Keep an eye on the prize all year long

Let's be honest. How many of you have kept to your New Year resolutions? Mine lasted until 4pm on our first day back, when the left-over Christmas chocolates appeared at our senior team meeting. It was all downhill after that, culminating in a Chinese takeaway for dinner.

So much for the great New Year diet; but then it probably wasn't particularly smart to start on the first day back to school, nor in dark January when we need lots of comfort.

Leverage. That's what the "gurus" on motivation tell us we need to help change the bad habits of a lifetime and this chimed with what Duncan, one of our fourth year pupils, told me when he came into my office. Poor Duncan, he came in at just the right moment for me but the wrong one for him and got cornered to chat about motivation.

"How are you doing this year, Duncan?"

"Much better than last year, Miss" was his honest reply, followed by his explanation.

"It's having the prelims," he explained. "That motivates you 'cos you really don't want to do badly."

There's the leverage. Mental note: introduce prelims into S3.

Duncan then happily discussed (unbidden) how he is getting on much better with his teachers, which he feels is due to the fact that he is more engaged with his work, and how his teachers help to motivate him.

"My maths teacher is brilliant," says Duncan. "He explains everything really well and if you get stuck he is great at helping you."

"Anything which you find has the opposite effect in school?" I ask. Duncan thinks hard.

"No," comes the reply. "I can't think of anything at all."

He has just made my day.

Most of our fourth years are being mentored this session by support staff and volunteers. Duncan is among this group and sees his mentor every couple of weeks.

I asked him if he found this useful or not. He apparently finds it immensely helpful since he reflects on his work regularly, knows that someone is interested in him and that he'll get positive feedback.

Judging by what Duncan is saying, a great deal of what we are doing appears to be having some success but the crunch will come this evening when I sign the fourth year reports prior to issue and review the S4 monitoring returns.

Back in November, we had focused on motivation on our staff development day and had invited Ian Smith of Learning Unlimited to talk to us. Much of Ian's work on the subject is based on Alan McLean's book The Motivated School and focuses on the central motivational "drivers" of engagement, structure, stimulation and feedback.

Thinking back to my conversation with Duncan, the same drivers are there.

Engagement comes through the interest which Duncan's teachers and his mentor show in him; structure through a safe and secure environment where he knows what is expected of him, what he wants and how to achieve it; stimulation by enjoying his work in class; feedback from his teachers and mentor. He knows he is doing much better and feels good about it.

Duncan's classes sound "sunny", as Alan Mclean describes the motivated classroom. "My English teacher really expects a lot of you but he's great at getting you to come up with ideas for writing," says Duncan. Creativity there and high support and challenge.

"He's funny too. When you get work back you know what you have done well and I'm chuffed about that but I know how I can do it even better."

We can see that there is a focus on self-improvement in that classroom along with humour and very specific praise and next steps.

Duncan's conversation with me wasn't dissimilar to other conversations with our pupils over the years and the same themes come up again and again. Our knowledge of how people learn best and what motivates us is increasing, and thanks to people like Alan McLean and Ian Smith who distil this knowledge into a digestible form for us, we can translate it into specific school and classroom practice.

Listening to the insane debate about the future of education south of the border, with its focus on selective schools and streaming and so on, makes me quite glad we have a focus on people and learning.

All this talk about motivation has got me motivated to try this diet again but I could do with a mentor to help me. Then again, maybe I'll start tomorrow ...

Linda Kirkwood is headteacher of Oban High. If you have any comments, email

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