How the policymakers undermine motivation

20th January 2006 at 00:00
I am pleased to see your series on motivation (Friday magazine, January 6, 13 and today) as I believe that there are a number of contradictions between what policymakers say about motivation, and the reality of student attitudes and behaviour in the classroom.

I am a teacher in central London and soon to finish a PhD which has used psychological theory, questionnaires and interviews to record and measure student motivation on advanced GNVQs and AVCEs (now applied A-levels). I have to admit, as a teacher who still has some idealistic tendencies, that I found my results rather depressing.

First, many schools have attempted to increase numbers in their sixth form by relaxing their entry criteria for vocational students. Weaker students then struggle to achieve good marks on inappropriate courses. When faced with difficult tasks, they respond by procrastinating and avoiding assessment of their work. Often assignments are not handed in until the end of the course.

Second, recent reforms of post-16 education have created extrinsically oriented structures and cultures that discourage intrinsic engagement in work. I will save you the details of the regression analysis, but it shows that AVCE students who respond most to target grades, teacher-enforced deadlines and Ucas points tend to outperform others. This may appear to be stating the obvious, but I was more surprised that intrinsic motivation and interest were negatively associated with students' final grades.

Finally, the Government has placed considerable emphasis on motivation to improve general levels of performance. For example, recent policy documents have explained how stretch, challenge and rigour motivate non-academic students to higher levels of achievement. They don't. Instead they reduce student self-confidence and final grades.

In the 2005 White Paper the term "choice" is often associated with motivation. Yes, a choice of different types of course and institution is motivational, but there are serious doubts as to whether the majority of students have any real choice at all. My research showed that students and parents are socialised to accept that A-levels and a place at university are the only desirable outcomes of a successful education. Having failed to gain enough good GCSE grades to take A-levels, vocational students become what many see as second-rate students on second-rate courses, with clear implications for their motivation and achievement.

My wish is that my research, and your series, will initiate a more informed debate over the influence of policy on student attitudes, motivation and performance. My results have tended to support teachers' common-sense notions of what is, and what is not, motivational and question some of the claims made by policymakers. I support any initiative that gives voice to the classroom practitioner.

David Wellings

David Wellings is teaching part-time at Portland Place school in central

London while completing his PhD

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