading the Lesson Observation' (1580) by Hieronymus Bosch
‘Grading the Lesson Observation’ (1580) by Hieronymus Bosch

In this image, the inspector is giving feedback to the observed teacher, showing the teacher exactly how the grade is arrived at. Details about the methods of grading are sketchy, but we are led to believe it has something to with the inspector’s skilful legerdemain.

Bosch of course famously painted the classic ‘An Outstanding Three-Part Differentiated Lesson’ (1510), below.

'An Outstanding Three-Part Differentiated Lesson' (1510) by Heironymus Bosch
‘An Outstanding Three-Part Differentiated Lesson’ (1510) by Heironymus Bosch

Again, not much is known about this painting, but art historians largely agree that the number of differentiated tasks that can be seen in the triptych’s main central image total at least 58, and we know from the title that this was enough to warrant a grade of ‘outstanding’. Some experts have argued that the fact that a number of the pupils in the image seem passive would have certainly led to a lower grade, but others suggest that the sense of creativity and fun that the lesson depicts would have been enough to distract the inspector.

Whilst depictions of inspections are most prevalent in the Flemish Renaissance movement, there are certainly many other notable pieces of work from later years that touch on the inspection experiences of teachers and leaders.

One of my favourites is William Holman Hunt’s piece, ‘Boy, Am I Glad It’s You’ (1854), which brings to life the moment, during an inspection, that the classroom door opens mid-lesson and it turns out to be merely a friendly colleague.

'Boy, Am I Glad It's You' (1854) by William Holman Hunt
‘Boy, Am I Glad It’s You’ (1854) by William Holman Hunt

Another more subtle piece is Ramon Casas’ ‘Data Manager: 4am, Day Two’ (1895):

'Data Manager: 4am, Day Two' (1895)
‘Data Manager: 4am, Day Two’ (1895)

This image of the school’s data manager, spreadsheet in hand, exhausted across a seat in the staffroom at 4am is one of the most enduring images of a school inspection. Commentators often note that she isn’t sleeping, in fact her eyes are open and the ‘thousand yard stare’ she holds is one of “whimpering resignation” (Sister Wendy Beckett).

Into the early 20th century, and this wood carving by Eric Gill (below) shows the head and deputy head offering up biscuits to the lead inspector upon his arrival. Note from the insignia on the biscuits that these are premium heather honey and saffron macarons from Fortnum & Mason, not those biscuits that you all get in staff meetings.

'Refreshments for the Lead Inspector' 1915 by Eric Gill
‘Refreshments for the Lead Inspector’ (1915) by Eric Gill

School inspections have long been a motif in art movements that span cultures and eras. I hope that you have enjoyed looking at a few of my favourites.

Have you tried *NEW* Diamond Shreddies? (Life after ‘life after levels’)

ShreddiesI can picture it now: It’s September 2015 and the DfE, under the stewardship of the new Labour government, are preparing to relaunch National Curriculum Levels:

“Here are the suggested slogans for the relaunch material we are sending out to schools, Mr. Hunt. We’ve narrowed it down to one of these and you have final approval.”

“Great, Toby, what have we got? Let’s see… What’s this? ‘THEY’RE GR-R-REAT!’ Hm. I like it, but we’d have to lose the tiger…”

“Righto. ‘Lose the tiger’. Okay, Mr. Hunt. What about this one?”

“Hm. I’m not sure I get it. ‘Snap! Crackle! Pop!’…um, nope. I don’t really see…”

“That’s okay, Mr. Hunt. I didn’t really think… I… er, what about this one? Have you seen this one?”

“That’s it! That’s the one. That says everything we know people think about levels. It’s absolutely the reason why we are bringing them back: people love them; they just don’t realise that they love them. THIS is definitely the slogan we should use: ‘National Curriculum Levels – have you forgotten how good they taste?’ I love it!”

Of course people wouldn’t be silly enough to be resold back something that they didn’t think they wanted on the back of a rebranding. Would they? You’d be surprised.

In January 2008, the breakfast cereal Shreddies launched a new advertising campaign in Canada that resulted in a reportedly significant sales increase, and ensured the product continued to perform well for quite some time afterwards.

