Category Archives: psychology

true confessions of an introvert

English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d...
English: Albert Einstein Français : Portrait d’Albert Einstein (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I am a horse for a single harness, not cut out for tandem or teamwork…for well I know that in order to attain any definite goal, it is imperative that one person do the thinking and the commanding.”

Albert Einstein

First of all, I’m no Einstein, but we do have some things in common.  For example I don’t like to worry about what I wear to work (apparently, and probably apocryphally, Einstein didn’t like to waste valuable thinking time on wardrobe decisions).  Also, we are both INTPs (according to most MBTI-type websites).  For those of you who don’t know about MBTI, there is something called a  Briggs Myers Personality Indicator which categories people into 16 personality types.  I stands for Introverted, and if Jungian archetypes are to be believed, everyone is either an introvert or an extrovert.  In other words, roughly half of the world’s population is introverted.

Introversion, as I understand it means looking inward, rather than outwards.  Introverts prefer quiet places to noisy places, prefer the company of a few rather than the company of many, they need to recharge their batteries with quiet walks, reading books, etc.  Extroverts like meeting new people, doing noisy and exciting things like going to parties and nightclubs, they get their energy from other people (a bit like vampires).  Introverts get their energy from themselves or from their close friends and relatives.

As Susan Cain says in her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a world that can’t stop talking“, introversion seems to carry a negative connotation these days – to some it means shyness, social awkwardness, even misanthropy, but it wasn’t always viewed so negatively.  In Steven Covey’s seminal book “7 habits of Highly Effective People” he describes the current obsession with personality over character.  We admire good looks, a winning smile, the ability to speak well in front of an audience; we are told to be assertive, confident and pro-active, qualities normally associated with extroversion.  In the past people were more concerned with character – stoicism, moral fortitude, and temperance, etc, qualities often more associated with introversion – think: the strong silent type, silence is golden, still waters run deep, etc.

The fashion these days seems to be that extroverted is better – open plan offices, brainstorming, motivational talks by people with great hair and beautiful white teeth, and team working, all favour extroverts.  It’s as if extroverts have taken over the world – they design our workspaces to suit their way of working, they measure people against competencies that come more naturally to extroverts, e.g. the ability to network, to work in groups, to share information, etc.  They rule the airwaves and occupy managerial positions (but apparently a large number of CEOs are actually introverts).  They must be stopped! (now I sound like David Icke).

Personally, I don’t much like working in groups and it’s not because I’m socially awkward, or shy, or behaviourally challenged.  I simply work better on my own most of the time.  I get more work done, more quickly.  I don’t like meetings.  Meetings are invariably an opportunity for the office gasbag to vent their spleen or for a manager to lay down the law – very rarely are meetings productive.  When I go to conferences I don’t want to walk around introducing myself to strangers, I prefer to cultivate one or two relationships with important contacts.  I think brainstorming is a waste of time, studies have shown that decision-making is best done  independently and then crowd-sourced, rather than getting everybody in a room to reach a consensus driven by one or two dominant actors.

When people get into groups they typically allow one or two people to dominate the discussion (usually the extroverts) and this somehow gets translated into a consensus view. This also happens in the classroom, the prevailing ELT pedagogy is based on Vygotskian ideas of socio-constructivism, i.e. we learn from each other, hence the preponderance of group activities in modern English language classrooms.  But do students actually like working in groups, or do they work in groups simply because their teacher tells them to?

There are all sorts of problems with forcing people to study or work in groups – it may well go against the grain for a lot of people.  Whenever I work in a group I find that I can’t speak as well, my ideas are not as forthcoming and I allow other people to lead the discussion.  My wife recently expressed a similar dissatisfaction with her training course bemoaning the fact that “we always work in groups.  It’s really hard. I have to compromise, or agree with something that I know is wrong, for the sake of group unity.”  And that says it all really.

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on the dangers of self-herding and the importance of lesson observations

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I guess we all know about the concept of herding; we follow trends, we try to keep up with the Joneses, we do things in a group that we’d never do if were are on our own, but have you heard of self-herding?  

