Tuesday 31 January 2017

Gretchen Rubin's Four Tendencies in Education

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and Better than Before. These books are all about getting to know yourself and your ways of thinking, and using this knowledge to make yourself happier, by building better habits and taking control of your thoughts and actions. I am a huge fan of this genre in general, and I love these books.

In Better than Before, Gretchen talks about self-discipline and intrinsic/extrinsic motivation. She claims that there are four categories of people, and understanding which category you fall into can make it easier for you to improve your life. These are called the four tendencies, and they are described below (taken from Gretchen's website):

Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations

Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense–essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations

Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

If you would like to find out which of these is your tendency, there is a quiz on Gretchen's website. 

If you are a teacher or someone who works with young people, I want you to think about your students, and identify one student you know who falls into each category:

Can you think of an Upholder, who does all of the homework you set, plus a bit of extra revision you never asked them to do? The kind of student who does the right thing even when nobody's looking?

What about a Questioner, who is generally well-behaved and respectful, but absolutely refuses to draw margins in their exercise book because they're "a waste of time"? A student who will occasionally not do their homework, and when you ask why, they say "I can already do that stuff, it's pointless", and may do homework of their own choosing instead. 

You probably know an Obliger, a student who will always behave perfectly if they know that someone's watching them, but if you're not checking up on them, may not actually do any work all lesson. They will do all of their homework every night for English, because their English teacher always checks their homework and will give them a detention if it's not done, but will never do their science homework (even though it's their favourite subject) because their science teacher never checks. 

And finally there's the Rebel, a student who deliberately does the exact opposite of what's expected. The more you tell them off, the worse they become. But leave them alone, and they might actually do some work.

It is clear that these four types of student are motivated in four completely different ways. If you yourself are an Upholder, you might naturally assume that everyone else is the same as you, and be frustrated by students who just can't seem to do what they're supposed to. You might find yourself muttering about how "students these days lack self-discipline!" If you're an Obliger, you might naturally give your students a lot of external accountability, by strictly enforcing deadlines, and punishing students for not living up to your expectations. If you're a Questioner, you might find yourself sympathetic with students who argue with you when you tell them off for wearing a coat in the corridor, because you think they make a valid point. If you're a Rebel, you might take pride in having an undisciplined classroom, and you may happily tell senior management that you don't care about their stupid rules because you're here to teach.

If we assume that each tendency makes up 25% of the population (probably not true), we may be doing 75% of our class a disservice if we are only thinking about our own tendency.

I am a Questioner, and when I was a student I didn't behave a certain way to avoid punishment or to be praised, I behaved according to what made sense to me. That meant I spent a lot of time on my Maths homework, and did most of my other homework on the bus. I wrote a letter to my headmaster when I was in year six explaining why the school rule of black or white socks only was stupid. As an adult I am not the type of person who stresses out about observed lessons (I'll leave that to the Obligers and Upholders) but I do try to teach good lessons every day, because I think it's important. I am not at all motivated by deadlines or scrutiny or accountability. I am only motivated by my own value system.

As a teacher, I think I have been treating my students like Questioners without really thinking about it. As a result, I think my Obliger students have suffered. I don't tend to give students an external accountability system, because I've never needed one myself. If a student doesn't do their homework, I am more likely to explain to them why this was a bad choice, than to punish them. This would work very well for a Questioner student, but would not work at all for an Obliger. Unfortunately, the Obliger tendency is probably the most common tendency of the four. 

If you have been treating all students like Obligers, I want you to take a moment to consider the students in your class that you're struggling to motivate. It might be that they are Questioners, and you saying "because I said so!" is not a good enough answer for them. Try appealing to their internal value system instead. When you set homework, explain to them why they should do it. You could even give them the choice of two homeworks, so they can choose the one they think is most useful to them. When they break a school rule, explain to them why that rule exists. If you have a student that is a Rebel, you could try removing all expectations for a while, and see how they respond. You might be pleasantly surprised.

I would really love it if you could leave a comment telling me which of the four tendencies you think you have, and whether you think this impacts how you treat students.

And senior management, if you're reading this: teachers are just like students in this respect: we're not all motivated in the same way. If you want me to do a certain thing by a certain deadline, you'd better tell me exactly why it needs to be done and exactly why it needs to be done by that specific date. Otherwise, I'm simply not going to do it. (Hey, just be grateful I'm not a Rebel!)

Emma x x x 

Read more!

The Four Tendencies in More Depth:


  1. Haha - love the ending! I'm definitely a questioner too and would have hated drawing margins in school. I used to do the last question of a set of questions and if I could do it, skip all of the others!
    I think I can identify the same problems as you have when dealing with students. I treat students the way I would have liked to be treated which obviously doesn't work for all.

  2. I'm mostly questioner, but definitely with some rebel thrown in. If I question the reason for something and you push me anyway, I will definitely withdraw and do what you expressly told me not to.

  3. I'm certainly an Obliger but a bit of a Questioner too.
    Thanks, Emma.

  4. great text, 10/10 would re-read


  5. I'm a rebel, and teach chemistry and physics to 10th-12th grade in a small, private high school in the US. Even though I discovered the Four Tendencies only a month ago, this has answered SOOOO many questions about myself and my wife, and the way we react, especially to each other. It's also shed a lot of light on the way my students work and their motivations. I don't think I have any rebel students; most seem to be obligers and upholders, with a few questioners. For my advanced physics course, I have made homework optional - don't do it at your own peril of failing an exam. This works well for the upholders, but some just won't do it; does this make them a rebel or a questioner?

    1. No, that makes them Obligers! You should make the homework non-optional for them. They can't help being Obligers and even if they really want to succeed they will find it hard to do anything without accountability. Thanks for your comment!

  6. love this! are there any rebels in your class and how are you dealing with them personally?

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