The reason for the spike in sales was this advertising campaign:

Brilliant/frightening, isn’t it? This is what Rory Sutherland (Vice-Chairman of international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, and Spectator columnist) tells us is “intangible added value” in his very entertaining 2009 TED Talk on the subject – a talk in which he refers to the Diamond Shreddies campaign. Sutherland asks:

“How many problems of life can be solved actually by tinkering with perception, rather than that tedious, hardworking and messy business of actually trying to change reality?”

Can't decide? Try the Combo Pack.
Can’t decide? Try the Combo Pack.

That is exactly what the Diamond Shreddies campaign does. It takes something, changes the perception of it, adds intangible value.

And that seems to be what is happening with many of the approaches to replacing curriculum levels that I read and talk to people about. I know people are actually making changes – re-writing descriptors, changing bands, etc., but what this seems to result in – in many cases – is just another version of curriculum levels.

In these cases, I think people’s perceptions of what they are using may have changed and as a result they see value in their model, but this may come purely as a result of the sunk cost fallacy: “we invested lots of time and effort into this, so it must be better than what we had before.” The important thing to do now is to ask ourselves, honestly: Is this better? Have we improved the previous model? And we should continue to rewrite, redefine, remodel until we know what we are doing isn’t just turning the current model on its side and calling it ‘new’.

Part of me wonders whether our reluctance to travel too far from levels is due to the discourse we use. Every model I see discussed is always presented in its relation to levels: the phrase ‘life after levels’ is used in almost every blog and tweet on the topic. Failing that, it’s ‘beyond levels’, ‘post-levels’, etc. Maybe it’s time to stop using the word ‘levels’ in our discourse and start referring to it as ‘assessment’, ‘KS1-3 assessment’ or ‘KS assessment’. As long as we keep using ‘levels’ in our language, everything we do is anchored to the National Curriculum Levels and we will never really sail too far from them.

We should ensure that we aren’t just adding intangible value to a model that already exists, a model that we scorned over for years and jeered at gleefully as it was evicted from the Big Brother house.

Alternatively, we could just embrace the idea of intangible added value and apply it to all that we do in education. Back to Rory Sutherland (“Normally, as an advertising man, I actually speak at TED Evil”): 

“So I was discussing this. And I actually went to the Marginal Revolution blog by Tyler Cowen. I don’t know if anybody knows it. Someone was actually suggesting that you can take this concept further, and actually produce placebo education. The point is that education doesn’t actually work by teaching you things. It actually works by giving you the impression that you’ve had a very good education, which gives you an insane sense of unwarranted self-confidence, which then makes you very, very successful in later life. So, welcome to Oxford, ladies and gentlemen.”

 

How to eat 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes (and why setting targets may hold back progress*)

Mustard Yellow BeltThis month, competitors at the height of their physical prowess came together to contest their sport’s most glittering and sought after prize.

No, I’m not talking about the World Cup in Brazil. And I don’t mean the Championships at Wimbledon. The event to which I refer is Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, New York.

Oh, you don’t think gorging oneself on junk food is a sport? Tell that to the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the governing body behind Major League Eating (MLE). And tell it to the international (read: mainly American; some Japanese) competitors who regular enter such prestigious circuit events as La Costeña “Feel the Heat” Jalapeño Eating Challenge, the National Buffalo Wing Festival (“wing fest”), and – probably the most perfect corporate partnership ever yoked – the Alka-Seltzer U.S. Open of Competitive Eating. Major League Eating There is an apocryphal tale that tells how Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest was first held in 1916, when four men held the competition to settle an argument over who was the most patriotic amongst them. It turned out that story was just a publicity stunt conceived in recent years, as the earliest records held for the contest begin in 1972, when the winner ate 14 hot dogs in 3½ minutes. The next few contests were held sporadically, but it has been held annually since 1978. In 1979, the competition became a 12 minute competition and the winner ate 19 hot dogs in that time. The winning number eaten each year fluctuated around that number for the next 22 years, and when the 86th Annual (in reality only the 26th – apparently apocryphal tales are enough to re-write history) Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest approached in 2001, the record stood at 25⅛ HDB (hot dogs and buns – yes, the sport even has its own technical initialisms).