According to Dan Ariely in “The Upside to Irrationality”, not only do we copy the behaviour of the people around us, but we also copy our own behavioural history.  In other words, if we do something in a situation which seems to work for us then we’ll remember it (or rather our subconscious will remember). We’ll then copy that behaviour in subsequent and similar situations, even if the behaviour is unhealthy or destructive.  

For example if I have an argument with my wife and I storm out the door, after 20 minutes or so I might feel better, but I’m pretty sure my wife is feeling shut out and possibly abandoned.  But I don’t remember how she felt, I only remember how I felt.  So the next time I have an argument, rationally I might think “last time I walked out the door, and that wasn’t very mature, so I’m going to speak in a calm and rational voice and listen carefully to my wife.”  When we are rational, we can slow things down and act on this kind of intelligence, but in a fight, who acts rationally?  In these situations we don’t rationalise, but act on instinct, so instead of talking calmly with my wife, I’m more likely to act on my behavioural instincts and do what seemed to work for me last time; walk out the door.

Generally, people don’t think before they act every single minute of the day, this would be impractical and possibly dangerous (don’t stop and think when you’re see a 10 ton truck hurtling towards you, for god’s sake). We survive in this world not because we are rational, but because we are irrational, we rely on our instincts and behavioural patterns, even when they are wrong.

In Malcolm Gladwell‘s book “Outliers” he seems to have found the secret to success.  If you want to be good at something you need to do it for 10,000 hours.  In studies of violin players, it was found that what separated the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, was the amount of hours they spent practicing, not necessarily because of their innate talent.  We can probably think of other domains where this is true  –  top tennis players spend inordinate amounts of time hitting a tennis ball back and forth, Bill Gates spent hours and hours laboriously programming computers, etc.  If you spend 10,000 hours doing something does it automatically make you good at it?  I’ve watched plenty of teachers with 10, 20 even 30 years of experience and I’ve watched teachers with no experience,  and I’ve yet to see any correlation between x number  of hours teaching and quality of teaching.

Which reminds me of the question ‘Have you got 1o years experience, or do you have one year’s experience repeated 10 times?  I think it’s quite possible for anyone in teaching to repeat their mistakes year on year, especially if we take into account our propensity for self-herding.  Teaching can be quite a solitary business in a sense.  Yes teachers spend lots of time with their students, so they don’t do things in a total vacuum, and good teachers will act on feedback from their students in order to develop their craft.  However, it is solitary in the sense that our peers, the people who know about teaching, don’t often watch us teach.  So it is very easy for us to fall back on the tried and tested, on our self-herding instinct.  

Being observed and observing others is really the only way to avoid self-herding, it’s all well and good reading books and doing research and undertaking your own professional development, no doubt these things are important, but again our irrationality tends to take over – we seek things which confirm our views, we read books which support our arguments and justify our behaviour.  Reflection tasks are useful in the sense that you think about how you teach, but it’s really difficult to be objective about ourselves – we are very good at being blind to our weaknesses and we are very good at rationalising our choices, even when they are plainly wrong. 

Change means intervention – just ask any addict.  It’s incredibly hard to change oneself without an external agent to point out the flaws in our reasoning and behaviour.  Teachers need to observe and be observed in order to avoid the trap of repeating their one year’s experience for 10 or 20 or 30 years, if only to keep them sane. Watching other people teach is not a chore it’s a duty of care to your fellow professionals.

Getting teachers to observe each other (and be observed) isn’t easy and it requires a lot of support from educational institutions – if they truly care about teaching quality then they will give teachers time to observe each other and not expect them to undertake it in their own time. It should be part of the timetable, part of the ethos of a school. Any school which says it’s interested in teaching quality but doesn’t give its teachers a structured observation schedule is merely paying lip service to the idea of professional development.

If you ask most teachers why they don’t want to be observed, it’s because they don’t want to be evaluated or judged. It is not the observer’s role to pass judgement on the observee, it is their responsibility to provide data which the teacher can interpret for themselves. Observers and observees need to agree on the parameters of their observation, rather like an experiment in a lab. The more successful observations avoid value judgements and stick to observable facts, such as how did the teacher set up the task, what language did he/she use? Did she check her instructions? Did students look confused or do the wrong thing? Did the teacher interact with certain students more than others, How much student interaction was there in the lesson. How much time did the teacher spend at the board, sitting in is chair, talking to students, staring out the window? And so on.

