Learned Hopelessness: challenging the notion of destiny

“Children’s lives to be worse in the future”, so read a headline following a recent Ipsos Mori survey where almost two-thirds of people believed the current generation of children will have a lower standard of living than their parents.

Such a headline chimed with something Professor Graham Donaldson, former senior chief HMI for Scotland, recently identified when he referred to one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education to be a young person’s perceived sense of ‘destiny’. It’s ironic that Graham should use such a word given its significance to Scottish History – to which, of course, I refer to our iconic ‘Stone of Destiny’. However, in Graham’s sense of the word it was not to be a hopeful, aspirational, or confident view of the future, but rather quite the opposite. In fact he was referring to a ‘hopeless’ view of the future, a future set out for you by dint of your socio-economic background, which – to our eternal shame – has more of an influence upon your educational outcomes and future than just about any other country in the developed world.

It was this notion of hopelessness that triggered for me a connection with what psychologist Martin Seligman termed to be ‘learned helplessness’. The idea refers to the phenomenon where a person’s sense of personal agency, to do and achieve things for themselves, is undermined by circumstances from which they cannot escape. Eventually the person gives up and accepts their situation regardless of the harm it may be causing them.

By linking Donaldson’s notion of a damaging destiny and Seligman’s concept of helplessness, I wonder if we are facing an even more pervasive limit to personal growth. I am referring here to the challenges facing all of our young people, regardless of socio-economic background, as a consequence of the global economic downturn. The concern here has to be that our next generation becomes so conditioned by circumstances to accept their “destiny” and in so doing fall victim to ‘learned hopelessness’.

Imagine the impact upon a generation of children and young people who come to accept that their future is hopeless and learn from their peers, their parents, the media, and society in general that their destiny is mapped out and that they cannot expect to experience the ‘happiness’ of previous generations.

Such an assumption might lead those of involved in education to conclude that whatever we do as teachers our young people are destined to have unhappy and unfulfilling lives, as their standard of living is going to be lower than our own generation.

However, such an assumption is based upon the premise that happiness is in direct proportion to one’s standard of living. If that was the case, it would have to follow that our parents were unhappier, than we are, and their parents, in turn, must have been unhappier than them and so and on, and so on.

In fact the evidence is quite the opposite with a 2009 OECD report showing that for most of the last 25 years, people born between the Great Depression and the end of World War II were more likely than early baby boomers to report being very happy.

It is surely the role of teachers then to challenge the orthodoxy that young people’s futures will be “worse”.   For what is teaching if not to plant a seed of hope in a future beyond our time? No successful teacher I have ever known has resigned themselves to believing that their efforts are not imbued by that sense of hope for the future. In fact that’s perhaps the single most defining factor between the teacher who goes through the motions of teaching, and the teacher who transforms the lives of young people by sharing their belief that anything is possible.

For it seems to me we have two choices. Firstly, we could sign up to the notions of despair and hopelessness, and accept that children’s lives will be worse, regardless of whatever action we take. Alternatively, we could believe, that our efforts will provide a foundation upon which a young person can find happiness from being absorbed in a personal interest; can be resilient and can cope with future challenges; lives a life of personal meaning by having a sense of belonging; and, has the wherewithal to accomplish their own personal goals. Above all we must recognise that a person’s happiness in the future will depend on their capacity to build and sustain social ties as part of a community, or even communities.

Surely such an inventory describes much of what we are attempting to achieve through Curriculum for Excellence. I know that most parents that I speak to, first and foremost want their children to have happy lives. At a time when we see students with five ‘A’ passes at Higher and First Class degrees struggling to make their way in the world it’s never been more important that we take a more rounded view of education in order to equip young people with the necessary skills and outlooks to face an uncertain future.

If then, we are to avoid “learned hopelessness” we need to ensure that we are not “teaching hopelessness”. In order to achieve that goal we would be well advised to learn from a small country such as Bhutan, whose strategy for promoting the national well being of their population is based upon their commitment to “Gross National Happiness”, or does such a notion fail to resonate with the Scottish psyche?



