Carrots fail to motivate

2nd March 2012 at 00:00

When I grow up I'm going to write one of those books that people quote at important conferences. You know the kind of thing: their titles usually have a portentous single word, followed by a suspense-building colon, and then a statement of life-changing significance. I'm thinking of Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking or Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness.

In an idle mental detour, I was thinking of titles to sum up the current educational climate. I rejected Gibb: I Can Make you Read Better and I briefly toyed with Gove: How to Stick a Proverbial Rocket up the Jacksie of the Education Establishment and Wipe the Prevailing Smugness Off Their Faces. But I fear it lacks subtlety.

Whatever its title, my book will be about motivation. After all, that's essentially our core business: how to take a group of people who don't know they're interested in a subject and prove to them that they're not just interested but passionate to learn more about it.

The trouble is that inspiring teachers, let alone pupils, is not simple - just as there's no pre-packaged formula for running a school in, say, inner-city Tottenham that can be applied to, say, rural Suffolk. The idea that we will improve teaching quality by criticising performance management is unlikely to change much.

Daniel H. Pink's Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us is the best book on the subject. Pink teaches us that monkeys love playing with puzzles. But if you reward them with raisins every time they get the puzzle correct, they begin to make more errors, solve the puzzles less consistently and get bored.

Carrots and sticks, Pink teaches us, often "achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aim". Yet they dominate educational discourse as if schools were baked bean factories and the prevailing tone beyond the school influences motivation within it. Endless sniping that there are 5,000 inadequate heads out there and that those of us who aren't academies are the enemies of progress is corrosive. I'm not saying that we shouldn't face criticism. But I would suggest that a school struggling to attract decent teachers in areas of low parental support will have their job made even harder by each macho sound bite of denigration.

Do the crowd running the Department for Education and Ofsted really think we don't want our pupils to perform better? Such rhetoric is patronising, inflammatory, and too often, you suspect, derives from policy advisers whose knowledge of state education rests on a furtive teenage viewing of Grange Hill.

So let's demand a truce. And let's articulate more vociferously that no one feels more urgently than we do the need to raise literacy and numeracy standards.

But let it be remembered that we're not monkeys, and that the world of schools and their communities is more complex than it may appear from Whitehall. True motivation comes from wanting to do better because we want to do better, not because someone outside the cage is flicking raisins through the bars or threatening us with a broken stick.

Geoff Barton is headteacher at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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