So when a 23-year-old, 9 stone Japanese man called Takeru Kobayashi made his debut in the contest that year, nobody could have expected what would happen: Kobayashi ate 50 HDB, nearly doubling the previous record. 28-stone circuit celebrity Eric ‘Badlands’ Booker came second with a measly 26 HDB. Kobayashi went on to win the Mustard Yellow Belt (yup, really) and $10,000 prize for the next 5 years (until Joey Chestnut beat him in 2007, eating 66 HDB. Chestnut has won every year since.)

So how did Kobayashi smash the record? How did he go about eating more than the 25⅛ standard set the previous year?

Simple: he didn’t think about eating 25⅛ hot dogs and buns. He thought about eating one. That is that he thought about how he could eat one quickly. He didn’t care for setting a target – he just set about getting better at what he was doing. Kobayashi felt that the current record was an artificial barrier and disregarded it entirely. With that approach, taking one hot dog at a time, he doubled the previous record – a figure that hadn’t changed by more than a handful of hot dogs in 22 years.

Here is ‘Freakonomist’ Stephen Dubner talking about Kobayashi’s entire approach. The part that I want to think about is the idea of ‘false limits’, which he mentions around 5 minutes in to the video.

Perhaps the fixation that other competitors had with beating the standing record resulted in a form of anchoring? Anchoring is a cognitive bias whereby we tend to rely too heavily on a given starting point when making decisions. So were the other contestants in the hot dog eating contest relying heavily on the previous record and adjusting their limits around this? Were they being held back by anchoring themselves to what they thought was achievable rather than reaching their real potential?

The slippery concept of potential is something that schools hold a lot of stock in and Tom Bennett has written about it eloquently (as ever, the bloody talented sod) here. Tom’s approach to school targets is similar to many teachers I know: “to hell with them: I expect them all to get an A”. I agree wholeheartedly, but I also think that, despite this, the pupils and I also fall foul of the bias of anchoring. I am certain that I teach to the top end and aim for the A, but I am also aware that there are certain things that I do that anchor me to that target grade.

One of these behaviours of mine is obvious when I mark the work: I have the expectation that it is going to be around the target grade, and automatically look at that band in the assessment criteria. If I think it is a higher mark, I question my marking and offer it up for instant moderation from a plethora of colleagues (knowing they won’t be anchored by the target grade).

I wonder if many pupils also anchor themselves to the target grade, not realising that their potential stretches further than what the FFT  or suchlike says is probable? Thinking through Kobayashi’s approach to realising potential, I wonder whether we might try a different approach to target setting. Rather than setting targets for what they might achieve by the end of the key stage, could we set targets as to what they need to achieve next? And when they achieve that target, they move on to the next target. So if you are working at a D grade, your target is to work at a C grade. When you break through that C grade target, your target then becomes a B. Would pupils work harder knowing their next target is actually within reach? Would the momentum of achievement carry pupils to realise potential beyond the targets which would normally be set for them? Perhaps. It may be worth trying.

Certainly in the case of competitive eaters, setting end targets was detrimental to realising true potential. Once the contestants in the hot dog eating contests began adopting Kobayashi’s approach of taking the challenge one step at a time, they began setting new records too. The current record is 69 HDB in 10 minutes. As Kobayashi says:

“I think the thing about human beings is that they make a limit in their mind of what their potential is. They decide I’ve been told this, or this is what society tells me, or they’ve been made to believe something. If every human being actually threw away those thoughts and they actually did use [my] method of thinking to everything, the potential of human beings is great, it’s huge, compared to what they actually think of themselves.”

So is setting a target actually accepting a limit? Can we learn a lesson from Kobayashi,  a lesson that is about refusing to accept limits and to see targets as false barriers?

I’d be interested to see if anyone has any different approaches to target setting. Or competitive hot dog eating, for that matter. $10,000 would be a nice summer bonus.

*obviously I am not against target-setting per se, this is more about looking at different approaches to it.


For more on anchoring and adjustment, see: ‘Judgement under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases’ by Tversky and Kahneman (1974) For more on Takeru Kobayashi, see ‘Think Like a Freak: How to Think Smarter about Almost Everything’ by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2014) Think Like a Freak

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