[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/YUcPPNprn-k" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

I watched one of my favourite films this evening. Kes made a big impact on me when I first saw this film as 13 year-old. I remember laughing and crying in equal measure and it's interesting to reflect upon how much it might have influenced me throughout my career.

As a former PE teacher and Head Teacher I'd like to think I didn't conform to these stereotypes - but perhaps I'm not best placed to judge.

Attachment Theory

 I’ll not kid on here – I first heard about attachment theory just a few months ago and then followed this up with a concrete example of it being put into practice at Lothian Villa.  What follows is my layman’s understanding of what it means and how we might benefit from it in East Lothian.

Ask a teacher or a school which learning theory governs their practice and they will be hard put to give a coherent reply.  Yet reflect upon the observable practice and the dominant model will have behaviourist undertones, where we believe that we can influence a child’s behaviour through the consistent aplication of rewards and sanctions. Through this process we can make children reflect upon their behaviour with a view to them developing an understanding of what constitutes good behaviour. If we look at how most schools and classrooms are organised we can see such a model permeating our practice.

However, Attachment Theory suggests that such a model cannot influence a child who has not experienced secure parenting, nor formed a secure relationship in their early years. If we reflect upon what adults are doing with children under 3 we can characterise good parenting as being caring and empathetic. Recent brain research shows that the brain does not develop the same in an environment where the child has not experienced a secure parenting environment. So such things as neglect and abuse; overt family conflict; hostile and rejecting relationships; or death and loss can all disrupt the normal secure attachment that a child requires to properly develop.

By the time such children come to school they are not in a position to understand or control their behavour so the dominant behavioural models which most schools and classrooms depend upon are doomed to failure, as they assume that all children are the same and that they have had the same parenting and don’t make allowances for those that haven’t.

It is suggested that up to 40% of the adult population have a level of insecure attachment and the associuated diifculties which go with that.

So what can schools do? The bottom line is that we need to teach them the same way as a secure attachment environment, e.g. emotional regulation, impulse control and empathy – all the things that parents are naturally teaching their children aged 0 – 4. The most important thing for insecure children are relationships – therefore schools need to recreate a secure attachment relationship with at least one substitute person (not the teacher).

Yet what do we often do with such children? – we apply our sanctions with no reference to the kind of parenting they have had and apply our sanctions – fairly – often resulting in exclusion (exactly the opposite treatment that the child requires).

For me this is not “fair” it is discrimatory  – yet the logic of treating everyone the same and application of sanctions in schools is so dominant in our schools it is almost beyond critique. So what do we do? For me the answer lies in training and education of all in our schools.  Recent evidence from those schools who have undertaken such training is very exciting and the change apparent in children who were previously deemed to be out of control when using traditional behaviour modification techniques have been spellbinding.

The premise here is that it’s too late by the time we get to secondary school – we need to focus our attention on children in the early years and make up for any attachment deficit.  We need to CLAIM these children as ours and treat them with unconditonal positive regard.  Asssociated with this strategy we need to proactively and unashamedly teach and support parenting skills which will transform the lives of their children.

“Them” Vs “Us”

 “THEM” Vs “US”

I reckon one of the greatest challenges facing Scottish education is the way in which people use the third person plural in a negative sense.

Listen to any conversation about education and very soon “they” will emerge as the problem. So teachers will talk about “them” (management), management will talk about “them” (teachers and the local authority) and those in the local authority will talk about “them” (schools and the government).

Of course there are many others groups who can be characterised as “them” – children, parents, IT managers, unions, finance departments, politicians, social workers, doctors, the media – “if only “they” could do their jobs properly then all would be well”.

By externalising the problem we strengthen our allegiance to our own group – “we need to work together or “they” will ……….” Yet what is fascinating is how it’s possible to move (i.e. through promotion) from being one of “us” to one of “them” and also start to think about those whom were recently your colleagues as “them”. I’m not suggesting here that such language is always used in an adversarial sense but that it demarcates and emphasises that the difference between groups.

