Future Fear: Why Uncertainty Leads To Anxiety

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

2. Certainty

Our brains are constantly trying to predict the future, based on known patterns of behaviour. When you activate muscles to take a step forward your brain predicts the sensory information that should be forthcoming, and assuming all is well and that this pattern is matched by reality then the whole experience further reinforces the expected pattern and you continue with your next action or thought.

This prediction system allows the brain to operate much more efficiently – instead of carefully and consciously evaluating every single nerve sensation received on each step our brain compares the signals to the expected pattern. If it matches then very little energy is expended. However, if it detects a mismatch then we suddenly go in to ‘error’ mode, and our attention is rapidly switched to the situation to decide what to do next, along with the production of stress hormones, i.e. the threat response. For example, if our foot lands on a banana skin and starts sliding we become rapidly and consciously aware of what is happening in order to decide what to do about it. (Hawkins, 2004).

Because this prediction is so much more efficient, we have evolved to crave certainty. Even slightly uncertain situations (perhaps an unknown surface to walk on, a slightly different type of maths problem, or meeting a new person) redirects the brain’s attention away from one’s goals in an effort to concentrate on finding new patterns, and greater certainty. (Hedden, Garbrielli, 2006)

Of course uncertainty is also necessary for learning because the brain’s ‘error’ response is responsible for forming new patterns.

“Mild uncertainty attracts interest and attention: new and challenging situations create a mild threat response, increase levels of adrenalin and dopamine just enough to spark curiosity and energize people to solve problems”
(‘Managing with the brain in mind’, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009)

However, if there are multiple sources of uncertainty then attention cannot be focused on learning so effectively.

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Every new problem we pose in the classroom poses some sort of uncertainty. As teachers we are aware that we can begin a lesson in an unexpected way in order to focus attention, but we also know that we should have consistent expectations and routines in order to decrease stress. It is a difficult balancing act and the mark of the talented professional is one who can create the optimum level of uncertainty at all times for each student. However, it is worth realising that if a student comes in to the room who is experiencing uncertainty in other parts of their life then they won’t be able to fully engage in the lesson or learn effectively. We can reduce uncertainty stress by ensuring that students have a clear map of the future learning, and are aware of any future changes well in advance.

School Leadership

Teachers face uncertainty every time they step in to a classroom. With a difficult class the teacher’s stress levels are raised from the very start as they cannot be sure what will happen. IT-failure, fire bells and late-comers all increase anxiety no matter how experienced we are. A looming threat of inspection, uncertain job prospects, or lack of clarity about routines can decrease teacher’s creativity and enjoyment. Leaders can help reduce these problems with clear timetables and expectations, road maps for the future, and clarity about when and where inspections will take place.

Education Policy

Schools will have more opportunity to be creative and effective in a certain political climate. Endless changes of policy create anxiety and reviews that fail to deliver on time exacerbate the problem. Policy leaders should create clear roadmaps and timetables and stick to them clearly. Policies should not be changed too often or else people will be anxious when engaging with any current set of rules as they will fear their work will go out of date.


  • Our brains crave certainty. Every unexpected outcome creates stress. A small amount is useful for learning, a large amount is debilitating.
  • Creativity and learning will be blocked with too much uncertainty or too many sources of it. Reduce stress with transparency, share rationales, publicise changes in advance, and break complex processes down in to smaller steps.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Hawkins, J. & Blakeslee, S. (2004). On Intelligence. Times Books.
  • Hedden, T., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2006). The ebb and flow of attention in the human brain. Nature Neuroscience, 9, 863-865.

I Win, You Lose: Why Losing Status Hurts.

Social experience is as important to our wellbeing as physical environment. Research suggests that our innate neurological threat-reward systems are activated not only in response to basic physical stimuli such as food/hunger, pain/pleasure, etc. but in response to five basic social qualities:

1. Status

“As humans we are constantly assessing how social encounters either enhance or diminish our status. Research published by Hidehiko Takahashi et. al in 2009 shows that when people realise that they might compare unfavourably to someone else, the threat response kicks in, releasing cortisol and other stress-related hormones” (‘Managing with the brain in mind’, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009).

