On Wednesday I co-led a CPD (Continuing Professional Development) session at the primary school where I work four days a week with a colleague, Marie Ziane. The CPD was focused on what and how we can increase children’s – and our – learning through the use of formative assessment. The principal resource that we were using was a book called Active Learning through formative assessment by Shirley Clarke and in it she expertly suggests how we can utilise strategies that will increase learning.

Our mindset towards a task that we face is crucial in identifying the likelihood of our success in that task and it is with my coaching background that I was asked to co-lead the CPD at the school. I presented a fascinating piece of research into the reasons that boys and girls attribute to their success and failure in any given task. The research, while a little dated, appears to still hold weight. It was carried out in the 1970’s and 1980’s by Carol Dweck (1975), as well as by Weiner (1984) and also by Weiner, Heckhausen and Meyer (1972) and all of them came to the same conclusions:

  • boys generally attribute
    • success to ability
    • failure to a lack of effort
  • Girls generally attribute
    • success to effort
    • failure to a lack of ability

You can read more comment about Weiner’s, Meyer’s and Heckhausen’s findings in Human motivation By David C. McClelland on page 490-491. So, which sex has got it right? Is success down to ability or hard work? Is failure down to a lack of effort or a lack of ability? Congratulations, ladies:

It’s effort, not ability, that is by far the better attribute to employ in order to succeed and it’s a lack of effort, not ability, that’s the mindset to adopt when we fail.

Rewarding oneself for success is an interesting one too. I wrote about the dangers of relying upon extrinsic motivation, as that can often require a greater level of stimulus next time in order to receive the desired level of satisfaction: this is known as ‘Hedonistic Habituation’. A recent article in the Guardian, though identified where extrinsically rewarding can yield increased motivation and also where it doesn’t. Quoting from the article:

Take the financiers’ first line of defence, about the relationship between pay, targets and performance. In 2005, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, a regional branch of the US central bank, published a piece of research called Large Stakes and Big Mistakes. In it, a team of eminent behavioural economists reported on experiments they had conducted with American undergraduates. The students were offered money to tap a keyboard as fast as they possibly could, and also to add up some numbers.

When it came to the simple chore of hitting computer keys, bonuses worked a treat: the more cash on offer, the faster the undergraduates tapped. On the more complex task of doing maths, however, incentives served to worsen performance. “Tasks that involve only effort are likely to benefit from increased incentives,” wrote the economists. “While for tasks that include a cognitive component, there seems to be a level of incentive beyond which further increases can have detrimental effects on performance.”

It seems that where there is a cognitive element to the skill the satisfaction; indeed the creativity and level of performance is adversely affected by external reward after a certain point. What made me smile was their reason for writing the article in the first place. It challenged the validity of paying huge bonuses – they are huge, bankers, whatever you may say – in order to retain the staff and ‘reward’ them for their endeavours. Perhaps, the bankers might take a leaf (not literally of course; we don’t want to externally reward them, do we?!) out of the Federal Bank’s research and acknowledge that their huge salaries have affected their performance.

I can see the newspaper headlines now: Hugh salaries lead to a loss of performance!

Or quotes from city bankers: “The more you pay the worse I do. I’ll take more and I’ll do less.”

Unless of course the article was implying that there’s only effort involved in being a banker: no cognitive process skills are needed in which case huge salaries are justified. Somehow, I don’t think banking would like to be thought of as not requiring any cognitive skills!

It’s effort not external reward that should be what spurs us on to greater performance. It’s not so much: “What will you give me?” but “What will this give me?” to use a Powerchange question. The pleasure of knowing you’ve put a lot of effort into something you’ve achieved will be more satisfying in the long-term than extrinsic rewards. Unfortunately, the instant gratification afforded by a fat pay cheque is hard to resist, especially in the modern climate. However, if it takes our eye off the ball and standards drop markedly should we not do something about it and sort it out? In the light of that do you think the bankers who got us into the mess we’re in will heed this advice and take a pay cut in order to boast their creativity and performance, pay back the billions lost to the economy and in the loss of people’s jobs and ensure that the scant regard that they applied to investing with other people’s money will never happen again?

Is that a flying pig that I can see out of my window?…