In many ways it’s natural to refer to any group beyond our own as “them”. So much of our own self-esteem is wrapped up in our social identity where we categorise others and ourselves – often comparing ourselves favourably towards other groups.

Yet are the various groups motivated by such unique and self-contained  drivers? Surely there are more points of overlap in our interests than there are differences?

That’s why I’m going to:

  • a) stop using any negative reference to “they” or “them” in any conversation
  • b) challenge people to clarify what they mean whenever they use the second person plural in a negative sense.

I tried b) for the first time today and just by challenging a stereotypical view of another group seemed to help produce a more positive discussion rather than just simply nodding when an entire group of people were swept up in the accusatory “them”.

I know this sounds a bit optimistic but I’d like to replace “they” and “them”, wherever possible, with “us” and “we”.

Last point – we in Scotland have another form of colloquial second person plural, namely “yous” – but that’s for another day!

Unconditional Positive Regard – does a child need to be liked?

Does a teacher need to like all children in order to be an effective teacher? 

The dictionary definition of the verb to “like”  is essentially  to display a favourable opinion or disposition towards a thing – in this case children.  Yet in conversations with teachers throughout my career I’ve met with resistance to the notion of having to “like” in order to be able to teach. In fact one of the most memorable quotes was when a teacher exclaimed “I’m not paid to like kids – I’m paid to teach them!”.

Which leads me back to the original question – is it possible to teach without displaying a favourable disposition towards all children? If you break teaching down into its most simplistic form, i.e. the effective transmission of information from the teacher to pupil, then one can see how the disposition of the teacher is of no consequence. Yet for those of us who have been pupils we know that the disposition of the teacher towards us as learners has a major impact on our willingness to engage and learn. Even the “traditional” no-nonsense, subject-oriented, results focussed teacher can show through their actions that they care about every child in their class – and the learners respond accordingly. 

The reality of human nature is that we tend to “like” people whom we find pleasant or value. In that sense our tendency to “like” is conditional upon the appearance or behaviour of the person. In the classroom this can take the form of a teacher changing their disposition towards a child in direct response to the child’s behaviour.  But what if the child does not respond to the teacher with equitable response? What if the child’s behaviour is inappropriate? Surely the teacher is entitled to change their disposition towards the child to one where they can legitimately change their disposition towards the child both an implicit and explicit manner, e.g. “I don’t like that kid”

The logic that unpins this assertion supposes that it’s human nature not to like everyone and that we are entitled to make judgements about those whom we will treat with positive regard. So if in our classroom there is a child who does not conform to our expectations or standards of behaviour then we can legitimately express our disfavour either through our choice of language, tone of voice, or actions. The problem in such instances is that that most children can cope with being told off or punished as long as it’s fair. However, all too often the teacher will give an additional “punishment” through a noticeable shift in their disposition towards that child on a permanent basis, such a shift is picked up by the child – and just as importantly by their peers in the class.

The Scottish education system is founded upon the concept of “in loco parentis” – in place of parents – which is intended to guide the practice of the teaching profession. Almost all parents treat their own children with positive regard – in fact regardless of whatever their child might do they will continue to treat them with enduring warmth and not be deflected by the human frailties of their child. Such an approach can be referred to as unconditional positive regard.  The true teacher adopts the perspective of the parent and is able to step beyond the reflexive response to dislike the child for their actions and separate the behaviour from the person. Such a stance does not mean that the teacher ignores or condones poor behaviour – in fact quite the opposite – but it does mean that even in the midst of dealing with an incident they make it clear through their own behaviour that they still value the child as a person.

I believe that a person’s capacity to treat children with unconditional positive regard lies at the very heart of what it is to be a professional teacher. Although, at first glance, the term smacks of psychobabble it is actually possible to tease out it’s meaning in a way that translates very well in to the Scottish classroom.

If I am to be allowed one dream it would be that every teacher, leader and professional person connected with Scottish education set out firstly to treat every child with unconditional positive regard, and secondly, to treat their colleagues in a similar manner. What a place we would have created!  