Social status is something that we are all implicitly aware of at all times. Studies have shown that we use the same areas of the brain for evaluating social pecking-order or seniority as for mathematical calculation (Chaio, 2003) and that this area is activated whenever we are interacting with other people, constantly reassessing our position  (Zink, 2008). This isn’t merely a superficial self-aggrandising reaction, it really matters to our health and wellbeing. Our perceptions of relative social standing have been shown to correlate with our life-expectancy and health, even when controlling for factors such as education and income (Marmott, 2004). It has even been shown that experiencing social rejection causes the same brain activity as physical pain (Eisenberger et al., 2003)

This mental reaction is our evolutionary reward for developing behaviours that promote our superiority in our ‘pack’ and thereby achieve a level of safety and security in our lives. Increase in status can be incredibly rewarding. In fact one study showed that an improvement in social standing prompted the same reactions as a financial windfall (Izuma et. al, 2008).

So what lessons can we draw from this for teaching and learning, school leadership and education policy?

Teaching and Learning

Children are acutely aware of status as they establish their identity and position in the world, and teachers are masters of using status in the classroom. We have traditionally used status-based rewards when we use competitive behaviour in our lessons, and the mere thought of status-raising associated with sport and games make them particularly appealing. The downside of this is that we have sometimes reinforced feelings of failure and anxiety in students – a problem that has led to over-compensation in the form of ‘all must have prizes’.

However, the lessons from this research is that while we can’t (and shouldn’t) shield students from ‘real-world’ status-related issues, we can encourage a culture where we value improvement, effort and resilience. This will mean that, wherever possible, status in our classroom is gained through effort and not ingrained ‘talent’. We need to encourage classrooms where success is celebrated in a number of different forms. An obsession with publicising levels, for example, might reinforce status anxiety.

School Leadership

Given that most classroom teachers are on a relatively level status playing field, school leaders should realise that status anxiety can easily become heightened among staff. The mere thought of inspection judgements, classroom outcome data analysis, or student surveys about teachers can send staff in to a fearful state that results in anger, defensiveness, and closed-mindedness. The simple act of a colleague saying ‘may I give you some feedback about that?’ will probably be at least partly interpreted as ‘I know more than you, I am superior’. The much vaunted 360-degree review will have little beneficial effect when the recipient is sat anxiously expecting a wave of status-lowering criticism from their colleagues.

Of course, it would be ludicrous to conclude that you have to avoid all comparisons or any of the aforementioned quality-assurance methods. However a wise leader will ensure that all staff feel fully valued for their strengths and improvements, and that they begin appraisals, where possible, with self-evaluation.

Education Policy

League tables, inspections and exam systems vigorously reinforce the notion of status in education. Generally speaking successful political leaders, journalists and business-people will have been the recipient of the upside of these systems – if you succeeded in staying at the top of the success ladder at school then you will view competition as being very beneficial as it provided you with a huge amount of positive reinforcement.

On the flip-side, a system with a very narrow view of educational success/status will simply create anxiety and, eventually, disengagement, as only a small proportion of schools and students can ever be top of any specific pile. Of course, policy makers need to strive for success and would be in danger of a lack of focus if they attempted to consider too many metrics at once, but they should avoid denigrating the teaching profession or groups of schools as failures. This will simply make it more likely that staff in those schools spend more time in ‘fight-or-flight’ brain mode – exactly the wrong state to be in when attempting to improve teaching skill or find creative solutions to help difficult students.


  • Value a range of skills and talents. A narrow definition will encourage anxiety and ‘gaming’ in order to achieve status-based rewards.
  • Feedback should be handled carefully. When presented in a threatening way it could be worse than no feedback at all.
  • Status doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. It is possible to raise status through praise and positive feedback, or by providing an alternative field in which to excel.

This is the first post in a series of five on lessons for education from SCARF.


  • Managing with the brain in mind, Strategy Business magazine issue 59, Autumn 2009.
  • SCARF360 white paper, David Rock, NeuroLeadership journal, issue one, 2008
  • Michael Marmot, The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity, Times Books 2004
  • Eisenberger, N. i., Lieberman, M. D., & Williams, K. D. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An fMRi study of social exclusion. science, 302, 290-292
  • Chiao, J. Y., Bordeaux, A. R., Ambady, N. (2003). Mental representations of social status. Cognition, 93, 49-57.
  • Izuma, K., saito, D., sadato, N. (2008). Processing of social and Monetary Rewards in the Human striatum. Neuron, 58(2), 284-294
  • Zink, C. F., Tong, Y., Chen, Q., Bassett, D. s., stein, J. L., & MeyerLindenberg A. (2008). Know Your Place: Neural Processing of social Hierarchy in Humans. Neuron, 58, 273-283.


Half term: some interesting articles and links

Twitter has provided me with a huge amount of food for thought this week. I thought I’d share some of those articles, links and tweets here:

and finally a bit of fun:

Taking offence

I’ve heard of teachers taking offence at Jamie Oliver’s new TV show, about the British Humanist Association’s Census Campaign, and about a variety of political points.

