The beautiful struggle of education: motivation’s what you need.

Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash

I don’t know if I can make it, 
But i’m gonna try, I’m gonna try

Rick Astley, Try

At the end of last year, our staff constructed what they thought was important to focus their personal professional development upon during the 2018_19 academic year.  One aspect identified was motivation, an issue that I have always struggled to define, although I knew it was important. Ironically, I’ve self-reported my own motivation being short in recent times, which does more to highlight the limitation of relying upon this method of measurement than my own work rate and impact. After being directed to Greg Ashman’s book, and a bit of reading and thought, I’ve put together the following; realising that the area links well to a 2013 post about the beautiful struggle for education.

In short, good schools ensure that pastoral and academic aspects do not operate as silos but are entwined together. Indeed, one is the warp and the other the weft. If one is weak or incomplete, the whole system unravels. Therefore, student motivation, and in particular the holy grail of intrinsic motivation, relies upon developing academic competence and belonging. 

Motivation requires a focus on academic excellence and positive teacher-student relationships

Of course, motivation cannot be observed nor measured directly, we only have proxies and most students use self-reported indicators of motivation and are therefore not as reliable as they could be. So, how do we motivate students? How do we get that long term persistence to a long term goal, when most of learning could be considered mundane?

Learning is, and should be, difficult and whilst teachers can create favourable conditions for generating motivation, motivation can not be taught. In the classroom, this means that we should avoid creating sort-term interest around ‘fun’ tasks or getting students busy, however tempting this may be. There are clear kinks to the work or Willingham here: students learn what they are thinking about and, whilst a ‘fun and engaging’ activity may seem to quell behavioural issues and get students busy, it’s likely that they only remember the activity rather than the learning.

Another mistake that I’ve been guilty of in the past is  providing all students with a choice of activity. I used to think that this would help with student motivation, however novice learners are not great at making choices and most learners (myself included) will choose the path of least resistance if given the choice. This is not to say that choice in the classroom can’t be effective, rather that it should be directed by the teacher or left for relative experts in the subject. For example, my A’Level students are given the choice of how they complete most not taking activities (from a range of modelled examples). 

I’ve attempted to summarise the main points below:

It seems that motivation, which is very much linked to self-concept (believing in ones knowledge and beliefs) and self-efficacy (believing one can succeed and make a difference using the knowledge and beliefs), requires teachers to motivate students about the thing that we want them to learn. The advice given to trainee teachers springs to mind immediately: ‘start with planning the learning rather than listing the tasks.’  Coupled to this, I’ve changed my view from when I was a novice teacher that students should only learn what is relevant to them. Now, although I link the learning to real events and contexts familiar to students, sometimes they just need to learn stuff for learning’s sake. Being open and upfront about this is not an issue. This doesn’t mean that I won’t pause the curriculum to consider ‘geography in the news’ though, as these opportunities provide a golden opportunity to revisit, recall and pre-teach core knowledge. So, when a student asks ‘when will I use this?’ don’t be afraid to say ‘you won’t, but you still need to learn it.’

Another example may be within science where perhaps the theory is taught first and then students asked to predict what would happen in experiments, rather than undertake experiments that may motivate the teacher, but not the young person. In a similar vein, I have tweaked the way that geographical fieldwork is developed, ensuring that the theory is well covered before the investigation. This has not only developed a better quality of hypothesis, but also improved students motivation. Or I should say, seems to have.

However, all of this focus on knowledge won’t get very far without allowing students to relate to the social context in which they learn and without developing their belonging to the class. Here, positive student-teacher relationships are key. It’s no coincidence that academic outcomes have been proven to rise when these relationships are built upon mutual respect: the academic and pastoral sides of a school are key and, no matter how good your teaching is, if an individual is not present in your classroom, they ain’t motivated to learn what you want them to learn.

In summary, students are motivated when they are focused on what they need to learn. No doubt that the subject knowledge and enthusiasm of teachers are key here. Teachers should not teach motivation, but provide the circumstances that allow motivation to develop. A key part of this is modelling learning. teachers should focus upon academic excellence and developing positive teacher-student relationships rather than design tasks that are fun or engaging. 

None of this is to say that group work, geocaching 

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