A Fresh Way of Looking at Motivation in Schools

Writing is such an easy thing to do when you are motivated, and a really tricky thing to accomplish when motivation is scarce. That pretty much sums up motivation; do I need to write any more on the topic? Of course, I do or my audience would diminish instantly. Ever-changing levels of motivation create such an omnipresent dilemma in our daily lives that most people would pay thousands to discover the secret of permanently being at our best.

 

Any adult reading this can instantly recall their own examples where levels of motivation have been at the opposite ends of the spectrum. From my own experiences as an amateur sportsman, I know getting up at 5am to complete a 15 mile training run for a forthcoming marathon is far easier to do in the warm mornings of June than it is on a freezing cold, dark January day. So just why is motivation so transient, here one minute and gone the next?

 

For me, there are two key aspects to remaining highly motivated. The first is all about connecting with the original purpose of embarking upon something; it’s all about refreshing your focus; reminding yourself of the benefits and seeing the relevance.

 

The second factor is about understanding why motivation for sport and hobbies is far easier than motivating yourself to lose weight, being more active, or stopping smoking or drinking; it’s all about recognising your perception of the expectancy of success of your endeavours.

 

In my travels around the UK and beyond, working with staff and students in schools, I am consistently faced with the same challenge: how do I motivate people to listen to me? Ironically teachers face this same challenge four, five and six times a day: how do I motivate students to listen to me? Even more ironically, headteachers want to know: how can they motivate their staff to be better at their jobs? Seems to me that the whole world of education depends very much on the motivation levels of all its’ stakeholders. How precarious!

 

So, let’s examine my model in more specific detail and, in particular how the two key aspects play out when considering motivation. I want you to go back to school yourself for a minute and ask yourself what your favourite lesson was, i.e. mine was French.

 

Now, give yourself a score out of 10 for two key things:

  1. How relevant was it to your life and interests? My score was 10/10.
  2. How well were you expected to do in that subject, ie your expectancy of success? Again, my score would have been 10/10 for French.

 

So 10 x10 would have given me a motivation score of 100/100 – I was a highly motivated French student. How about you? What was your score?

 

OK, now try it again with your least favourite lesson; mine was Chemistry. I saw no relevance to my life, so I would score 1/10, and I was thought I was hopeless at it, so again 1/10. Therefore my combine motivation score for Chemistry was 1 and it was reflected in my effort, attitude and ultimately my Grade E. What was your score? These two contrasting scores should highlight my point, that motivation really is affected by how relevant the task is and how much you expect to be successful at it.

 

This applies equally to every member of staff who swaps classes and groups five times a day in high schools, and to for Primary and Elementary schoolteachers who have to teach five or six subjects and topics in one day to the same class. Teachers’ motivation goes up and down every lesson depending on who and what they are teaching based on how well they know the topic, how interested they are in it, but most importantly how well they think they will succeed with that particular group of students.

 

A teacher’s level of motivation fluctuates constantly throughout any given day, and so does their performance. This, of course, is also true of every student in every class on every day. So school, which is an already precariously balanced and delicate ecosystem, becomes even more unstable when you realise just how many people in a school community are constantly changing moods dependent on which experience they perceive they are having.

 

So, now we have a fresh new way of understanding levels of motivation and its transient nature, how can we address these issues? The key is to talk about these issues and educate both staff and students about how they feel about the swings they are feeling on a daily basis. A problem shared is a problem halved and helping students in particular come to terms with why they are less motivated in some areas will inevitably lead to a variety of very useful outcomes.

 

Students would be able to identify and articulate why they didn’t feel motivated, i.e. revealing a lack of belief in why they feel they can’t succeed; why the topic doesn’t feel relevant to them or why they don’t like a particular teacher. In a school with high values, morals and ethics, these conversations and this level of transparency would lead to improved lesson planning, teachers taking more risks, improved relationships and a much more relevant curriculum.

 

There would be further benefits in that behavior and discipline would become far less of a challenge as students would have individual education plans and specific pathways to improve upon. Failure would be an acceptable and admirable experience and quality which would be a normal part of lessons and the wider education journey. Both staff and students would be far happier in their respective worlds as mental health and wellbeing, the root of many problems faced in the school community, would be addressed at source.

 

Making these critical observations and having these crucial conservations would also allow the school community to teach and engage some of the strongest models of education, which have thus far been largely ignored by the state school system. Howard Gardner’s work on Multiple Intelligences, Daniel Goleman’s landmark text on E.Q. incorporating the role of the amygdala, and Carole Dweck’s illuminating work on Mindset, would all have a much more authentic platform on which to be built in a school.

 

So next time you hear a colleague curse their Year 9 class for lacking motivation, smile and understand that there really could be a different culture to approach finding solutions to such problems.

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