Surely there is a line to be drawn between giving offence and taking offence? If I criticise your beliefs and practices and say that I think there is a better way to do things, that you may be misguided, and that I offer an alternative, then I have not given offence. I am engaging with you, and debating with  you. You may choose to take offence, but surely only because you are not confident enough in your beliefs to listen to debate.

However, if I generalise and abuse and say that all people of one faith are unpleasant, that all people of one sexuality are uncaring and unfit to be parents, or that a politician is evil and deliberately doing wrong, then I would argue that I am giving offence. I am setting out to be offensive to a group of people in order to appeal to others.

I welcome different viewpoints. It may be uncomfortable for me to hear them, but I should not choose to take offence if they are given in a spirit of cooperation in order to engage me in debate. If the points are made in order to belittle me, if they make assumptions about me based on generalisations about a group I belong to, or if they set out to demean me in order to make others feel better about themselves, then I would still try and either engage or turn away rather than ‘take offence’ and hide behind that, even if offence is being given.

‘Taking offence’ is a state of mind. It is something people seem to do in order to defensively draw themselves together, instead of challenging and reflecting on their beliefs. Politicians do it, unions do it, you and I both know people that make a habit from it. I suspect it relates to ego and insecurity. I can’t imagine the Dalai Lama takes offence very often.


Are you a standards parasite?

Standards of achievement and behaviour in schools take constant and relentless effort to maintain. Every member of staff and every student has a duty to act in the way that improves the quality of the school.

Teachers in particular are responsible for setting and maintaining boundaries, modelling good relationships, and stretching students. Every teacher has good days and bad days, but today it occurred to me that every school has some particularly outstanding staff who are even more visible, even more relentless in applying, maintaining and raising standards.

If you look at the last few weeks at your school, I’m sure you can think of times where students behaved well without you having to put in much effort. Thinking back over my years of teaching, I know there were days when I took classes like this as a great reason to relax a bit, and let a few lapses go by without comment. Similarly there were students who may have not done some work where I just let them be.

However, it occurs to me that at those times I was being a standards parasite. I happily accepted the results of my colleagues’ hard work while eroding those same expectations. The recent discussion about Troops to Teachers seems to be very pertinent to this – there seems to be a suggestion that former troops are less likely to let agreed standards slip than the average teacher, which of course makes it easier to raise standards in challenging schools.

I have no doubt, as with any ‘magic fix’ in education, that this is not a panacea: that not all former troops can make the transition to great teachers, and indeed clearly there are many non-ex-military teachers who are outstanding practitioners in this area already.

However, anyone who is a high-standards exporter, anyone who is an aspiration-raiser, and anyone who can combine the magical complexity of teaching with a relentless drive to raise standards for all must surely be welcome in the classroom.

Do you raise standards, or are you a standards parasite? It’s something that has certainly provoked a lot of reflection about my own everyday classroom practice.

It’s like a magic wand: Metaphor and analogy can improve learning

So here’s quite a bold claim from the wonderful article Humor, Analogy, and Metaphor: H.A.M. it up in Teaching:

…use of metaphors and other strategies can “increase retention by as much as 40%”.

Randy Garner’s wonderful article cites a number of papers that all show that use of humour, metaphor and analogy in the classroom can improve learning, increase retention, and give students a more positive view of the subject matter. I dealt with humour in my last post, but I think the other two are just as important.

What’s going on here? The educational psychology papers cited by Garner take a top-down approach, with some important caveats about using this method (including avoiding over-complexity, and being culturally sensitive). Excitingly (for me at least), there is similarly significant evidence in the bottom-up approach of neuroscience. There’s a wonderful quote from the Royal Society‘s fascinating Brainwaves 2 report on Neuroscience and Education:

When we sleep, walk, talk, observe, introspect, interact, attend, and learn, neurons fire. The brain has extraordinary adaptability, sometimes referred to as ‘neuroplasticity’. This is due to the process by which connections between neurons are strengthened when they are simultaneously activated; often summarised as, ‘neurons that fire together
wire together’

I believe this is also known as Hebbian Theory. Essentially by expressing a new idea in terms of existing mental scaffolding and well-understood vocabulary you associate the new concept with existing knowledge. By talking about the new idea and the old at the same time you get the neurons to ‘fire together’ which gets them to ‘wire together’. This provides a great starting point for the brain to construct its own understanding.