Observation is a bit daunting, nobody really enjoys it, and you certainly shouldn’t be doing it all the time, but it is an incredibly powerful agent for change when done properly, just as it can be hurtful and damaging when done badly. Observers need structured and pre-arranged observation tasks that focus on observable data and avoid judgements. Those people who are paid to observe need proper training to avoid wreaking havoc on teacher’s fragile egos, and teachers and institutions that are serious about professional development need to have observations as an integral part of their teachers’ daily schedules.

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‘It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.’ Upton Sinclair (author of Oil! – the inspiration for There Will Be Blood)

I’ve heard this quote a lot, most recently in Dan Ariely’s “The Upside of Irrationality“.  He went to a meeting room full of bankers and told them that high bonuses might not increase performance, in fact they might even have an adverse effect on performance due to something called performance anxiety, i.e. that the knowledge of getting a big bonus will cause them to get nervous and make bad decisions.  Not surprisingly, Ariely’s comments were met with deafening silence 🙂

The implications of Ariely’s studies into the negative effects of overly high rewards certainly give further weight to the argument that bankers should not be awarding themselves massive bonuses for work which offers very little benefit to others.  Their argument that high bonuses (more money) increases performance and therefore their worth, is bullshit of the highest order, and is the same specious argument that priests used in the middle ages to justify their palaces and corpulent frames.

In fact the similarities between modern bankers and medieval priests is quite striking – both claim to be gatekeepers (to spiritual or financial heaven), to have special knowledge (of how to get into heaven), that we need them, more than they need us, that they have a secret language (latin and econometrics) and use arcane symbols to obfuscate their importance (catechisms and derivatives).  Bankers and Priests are both as useful as chocolate teapots.  But if you try telling this to your MP, forget it because “it’s difficult to get a man to understand…etc”

Those of you who’ve read Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell), will already be familiar with the Matthew Effect (the rich get richer), but for those of you who are not, let me give you an example – A couple have stopped off in a town they don’t know and they are hungry.  So they go looking for a restaurant.  They haven’t read any reviews and they don’t really know what they want to eat;  how do they make their choice?  They walk past 9 restaurants, all of which look quite empty, when they come to the 10th restaurant they see that the restaurant is half full and the people inside look fairly content.   Which one would you choose?  Most of us, I think, would instinctively choose the restaurant with people, we would use our system 1 thinking (Kahneman), to make an assumption – that this restaurant is better than the others.  But how many of those people in the restaurant made the same assumption as you.  Is this restaurant really so much better than the other 9?   This phenomena, also know as accumulate advantage, happens in many walks of life – it explains why cities like Seoul are growing at an exponential rate, (more jobs attract more people, which creates more jobs), it explains why facebook has one billion users and how Psy got so many you-tube hits (it surely can’t be because he’s a million times better than Radiohead,can it?).  In the case of the restaurant it might be that the “best” restaurant is slightly better than the others,  and this slight advantage is enough to start an avalanche.  

Nowhere is the Matthew Effect more visible or pertinent than in Seoul, and especially in Gangnam.  Until the 80s, nobody of note lived in Gangnam, its reclaimed swampland was decidedly not des res, but then the development came, and then the money, and then the nightclubs, plastic surgeons and hagwons.  Today, property in Gangnam is twice or three times as expensive as anywhere else in Seoul  and therefore some of the most expensive real estate in the world – it’s almost impossible for a “normal’ person to buy property here.

Now, those of you who know Seoul and have travelled around it, know that each district, or gu, looks very much like another one.  It can be quite disorienting when you travel on the subway to enter at one station (with its dunkin’ donuts and starbucks) and come up the escalator to find yourself in out almost identical locale half an hour later.  It’s not like New York or London with it’s distinct boroughs,  architectures and ghettoes.  The apartments in Gangnam are no bigger or better than in other districts.  Gangnam is near the river, granted, but have you been to the river?  So what’s the attraction?  Simply that other people want to live there?  When I ask Seoulites where they would most like to live, they often say, Gangnam and when pressed to say why, they don’t mention house prices (which are exorbitant), and they certainly don’t mention the beautiful architecture (there’s none to speak of in Seoul, unless you count the palaces).  No, the number one, and only reason is, they all want their kids to go to school there.

