Why we can never be in neutral mode

9th June 2006 at 01:00
The recent inquiry by MSPs has thrown the spotlight on pupil motivation. So how can we improve it? asks Alan McLean

Every teacher will have an opinion on motivating pupils. The Scottish Parliament's education committee has just finished inquiring into this question and has given its answer in a valuable "snapshot overview" that captures both the importance and pervasiveness of motivation.

The committee wisely resisted the temptation to prescribe a national policy on issues that stem from "the complex interactions between individual psychology, the relationship between teacher and pupil, peer group interactions and the link between school and the outside world".

The most innovative, as well as most contentious, recommendation is that schools should seek pupil feedback on how motivating they find their classrooms. Motivation is a two-way process: pupils do affect teacher morale, so the sooner they are brought into the loop the better. This means creating a climate where pupil opinion is truly valued and where leadership is distributed throughout classrooms as well as staffrooms.

The report encourages the executive to emphasise the importance of education, including vocational and academic outcomes. Given that the commercial world spends much more on advertising than the state does on education, I wonder how powerful government really is.

An obsession with outcomes can also be counterproductive. There is a danger of losing sight of learning for its own sake, curiosity, fun and enjoyment.

Adult learners have indicated that interest is more important than outcome, and that it was pressure over outcomes in their formative years that turned many off learning.

The report doesn't suggest any easy solutions and acknowledges that there will be tensions, for example between the need for greater academic achievement and the wish to lighten the assessment and examination load.

Any teacher resistance to the current tranche of initiatives is not so much to do with workload, but more probably uncertainty over whether or not the new zeitgeist is for real - or will schools still be judged solely on attainment?

This inquiry will have been worthwhile if it becomes a platform for addressing further the paradoxes that permeate education. First, the plethora of initiatives designed to improve pupil motivation may do the reverse by denting teacher morale. The open-ended nature of trying to achieve children's potential in combination with the continuous quest for improvement is a recipe for stress. By constantly increasing aspirations, the system makes satisfaction almost impossible.

Every new initiative becomes a potential burden, particularly if it doesn't take into account the culture of schools or connect with their central mission. The current ideology is an apparently impartial line, presented as the natural way of things. I'm perplexed at the unquestioning acceptance of the four "capacities" in A Curriculum for Excellence, based on the questionable assumption that all children want to be model citizens.

Second, initiatives to raise motivation are often outsourced to private and voluntary organisations by schools abdicating territory that is fundamentally theirs. They need to reclaim this and put motivation at the heart of what they are about.

In the third paradox, we have A Curriculum for Excellence pointing towards pupil responsibility while practice is encouraging dependency in children.

To raise achievement, the education system is hyperactively spoon-feeding children who then fail to assume responsibility for constructing their own learning.

Pupils come to school with the mindset that the teacher must control and entertain as well as teach them, and so they will taunt probationers facing this challenge. As one headteacher suggested to me recently, schools are places where young people go to watch old people work. Motivation is not a quality of the learner, but a transaction between the learner and the context. We need to think hard about when and how classrooms started nurturing this over-dependency.

The report pinpoints how the value of education has been eroded, leading to the increasing polarisation between improving and "stuck" groups. It doesn't, however, try to explain this. My own view is that sections of society have so little sense of personal responsibility for their lives that they don't recognise or see a way out of this culture of learned helplessness.

The issue of pupils needing to take responsibility is mentioned but needs further development. We need to harness methodologies that nurture pupil responsibility, including personal learning planning and Assessment is For Learning.

The fourth paradox is about how society expects schools to socialise pupils to believe in their personal rights and individuality, despite the collective nature of school life where most teachers rarely are able to interact with individual pupils.

The report underlines the need for different strategies to engage different pupils. The biggest challenge to schools in motivating pupils is that they are all different. I'm not sure, however, if there is a full appreciation at any level in education of the range of what I call "learning stances"

within any one class and how big a challenge this really is for teachers.

There is much to be done on clarifying the key differences between pupils and developing the capacity of schools to tune into and respond to these differences.

The fifth paradox is that pupils want to be treated the same. But equality that doesn't recognise differences is demoralising and unfair. Teachers need to treat pupils according to their needs, so we need to find ways to help pupils to understand that they have different needs.

Teachers, like emotions, are never in neutral and can affect children either positively or negatively. Teachers can sometimes treat pupils rigidly on their terms and then get caught up in the behavioural backlash.

Motivating pupils requires reflective rather than reactive teaching. This is what makes the reflective practitioner so successful.

Alan McLean is an educational psychologist in Glasgow and was an adviser to the parliamentary inquiry on pupil motivation.

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