TES talks to… Amy Cuddy

27th September 2016 at 01:00
The Harvard academic, famous for her work on ‘power poses’, tells Jon Severs that it’s vital for teachers to understand their own body language and that of their students

For those teachers who plan their classroom speeches to the syllable – revelling in the rhythm of the spoken word – Amy Cuddy, associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School, has some disappointing news.

“Some researchers did a study where if you look at a rating students give a professor at the end of the semester, and then you show students who did not take that class clips that are 30 seconds long with no sound, and have them rate the professor, too, then you find something interesting. The ratings from those who did not take the class correlate very strongly with the ratings of those students who took a full semester of classes.

“The non-verbal was as important [to perception] as what was being said. And these are college students who are at least somewhat concerned about being biased. Unfortunately for teachers, eight-year-olds don’t worry about that. Teachers have to be aware of what their body language is saying.”

Cuddy, a social psychologist, knows a lot about body language. In 2010, she wrote a paper with Dana Carney and Andy Yap exploring “power poses” (feet up on the desk; standing with legs spread wide – domination of space, essentially). Adopting these poses for two minutes under laboratory conditions increased testosterone – making the person more confident and open to risk – and reduced the stress hormone cortisol: in short, it increased the individual’s performance.

Cuddy revealed the findings in a 2012 TED talk and she suddenly became very powerful indeed. At the time of writing, that video has been viewed more than 36 million times and her idea has been championed by Silicon Valley heavyweights such as Facebook supremo and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, political leaders across the world, numerous high-profile academics, and quite a few teachers – particularly those who feel that they need a confidence boost in front of their classes.

That’s not to say all the reaction has been positive: a few studies have found little effect from power poses. However, more than 30 studies have now backed up the original research.

Strike a pose

Cuddy says she is confident in her findings on the subject, but adds that she is less confident in the way that the public – as well as some academics – have interpreted them. Her latest book, Presence, builds on and clarifies the original research and treads some new ground.

“Although most people who write to me understand when and where to use powerful poses, that research is sometimes misread and misused,” she says, her disappointment clear in the long sigh she emits before talking. “Using power poses was never about doing those poses in front of people, it was doing those things before you go in to the interaction. It was preparation. Doing it in the interaction itself – that just comes across badly.

“There were these pictures of British politicians power posing and people were tweeting me saying, ‘Look at this, they are doing your work.’ But they weren’t, they were doing it in public. They looked so awkward!”

For the record, those pictures were of Theresa May and George Osborne – at the time, home secretary and chancellor. And yes, they do look ridiculous.

Cuddy says there are plenty of other body language “facts” that misinterpret research and plenty of relatively obscure findings about how we can use body language that would benefit teachers. Indeed, she argues that body language is extremely important for the profession.

“In teaching, which is so reliant on relationships, not being aware of your body language, or the body language of your students, is potentially very damaging,” she says. “Certainly, there is enough evidence from enough different areas to suggest the non-verbal is at least as important as verbal information [in forming relationships], and is sometimes more important.”


State of mind

In terms of basic principles, she advises: “Body language needs to be open, confident but not domineering. You want to be interested and show interest, so do not lean away from people, crossing your arms in a stern way – doing that gets you nowhere.”

But she says that body language should come from your state of mind, not from a concerted effort to “pose” in a particular way.

“I am not saying that you should deliberately use certain body language, because then it becomes scripted and awkward and unnatural,” she adds. “What I am saying is that if you have the right frame of mind, then the body language you need will come naturally. And that if you catch yourself not doing the above, then that’s probably a state of mind issue.

“When teachers are closed in their body language, it is because they are worried about being judged negatively. Well, if you have that body language, that is exactly what will happen. You naturally adopt stances of strength, but you have no trust there from the students, so the strength is threatening and the relationship fails.

“If you go in trusting the kids, trusting that they want to learn, your body will relax into positive postures and you will get trustworthiness back. And then they like that you are strong, because they trust you. Your strength becomes reassuring.”

Cuddy warns that the biggest mistakes can be made in situations where teachers typically adopt “strong” body language – mostly when disciplining a child.

“When students feel powerless, they turn away, touch their neck and their faces, play with their hair and wrap themselves up,” she says. “They will do this when a teacher is disciplining them, if they are scared. Research has shown this is a primitive instinct.

“When someone looks at you in this situation, they are signalling they want to fight. By looking away, the student is conceding. So why, as a teacher, would you then say, “Look at me when I am talking to you”? It’s completely the wrong approach.”

It seems that while many teachers are keenly aware of the power of strategically folding their arms or a well-timed hands to the hips moment, clearly there is a lot more to how body language is used in the classroom than most of us realise. As Cuddy says, it’s something that we all have to get better at, no matter our profession.

“Most of the time, people forget about how their body language is signalling information to other people all the time. It’s this incredibly powerful tool we don’t just fail to use enough, we misuse all too often.”



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