One of the most interesting things about my job as a teacher trainer working in Seoul is I get to visit English teachers teaching in the state schools.  I help them plan their lesson and then I come to their schools to observe their classes, to evaluate their teaching and to give them “constructive” feedback.  I’ve seen some great lessons in the 4 years that I’ve been working here and I’ve seen some real stinkers.  I’ve been all over Seoul and been to all sorts of schools.  But, just like the apartments, the restaurants and the cars, the schools are much of a muchness.  In fact I’ve been to some pretty grotty schools in Gangnam (and some really nice ones).  Teachers on the other hand, are much more diverse thanks to Korea’s progressive policy of moving teachers from post to post every 5 years.  I would guess that most teachers, given the choice would prefer to teach in Gangnam too, but they are not allowed to choose which school they teach in (as far as I understand it).  So how did Gangnam earn its reputation as the centre of educational excellence and why does everyone want to send their kids to school there?

I have to admit that the lessons I saw in Gangnam were “better” on average than in other districts.  But why?  If you take away the school and the teachers, what are you left with? The answer is straightforward enough –  the students.  Gangnam’s reputation for being the best place to be educated has nothing to do with education in the way we normally think of it.  It’s got to everything to do with the people sitting in the desks (staring out of the window) and with their affluent jet setting, middle class parents.  Future prime ministers, high court judges and CEOs, most of whom have spent some time in the US, Australia or the UK, study in Gangnam schools, a high proportion of these kids attend the prestigious SKY universities (Korean IVY league schools) and once a person graduates from one of these Korean Ivy League institutions, they, like their Oxbridge and Harvard cousins, are set for life.  This is accumulated advantage in action.  The rich get richer.

This is not fair, is it?  In fact it makes my blood boil.  Why should a person’s future be decided by something as arbitrary as a post (zip) code?  But what can we do about it?  The answer may lie with the internet.  If everybody attended a school in the cloud, wouldn’t that level the playing field?  One of the most inspiring TED talks I have heard is this year’s winner – Sugata Mitra.  You should check out the talk yourself

But if you don’t have time to watch it I will give a short summary – basically, he offered poor kids access to the internet and, with minimal supervision (or teaching), poor kids taught themselves how to use the computer, they taught themselves how to use English so that they could learn how to use the computer and access the internet and they used the internet to find out the answers to some very big questions such as what DNA is and why people live on Earth and not on other planets.   His SOLE initiative is truly inspiring and offers the very real possibility of education being accessible to everybody  regardless of where they live.  But there are rather large caveats to this utopian future  – firstly answering big questions such as why is grass green is not how intelligence is currently measured in standardized testing, so those kids unlocking the mysteries of the universe on the internet may lack the necessary skills (culturally acquired) to do well  in traditional forms of testing and fall behind their rote-learning friends.  Secondly, cloud learning requires some fairly sophisticated equipment, including a computer and internet access (but these things are very quickly becoming ubiquitous) and thirdly,  the internet , like everything else in this complicated life, is itself subject to the Matthew Effect, so the schools of the future might reside in the cloud but that cloud may well be owned by Oxbridge Harvard Inc.

“For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him”

English: The Language of Extremistan

In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book “The Black Swan” he talks about two very different worlds – Mediocristan and Extremistan.  We like to think that we live in Mediocristan where people are rational, where the future is predictable, where Gaussian bell curves can be used to plot out a safe and predictable future.  This is the world as we would like it to be, and where experts in a myriad of well-paid jobs, such as in the world of economics make their fortunes reading the tea leaves with their arcane financial instruments.  Unfortunately for us, however, we crave the knowable future – we pay good money to experts to tell us what the future holds t but as Taleb says in his book – an expert’s predictions about the future are no better on average than a cab driver’s.  The unknowable is terrifying, so we will happily plonk our life savings into that one sure thing because doing something is better than doing nothing.  Right?

