Smile and the children learn with you

10th January 2003 at 00:00
ESSENTIAL MOTIVATION IN THE CLASSROOM. By Ian Gilbert. RoutledgeFalmer pound;12.99

As someone who has always enjoyed reading education theory (and thereby, depending on your age and attitude, branded as either a "reflective practitioner" or a "saddo"), I've found that the best education books fall into two groups. There are those that provoke questions, many of them designed to unsettle our current attitudes (such as John Holt's How Children Fail and Michael Barber's The Learning Game), and those that provide reassuring answers (such as The Craft of the Classroom by Michael Marland). This new book makes a bold promise in its title and falls most definitely into the "providing answers" camp.

I love Gilbert's dizzying passion and enthusiasm, his fascinating distillation of motivational quotations, brain theory, practical psychology and blinding good sense. I followed his advice and read with a highlighter pen in one hand. There now isn't a single page without neon stripes.

Essential Motivation in the Classroom begins with a call to arms on the need to re-enthuse students - and ourselves - about why and how we learn. As Gilbert says more than once, while primary teachers see themselves as teaching children, secondary teachers say they teach subjects. But we delude ourselves if we think our subject alone will be sufficient motivation for most students.

Deftly deploying neuroscience to remind us that the brain constantly seeks "what's in it for me?" reasoning, he urges us to deploy other motivational techniques. Students need to keep an eye on the big picture: who they want to be in the future and how they will get there; what their goals and dreams are, and how this subject fits into the plan.

School in this context has an important transitional role, an airport rather than the final destination: "It is simply an extended packing process."

Built into this psychology is the principle that we must prepare students to take responsibility for their own journey. Our role is to help them formulate their ambitions and guide them towards their realisation, but not to do the work for them. In fact, one of the most bracing parts of Gilbert's thesis is that children not only need support and protection. They also "need hardening: the more we do for them, the less they will choose to do for themselves, creating a vicious cycle of learned helplessness". Put more simply: "Don't ride the bike for them."

If this all sounds grandly rhetorical and short on practical advice (like too many books about education), don't be deceived. Gilbert injects an endless stream of practical ideas for creating motivation. He gives us guidance on practical implementation of Howard Gardner's work on learning styles: for example, how a literature teacher might enthuse a student whose preferred style is logicalmathematical (get her to reduce Macbeth to an algebraic formula). He challenges current practice on everything from rewards systems to the way we group students by age to how we smile at them in corridors.

Most persuasively, he reminds us that relationships are at the heart of successful learning in schools. We will build students' self-esteem only if our own self-belief, as individuals and as a profession, is high. And optimism in education is essential. He supports his arguments always with examples, quotations, or neuroscience: when we are hopeful our brains literally light up with electrical energy coursing around the upper - intellectual - regions; but when we find ourselves in a state of hopelessness the brain will dim, with the energy downshifting to the lower, more basic elements.

Some will find the book's jaunty style irritating: it's full of jokes and anecdotal asides. But why would we expect anything else? If Ian Gilbert is right - that being a teacher is about enthusing, entertaining, motivating and inspiring young people - then he's right to demonstrate the same qualities in his writing.

This is now one of my top five education books. I expected to skim it quickly and dutifully. Instead, I was absorbed and uplifted by it and my own practice as a teacher will undoubtedly change as a result. Surely there can be no higher recommendation.

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

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