Is the 21st century teacher a modern day ‘Mr or Mrs Motivator’?

Guest blog by Susannah Covey, Head of Year 10 and teacher of history

Recently The Times reported on new research by academics at Warwick Business School that found students who cut it fine in meeting their deadlines got lower grades. The research analysed marks awarded to more than 750 of its marketing students over a five year period. They found that those who finished their work with more than a day to spare got an average mark of 64.04, which equates to a 2:1. As the deadline loomed closer, average scores fell steadily to reach an average score of 59 for those who pressed the ‘submit’ button with one minute left, enough to push them a whole grade lower to a 2:2.

This research validates the experience of most teachers – the homework and coursework of students who delay completion and submission it is often poorer quality than that of more organised peers with better study habits. While ability to organise oneself to manage one’s time is evidently a crucial life skill, the will to study is also crucial.

One of the most exciting aspects of The Perse is its emphasis on ‘learning’ over ‘teaching’. Helping students cultivate a passion – for a topic, a subject, an interest – is one obvious way motivation takes seed. We know we are getting it right when pupils opt for additional qualifications like the Higher Project Qualification, when they have an appetite in the classroom to go well beyond the curriculum, and when they are active members of clubs and societies. I quite often, and happily, find a lesson deviating from its intended destination: a Year 9 class last term began with the end of World War Two in the Pacific and ended up in a spirited discussion of Just War Theory, via Bush and Blair’s 2003 intervention in Iraq. This past week The Perse has hosted a talk on the Rwandan genocide, a debate on the referendum and a cosmology trip for the Sixth Form – all totally optional and enthusiastically embraced.

Teachers can find new ways to inspire a thirst for knowledge and an eagerness to study in their students by reflecting on their practice and by innovating. I was struck by Dr Paul Howard Jones’ recent comments on the BBC Radio 4 programme The Educators about the role of computer gaming in enriching learning. Dr Jones suggests that the increased dopamine uptake caused by the effects of reward by ‘luck’ in computer games can help accelerate and focus learning, and increase student incentive and motivation. Introducing an element of chance of reward can make learning addictive. A colleague in the History Department researched the impact of a computer historical strategy game on pupils studying Ancient Rome; the vast majority of the class found it increased their interest, knowledge and engagement with the subject.

We are lucky at The Perse to have students who are typically very engaged. However, we still have an obligation to help pupils maintain the motivation to study effectively, even in the darkest November days when – despite best intentions – energy can be flagging. As a Head of Year, I sometimes find myself trying to direct a small minority of students to do something they are reluctant to, and have to remind myself that this is in fact the wrong approach. It is not enough (and sometimes even counter-productive) to tell students why they will benefit from a particular action; the trick is to help them identify the gains for themselves. This can seem rather counter-intuitive to the concerned teacher, tutor or parent eager to encourage an unwilling adolescent.

We find it helps to encourage students to ask themselves ‘what’s in it for me?’. They will always have favourite subjects, but can inject enthusiasm into studying others by working out how a task meets their wider goals.

Students need to be encouraged to set goals for themselves – ones that meet their own needs and with which they will identify. Crucially, we then need them to develop the confidence to handle the failures that will inevitably come as they push themselves, along with the ability to react well when they do not meet their goals. In this way students avoid a ‘learned helplessness’. Otherwise, motivation will last only as long as success, which is often temporary. Finally, there comes a point at which teachers – having prepared students as best they can – have to take a deep breath and let go.

This means the role of the practitioner in today’s classroom may not be a modern-day Mr Motivator, ebulliently sustaining their will to work. Rather, our role is to encourage passion for learning, help students cultivate the strategies and techniques for motivating themselves, and ultimately be willing and able to allow students to fail in a positive and supported way.



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