Some numbers plainly belong in Mediocristan – we know that a person cannot be over 8 feet tall and we can safely predict that there won’t be any 8 feet tall people in the near future, certainly not 9 feet tall people.  But a lot of numbers belong in Extremistan – 20 years ago it was probably inconceivable that one person could have a personal wealth of billions of dollars (more than the wealth of some countries).  But whose to say that in 20 years time we might not have trillionaires buying up property in London?  Equally there may be a world revolution where all the wealth in the world is redistributed (a humanist’s dream).  Who knows?

This is also a world in which English is spoken by over half the population, a language which originated in a small wet island off the coast of Europe – English is a black swan – it is the language of Extremistan.  Those of us who work in the ELT industry are the fortunate benefactors of this black swan – it could as easily have been Spanish or Chinese that dominated the globe (and how many Latin teachers do you know?).  Those of us who teach children should beware of forecasting English as the future language of the world.

Millions of children around the world are currently being forced to learn an alien language and their parents (and politicians) are investing massive amounts of money in English language education policies, because it is currently the language of the world.  But let’s stop a minute and think about the forecasts they are making. They are supposing that in 10, 15, 20 years time the world will still be speaking English, hence the need to train kids to speak English.  But why pour all this money into kids now to see  it squandered in the future?  Why not spend it on the people who need it now?  Governments are currently falling over themselves to teach their 3 year olds to speak English – to what purpose?  Do 3 year olds need to speak English now?  Of course not, they are betting on an uncertain future where English will continue to expand (and they might be right) and that in 20 years time their country will be competing with other countries in an English speaking world.  But we don’t live in Mediocristan.  We cannot know the future.  We live in Extremistan.

We are also making a massive assumption about the language learning abilities of our children.  I’ve been to plenty of seminars and lectures telling me that children have elastic minds, that they are like sponges.  But I don’t subscribe to this idea of  “blank slate” style education.  I don’t think it’s reasonable or efficient to treat all children the same and assume that all children can or should learn languages, especially one specific language.  Asian culture is particularly susceptible to this blank slate way of thinking.  They hope that cram schools will stuff their children’s brains full of English which will be stored away until it is needed in a scary futuristic world where everybody is hyper- competitive and speaks only English – no parent wants their child to be left behind. And who fuels this fear? Anybody who makes money out of teaching children English has a vested interest in this fallacy, so don’t expect to hear your local hagwon owner telling you that they’re just a glorified baby sitter any time soon.

We now know that brains aren’t empty vessels and not all brains are equal (if you don’t believe me I advise you to read some of Steven Pinker’s work) – some brains respond well to mathematics, some are artistic,some are particularly sensitive to language and some are, lets face it, more cut out for cleaning toilets, beating panels or teaching P.E.  Not all brains are built to sit (or run) through hour long lessons with a jolly English teacher and a story book.

When I moved from teaching to training  I spent 4 years observing English being taught in state schools in Korea.  I’ve sat at the back of over 100 lessons watching young children being taught English in Elementary, Middle and High Schools.  Some of those lessons were inspiring, some of them truly dreadful, but in all of them there were kids who simply didn’t want to study English.  I could read it in their body language (slumped over the desk), I could see it in their inactivity and i could hear it in their obstinate determination to talk to each other in own language.  The absurdity of watching a big Korean person telling lots of small Korean people to talk to each other in a funny foreign language,  was at times, overwhelming –  I helped where I could, with better classroom management, with more interesting activities, etc.  I hope that those kids enjoy their student-centred lessons a bit more, but I won’t lose sleep worrying about whether they’re learning English more effectively.

I’d like to end this post with a positive – I don’t have the same feeling of powerlessness when I teach or watch classes of adults.  I see people whose brains have developed cognitively and who can process a second language.  I see people who can make a conscious choice about what they learn, who are learning English for a reason they understand.  I can see the results of their learning, but I can also tell an adult to stop wasting his time, that he will never learn English.  I prefer a “just in time” approach to teaching and learning rather than a “just in case” approach, because it’s more practical and less wasteful, because I’m sceptical about the future.  

Remember – we live in Extremistan, where anything is possible and the future is unknowable – let’s invest in the here and now rather than put all our eggs in one future basket.  Lets teach the adults and let the children play, while they can.