I certainly remember university lectures where the professor would begin with a vast tranche of new vocabulary and proceed to describe new ideas with these terms and concepts with which I was completely unfamiliar. Result? Total disengagement – i.e. I fell asleep.

I remember well being shouted at in the middle of a lecture theatre of 180 students for being ‘bloody rude’ and blearily remembering where I was and noticing the incomprehensible notes on the board, while simultaneously observing how I had dribbled on the lecture notes I had taken so far. I’m sure you’ve encountered students similarly engaged when they missed out the building blocks and cannot access the higher content.

In my teaching I absolutely adore using analogy. I’ve been given quizzical looks by my students after describing particle theory and gases using the analogy of “a bunch of predictably mad 11-year olds who’ve been let out in to the playground”, or describing electronic drift and current in terms of slightly spaced-out festival goers wandering from stage to stage. It did seem to work though, and it certainly stuck.

Of course, these models, analogies and metaphors are starting points. It’s just as important to look at their shortcomings too, but if we begin our teaching of new topics using analogies then students have something to get their teeth into while they build up their mental map.

Incidentally, yes I know my title contains a simile and not a metaphor. Forgive a poor Physics/Maths teacher a minor transgression.

Make ’em laugh to make ’em learn.

I’m continuing my lessons from Neuroscience theme again in this post. In the fascinating article Humour, analogy, and metaphor, Randy Garner explains that scientific studies have consistently shown that a little humour in the classroom actually increases interest in learning, strengthens information recall, and encourages longer and deeper retention of knowledge. According to one paper he cites:

“teachers who use strategies that promote the connection between humor and learning usually provide students with their best school experiences”

I bet many of you already have your corny jokes ready to roll. Some of my terrible Physics/maths favourites:

  • Gravity? Depressing subject! Gets you down…
  • Student: “Sir, what (sic) is the unit of Power?” – Sir: “Correct!”
  • Why did the chicken cross the Mobius strip? To stay on the same side.
  • What happens if you cross a Physics teacher and a Geology teacher? They talk about Earthquarks
  • What happened to the criminal mathematician? He went to prism!
  • What’s the cheapest sub-atomic particle? Neturons! They have no charge..
  • How do you neutralise an enemy air base? Use an air acid!

What are your favourites? Let’s share and use! I’m suggesting the use of #teacherjokes on Twitter as a great way forward…

Some great contributions:

  • @doc_gnome: we’ll be looking at splitting long hydrocarbons into more useful substances; it’s going to be a cracking lesson.
  • @BeckyBoooo: did you hear about the mathematician with constipation? He had to work it out with a pencil.
  • @slkslkslk: The Red Room and The Tell Tale Heart are similar because in both the climax happens in a bedroom.

The big learning style myth

The UK’s Royal Society released a brilliant summary of the key lessons for educators from modern neuroscience called Brainwaves 2.  This had some amazing findings, which I’ll return to in future blog posts, but I wanted to pick up on an article from The Psychologist it referred to: From Brain Scan to Lesson Plan by Prof. Paul Howard-Jones.

A fascinating statistic:

“Myth: 82 per cent considered teaching children in their preferred learning style could improve learning outcomes. This approach is commonly justified in terms of brain function, despite educational and scientific evidence demonstrating the learning-style approach is not helpful (Kratzig & Arbuthnott 2006).

Ever since I studied VAK learning styles during my teacher training I remember thinking that it was a load of bunkum that was based on such a tiny study and then cited so many times people assumed it was a concrete fact.

The number of teachers I meet today who insist on measuring their students’ learning style and trying to force certain types of activity on them is astonishing. I hear that teacher training courses still push this rubbish as fact. What will it take to get it out of circulation? This is harmful stuff! We should be giving every student a rich, varied diet of educational styles and allow them some choice in the way they consume their learning.

Are you one of the 82%, or do you know someone who is? I’d be interested to hear your comments and experiences.

Habitual Complainers

I just read a fascinating article that had been tweeted by @gcourous“Finding fascinating goals”. This great article contains a little gem:

“Habitual complainers usually have more goals for others than they have for themselves.”

This is a lovely statement, and if you listen to habitual complainers you would certainly think this was true.

However, I am confident that if you dug a little deeper in to the brains of these critics and cynics you would find just as many goals. The difference? These people are losing faith in their ability to meet them, and have been so stung by criticism and nagging self-doubt that they are lashing out other people instead.

Really, it’s just a version of “it isn’t fair!”, or at an even more basic level, complainers are voicing their basic low-level fight or flight response.

