Winning hearts and minds

5th January 2007 at 00:00
Oliver James has a special new year message for Tony Blair and headteachers

Only six months to go before your pupils let you down in the next lot of exams. But fear ye not, help is now at hand from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Apply its message and it will be brownie points and head-teacherly admiration all round.

As you have probably already noticed, the children who do best in exams are autonomous - self-motivated rather than just going through their parents'

or your motions. But the journal took a closer look at this, distinguishing between two different aspects of autonomous motivation - the intrinsic and identified.

Intrinsic means you freely choose to do something out of interest, usually leading to excitement and absorption in the activity - sex, yes, but also things like reading a good book.

Identified means you are doing it because you recognise and accept it needs to be done for yourself; you are taking a longer view in persisting with an activity which may not wow you, but which is important to you rather than your parents or teachers.

By studying samples of primary children and university students, researchers confirmed (as many other studies have) that children who are intrinsically motivated have more well-being than ones who work because they feel obliged to from outside.

Okay, but who cares if the little swines are happy - what about exam results?

Well, they also found that children who have identified motivation do better at exams than ones who work because someone told them to. What was more, the well-being of these youngsters decreased if they did badly in exams. But this kind of ill-being is not bad for children - it teaches them to try harder next time if they want to achieve their goals. Whereas, the ones who were just going through the motions did not get upset if they did badly because they were disengaged.

For anyone who cares about pupils' performance and well-being, the implication is clear. You need to get them working because they want to, not because you want them to, and you need to encourage them to find elements in the work which they find intrinsically pleasing.

I know, easier said than done. Studies show the key factor as to whether a child is intrinsic or identified, or both, is how they were cared for in their early years. If parental love was conditional on performance (like good behaviour or doing things well) or if parents showed no interest in encouraging their child, the youngsters were much less likely to be intrinsic or identified.

Nothing much you can do about how your pupils were cared for as nippers.

But other research shows if teachers do their best to foster autonomy, it can make a big difference even if the parents were crap.

On top of that, you might draw your headteacher's and Tony Blair's attention to the fact that when teachers are similarly encouraged to be intrinsic and identified by their schools, they also perform better (see www.psych.rochester.eduSDT for more on self-determination theory).

In short, neither pupils nor teachers are robots and the sooner everyone realises that, the better

Oliver James is a child psychologist and the author of Affluenza - How to be Successful and Stay Sane. The updated second edition of his book They F*** You Up - How to Survive Family Life has just been published.For the study, see the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2006, Vol 91, 750-62

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