Motivating Research

I enjoy being a reviewer. It is my chance to be anonymously self-righteous. One of my pet peeves is researchers that motivate their writing by academic circle jerking. This includes opening sentences that start with “researchers have yet to consider”, “we aim to resolve a tension in the literature”, “we are the first to”, or “we aim to integrate”. Such openings almost guarantee the remaining paper will focus on esoteric issues there will be precious little of substance on how actual people think, feel, or behave.

So you can imagine my surprise when a reviewer proclaimed that is exactly what I was doing. On reflection they were right. I concentrated my whole opening on winning theoretical points—researchers were focusing on the wrong thing and were making false assumptions and I would put them right. This was interesting to me. But it wasn’t person centred nor do I think it would be interesting to more than maybe a handful of people. My focus was on proving researchers wrong, rather than focusing on the main issues:

  1. Scientists, and thus policy makers and not-for-profits, assume that poor kids are deficit in academic motivation, interests, and self-beliefs. That make policy and develop interventions based on this assumption.
  2. A whole pile of money is being wasted on running motivation, interest, and self-belief interventions for disadvantaged children. This is money that could be spent on advocating for better educational policy that really serves poor children.

This was a good reminder that applied research should always start with why. But that ‘why’ should be for a broad audience—people that could use the research in practical and theoretical ways. In my case, my ‘why’ should have been focused on policy makers. Policy makers need empirical evidence to guide them when deciding how to use a limited budget to create an education system that works for all. They need to know what to focus on. But equally, they need research that tells them what to avoid if they want to make best use of their limited resources. I should have written my research with that as the most important concern.

User Stories


I presented my blog to my writing circle last week. The feedback; who is this blog actually for? They challenged me to write a set of user stories to make this clear. After much procrastination I realised that the blog was, more of less, for me. A chance to yell at the clouds. And there is little point to that. But I think I have something to say and I think there are people that might find what I have to say useful—maybe even interesting. Here I present to you, dear reader, my user stories.

Brief Interlude: What are you Talking About?

But first, as this is academia and not software development, a brief interlude on what user stories are. There is a movement in software development called agile or scrum. I won’t go into the messy details here other than to say this is a way we run many of our teams at Institute for Positive Psychology and Education. The bit I want to talk about is the dedicated focus on end users of the content we produce. To do this, we write short (1-2 sentence) stories about a particular person and what problem they would like solved. The team then sets about solving that problem. For example, we might consider the problem of a education minister who is unsure whether to increase the number of selective high-schools. We then go about conducting research that could inform that decision.

My User Stories

  1. My reader is a social scientist who worries they aren’t smart enough. They read their bosses impenetrable prose and worry that their simple writing will never achieve this level of ‘elevation’ (good, I hope it never does!).
  2. My reader wants their work to impact people. They want to do research that people can use, not research that merely sits in some journal few will ever read.

This is me. My writing still drips with false complexity, with affected sophistication. And I wonder if any of the people I research could read what I write and apply it to their life in some tangible way. Maybe as I try to wake up from this social science stupor, I might have something interesting to share with you along the way.