Listen to any prominent education critic on either side of the debate and somewhere underneath the self-righteousness there is someone who desperately wants to make a difference and improve things. The more viciously they are attacked for their suggestions the more aggressively they will fight back, complain, and criticise.

In both the USA and the UK I’ve seen prominent figures on both sides of the argument struggle to make their arguments under a siege of criticism. Each side sees the other as habitual complainers and attacks them. Many of them stop even trying to engage with their opposite numbers and start preaching to the converted instead. This inevitably ends up with a lot of one-sided I-told-you-so-isms and I’m-more-on-the-side-of-kids-than-you-ness.

On a lower level we see the same in schools. Leaders pushing unpopular reforms end up becoming entrenched and sit with their colleagues and criticise ‘problem’ staff and lick their wounds. Teachers sitting in staff areas laughing and criticising management as part of their daily routine. Both sound dismissive of the other, but they all really want the school to be a better place despite the rhetoric.

Of course everyone needs to blow off a little steam at times, but where jokes turn in to a destructive habit, there’s something wrong with the culture.

It starts at the top. If teacher, unions, media and politicians could stop attacking each other for cheap point-scoring then they’d start to see that their targets have just as many goals and dreams as they do. We need to get less defensive, admit our own mistakes, and make ourselves feel better by helping others with their own goals.

I’d love to see the teaching unions engage alongside the government instead of both sides accusing the other of greedy and wicked hypocrisy and assuming any new measure is a weapon to be used against them. I’d love to see the Twitter community engage in finding the hidden gem of an idea in the tweets of people they dislike, instead of ganging up and attacking them (as I blogged before)

I saw a great quote in Richard Branson’s book Business Stripped Bare, where he recounts something told to him by the Dalai Lama:

“If you wish to experience peace,
provide peace for another.
If you wish to know that you are safe,
cause others to know that they are safe.
If you wish to understand seemingly incomprehensible things,
help another better understand.
If you wish to heal your sadness or anger,
seek to heal the sadness and anger of another.

Those others are watching you now. They are looking to you for guidance, for help, for courage, for strength, for understanding, and for assurance at this hour.”

Definitely food for thought.

I hope I’m not just being overly optimistic or idealist.


Swallow your pride, and follow your enemies

First of all, pop quiz. Which well-known educator has 7,212 Twitter followers and follows 5? Can you find a more extreme example?

Education is a rather tribal affair. You have reformers, bureaucrats, unions, innovators, personalised-learning lovers, etc. Here is a pretty standard Twitter exchange.

@teamA_leader1: “We must think of the children first, and stop defending bad teachers”.

@teamA_leader2: RT @teamA_leader1 “We must think of the children first, and stop defending bad teachers” <– So true! #edchat #edTeamA

@teamB_leader1: RT @teamA_leader1“We must think of the children first, and stop defending bad teachers” <– Here we go again, #pathetic.

@teamB_leader2: RT @teamB_leader1: RT @teamA_leader1“We must think of the children first, and stop defending bad teachers” <– Here we go again, #pathetic. <– agreed, disgusting #edTeamB #edchat

This will generally be followed by more abuse thrown around within each team, until someone gets a bit extreme. At this point someone in the opposing ‘team’ will retweet this extreme abuse and add on “<– see! bunch of unprofessional, rude morons”

It’s very easy to do this. In fact it makes you feel better about yourself and your beliefs, and avoids any of that unpleasant cognitive dissonance. In fact, as I’ve written before, the whole process just gets you more entrenched in your own views, and makes it significantly less likely that the two sides will engage constructively with each other.

Look at any conflict or disagreement, and you’ll be unlikely to find anyone who won the argument by repeatedly shouting one-sided arguments. In fact you’ll find that everyone has to compromise just a little, examine their own beliefs, and find common ground.

So whether it’s educators in the USA hurling abuse at Michelle Rhee or Diane Ravitch, or UK teachers and politicians making fun of Michael Gove or Christine Blower, then this pattern doesn’t move us on.

Go and take a look at your Twitter follower list now and find 10 people who specifically disagree with your most fundamental beliefs. Then, actually take some time to understand them, and even engage with them.

In the end, there is no answer that will improve everything for everyone. Education is, and will always be, a compromise. Perhaps you may need to concede that e-learning may not be the best way for all students to learn. Maybe you might concede that there are some legitimate cases where tests and grading might just help students progress, or perhaps you may have to admit that focusing even harder on data might not actually make your school a better learning environment.

Whatever you decide, don’t be an education fundamentalist.

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