“You never leave the Villa”


“You never leave the villa” – so said Andy Thorpe, manager of the Lothian Villa, a residential home for challenging and vulnerable teenagers in East Lothian. I was privileged to visit the “Villa” a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been meaning to write up my experiences since that time.

What Andy means by “You never leave the Villa” is that it becomes part of you and you become part of it.  This chimed for me with the ideas which I came across during my visit to the U.S last year when Norman Kunc talked about belonging . For fostering a sense of belonging in these children is at the very heart of what they do at the Villa – this is demonstrated by the fact that adults, who were in the school years ago, still return to their “home” to speak to staff and keep in touch.

A lot of the work being done in the Villa is based upon the work of Sally Wassell and attachment theory – I’m doing more reading in this area at the moment so won’t go into any detail save to say that I think it forms a rich resource for all of us involved in the care and education of children and young people.

The Villa – in Andy’s words – provides “emotional nutrition” for kids who have often been emotionally malnourished throughout their lives. “They deserve the best” and the Villa sets out to provide it.  I spoke to some of the kids and was blown away by how positive they were about the place and the way that they are treated. Yet don’t get the idea that this is a soft regime – quite the opposite in fact – “We care enough about you not to let you be out of control” is a characteristic which permeates the collective approach. They “love” the kids and “tough love” seems to be something to which the young people readily repond.

I had an interesting chat with Andy about how they deal with extreme behaviour – which can at times be violent.  He explained how they often have different consequences for the same behaviour – this intrigued me as schools so often get trapped by having to be “fair” when dealing with misbehaviour by always matching a certain consequence with a certain from of behaviour – i.e. if a pupil swears at a teacher they must be excluded. Andy explained that their consistency comes through judging the reasons behind the behaviour and that consequence will be consistent for the person. 

It was a humbling experience visiting the Villa and seeing a group of people who are so fully committed to an approach.  Andy is a remarkable leader and has developed a culture where everyone valued and seen as a part of the family – staff and children. So often “Children’s Homes” are associated to negative connotations but I found it an enriching environment which is changing lives for the better.

I recommend a visit!!

A Mission


Over the last 6 weeks I’ve been doing two jobs – the Head of Education and Director of Education and Children’s Services.  We appointed my successor this week in the form of Maureen Jobson, who is the Manager of our Learning and Teaching Team. Maureen is everything I’m not – methodical, practical and reliable. She uses her experience of having been the Head Teacher of three schools to great effect and is highly regarded by all her colleagues.

Effective teams so often depend upon a mix of complimentary skills and Maureen’s skill set will definitely keep me on track and stop some of my more extreme flights of fancy with her no nonsense Sunderland rebuff.

With her appointment I’ve been able to give more thought to what I really want to achieve as Director. It’s possible to let such a big job overwhelm your sense of purpose and for it to become a management post where you simply try to keep the “oil tanker” afloat and on course. Yet as I’ve been giving this more thought the words from our Learning and Teaching policy keep bouncing back into my mind.  Unconditional Positive Regard can sound like any other jargonsitic phrase yet I believe that it should underpin everything we do with young people.

I’ve explored the definition of the term before on this log but it might be worth going over it again and giving it my own twist. Unconditional Positive Regard means that you don’t give up on kids – whatever they do. In many ways it helps to reflect upon the concept from a parental perspective.  If one of my sons did something wrong I would challenge their behaviour, chastise them, and try to help them understand why it was wrong and what the better alternative might have been. But just because they did something wrong did not mean that I was going to treat them any differently from my other son – my love was unconditional.

It took me some time as a teacher to come to terms with this approach – I remember belting kids (corporal punishment) when I first became a teacher, of getting really angry and just wanting kids who misbehaved to be removed from my class. I can’t exactly remember when my attitude changed but I do know that when I shifted from a “conditional” approach to an “unconditional” approach that the response I got from children was incredibly different and the impact that I had a teacher was transformed.

In the last three years I’ve been trying to promote the concept of unconditional positive regard within our Learning and Teaching Policy and it has had some limited impact.  The majority of those involved in education adopt it as their natural approach and you can spot them straight away. Yet for others this idea is something of an anathema – “I’m not paid to like children” was perhaps one the more memorable rejoinders, or the classic “I’m not a bloody social worker”. In other words some people in education feel that they are only there to work with those who want to be there – the rest should be removed from their presence. Well unfortunately there are lots of kids who don’t want to be there. Kids who have to put themselves to bed, who have to witness things at home which they shouldn’t have to witness, kids for whom the very act of getting to school is an achievement.

It is to my great shame that I can recall a science teacher I managed who regularly called a child in his class a “moron”. He felt he was justified in using this word as it accurately described the child’s behaviour – he certainly saw no need to apologise. Yet this same child could go into the class down the corridor and be one of the most enthusiastic and motivated kids in the class. So what did I do about it? Nothing! Absolutely nothing! I rationalised this at the time by saying to myself that it would just make the kid’s life even harder – and it came to the point where we removed the child from the class for his own protection as he would aggressively respond to the demeaning way he would be treated by the teacher to the point where he would be excluded or punished.

So what does all this mean for my new job? Well I think it means that I’m not going to walk away from this any more. I’m going to make it explicit that it will be my expectation that the behaviour of every person employed within Education and Children’s Services can be characterised by a commitment to unconditional positive regard.  I don’t intend to issue blanket edicts or constant memos but I do intend to tackle individuals, regardless of position, who come to my attention as having not treated a child in a manner which is underpinned by unconditional positive regard.

I might be wrong but I think this simple message repeated, and consistently and insistently upheld has the potential to have an exceptionally powerful impact upon the lives of children, families and the culture of Education and Children’s Services in East Lothian.

“And what if people don’t treat kids with unconditional positive regard?”

Then they are in the wrong job!

Go on – make a nomination

Ann McLanachan - winner of Lifetime Achievement Award

Ann McLanachan, until recently, Headteacher at Longniddry Primary School, East Lothian, receiving her award for Lifetime Acheivement at the 2006 awards ceremony. 

The Scottish Education Awards aim to celebrate the hard work and success taking place in Scottish education.

Nominations will close at 5 pm on Friday 22 February and the winners will be announced at the awards ceremony on 13 June at the City Halls in Glasgow.Nominations will close at 5 pm on Friday 22 February and the winners will be announced at the awards ceremony on 13 June at the City Halls in Glasgow.

Such is the quality of work going on in East Lothian that I intend to nominate a person or a school in each of the categories.  Please join me by making our own nominations.

One Scotland – Active Citizenship Award This category is about encouraging young people to be citizens of local, national and global communities and promoting positive action against cultural and religious intolerance.

LTS Ambition Award  This award is about taking on new challenges and generating an ethos of ambition, a “can do” attitude and a buzz and excitement in the life of the school.

DTS Most Enterprising School (3 Awards) Primary, Secondary and Special This category recognises the central importance of enterprise education and the vital involvement of employers (private, public and voluntary sector) in preparing young people for their contribution to a wealthier and smarter Scotland.

DTS Best Enterprise This category recognises the value of direct participation of young people in an experiential entrepreneurial activity e.g. running a product or service enterprise (economic or social) and the impact this has on the quality of their learning experience.

Quality Meat Scotland Health and Wellbeing – Hungry for Success Award This category is about taking forward Hungry for Success and pursuing a whole school approach to school meals and healthy eating.

BT ICT Learning Award This category is about maximising the potential of ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) to support effective teaching and learning.

BT Greener Schools Award  This category is about how we can encourage young people to take a greater interest in the issues of sustainability and climate change.

CBI Schools for All Award  This category is about offering access to education for all young people and removing barriers where they exist. This year, the focus is on ‘looked after children’, which includes children who are subject to supervision and live with family members as well as looked after and accommodated children who live with foster carers or in residential schools or care homes.

Cambridge Education and Learning Unlimited International Schools Award This category is about how the cross-curricular area of International Education can encourage young people in your school, or authority, with a range of knowledge and skills to develop an understanding of the world and Scotland’s place in it.

The Scottish Daily Record Award for Education Supporter of the Year Is there a cleaner, classroom or learning assistant, auxiliary, janitor, administrator or other supporter in your school, or a school that you know, who stands out from the rest?

The Scottish Daily Record Award for Probationary Teacher of the Year (In First Year of Teaching) Is there a Probationary Teacher in your school, or a school that you know, who stands out? If the answer is yes, why not nominate them for this award?

The Scottish Daily Record Award for Teacher of the Year Is there a teacher in your school, or a school that you know, who stands out from the rest? If the answer is yes, why not nominate them for this award?

The Scottish Daily Record Award for Headteacher of the Year Is the Headteacher in your school, or a school that you know, an inspirational leader who motivates young people and staff to achieve all they can? If the answer is yes, why not nominate them for this award?

The Scottish Daily Record Award for Lifetime Achievement This Award is open to all qualified teachers and head teachers approaching the end of their career, and aims to recognise their work and commitment throughout their education career.

Creating a positive dynamic


I visited Sanderson’s Wynd Primary School in Tranent this morning.

In the course of a very enjoyable visit where I observed a number of classes and talked with Headteacher Fiona Waddell and some of her staff about how they create a purposeful learning environment.  The school is not without its challenging pupils but what struck me was the collective impact the staff make and the cumulative effect it has upon children.

All too often in schools classroom behaviour is seen to be the responsibility of the individual teacher, and there is no doubt that individual teachers do set the tone and do have significant impact upon their own class’s behaviour. However, when we talk about the standard of behaviour in an entire school it’s a much more complex affair.

The reality is that an individual teacher can have little effect upon behaviour across a school, nor can a headteacher impose discipline if they have to do it all themselves.  However, where all the staff come together and realise the collective impact that they have upon children then the results can be quite exceptional.  It’s in circumstances such as these that the critical mass takes on a life of its own (see – tipping point)

In my recent posts about being user (customer) facing it might have been possible for people to think that I was suggesting that we roll over when confronted by kids who want their own way on all matters – especially where their behaviour is concerned. I actually think we do a great disservice when this happens as in my experience they need clear parameters and boundaries against which they can rub up against – but which provide clear and unabiguous guidance. Our commitment to treating learners with unconditional positive regard demands that we set such standards.

The problem occurs in schools when these expectations and behaviours are not consistently upheld by all teachers or the management of the school.  What I saw today was a very impressive collective effort which will create a very positive dynamic over the next few years (I should have said that the school has just been created through amalgamation with two other schools).

Last point – in times of challenge -such as these – it’s vital that we retain our sense of “fun”. The staff – despite the challenges they face are prepared and encouraged to relax and have fun with pupils and the wider school community at regular intervals. It’s this careful balance between high expectations and clear boundaries, and relaxation and fun which go towards making a positive, effective and rewarding  learning environment – for both children and adults.

Building our community


I attended two separate events today which demonstrated the professional community we are building in East Lothian.

The first of these was a cluster in-service day at Preston Lodge High School. The theme for the day was A Curriculum for Excellence and it was great to see teachers working together from so many backgrounds.

I was privileged to be asked to give the welcoming address and focused upon the tremendous practice I am seeing on my visits to schools.  I stressed the need to build upon these strong features of our practice and used the quote from Natalie S4 about how the Art Department work in the school “They take what we know and help us learn more” – as I said at the time I couldn’t summarise better our aspirations for learning and teaching in East Lothian.

The second event was our first Conference for classroom support staff which we held at the Marine Hotel, North Berwick and which was entitled “Supporting Excellence in Education”.  A small planning group had put together an innovative programme and reading through the feedback at the end of the day it seems to have been very well received.

I closed the event by stressing the impact that teaching support staff have upon individual children – I referred to our commitment towards treating every child with unconditional positive regard – an approach which most people in the room adopt as second nature.  Thanks.