How broccoli can teach us about student motivation

3rd June 2016 at 00:00
Parents use positive framing to get kids to eat the vegetable and teachers can use the same technique to get students working

MARIE ANTOINETTE is famous, albeit possibly unfairly so, for pronouncing “Let them eat cake”. In the US-based KIPP schools, their self-control inspired clarion-call is, “Don’t eat the marshmallow.” I have a new food metaphor to add to the canon: “Eat the broccoli.”

Bear with me.

Teachers, like most other adults, are naturally inclined to implement negatively framed strategies in order to quickly solve problems in the classroom. Take homework. A missed homework from a student can see a bad comment or a detention issued.

It doesn’t really work. For example, consider those students who have been given a fistful of detentions for missed homework and never change their bad habit. Rather perversely, it can solidify their resolve: it can make them feel alienated from their academic work, but feel safe in their peer group.

So, why might broccoli help? Allow me to digress, a little, into personal territory.

Being a parent has given me a rather unique insight into the daily psychological battle that is dinnertime. Some kids will take their parents through hell rather than eat a scrap at home but, lo and behold, sit them next to their friends in the school dining hall and suddenly they happily tuck into their hated food. That hated food is usually broccoli.

We know that peers strongly influence one another, for good and for ill. Research into the dietary habits of children has shown the power of peer influence, especially when it comes to the sensitive spell of adolescence when fitting in trumps most other influences in students’ lives (see bit.ly/PeerInfluence1).

So, even with young children, we can make them eat broccoli if we do certain things that make eating it seem like the thing to do. We can:

Tell them that all of their friends are happily eating broccoli.

Show them that their friends are happily eating broccoli.

Give them bite-size portions of broccoli to help them adjust to the taste.

Group them with people who enjoy broccoli.

Present different options for eating broccoli at lunchtime.

Model the eating of broccoli at home.

Implicitly send messages about the benefits of the super food on a regular basis.

Give students attainable goals for how much broccoli they can and should eat.

Give them clear time parameters in which to eat their broccoli.

Keep reminding them about the best ways to eat broccoli and give them lots of different broccoli recipes to try themselves.

Fundamentally, it is an example of psychological framing: the way that we are influenced to make a choice based on whether it is presented positively or negatively, or presented as a loss or a gain.

The aforementioned KIPP slogan translates as: stick to your classwork, homework and revision; don’t get distracted or procrastinate. It is an example of negative framing.

The approach above with the broccoli, however, is an example of positive framing.

There is the potential that the positive framing approach is the more effective in changing behaviours (such as outlined in this article on the power of positive framing: bit.ly/posframe).

You may be forgiven for thinking that I may have shares in the broccoli farming industry. Don’t worry, I don’t.

What if we could harness positive peer pressure in the classroom? Could we establish positive norms that translate our students’ desire to fit in into a productive urge to be an academic success? Could we get students to “eat the broccoli” of school work?

As much as we like to think the dominant role model in school is the teacher, the reality for teens is that their crucial models need to reflect what they see in the mirror: they need to look and sound like them. So we need role models, or to create role models, that encourage students to do what we need them to do.

So take the above list and translate broccoli to any of the following from our daily diet of learning: homework, group work, revision, mathematics and more.

Let’s return to the homework example. The branding of homework, the support factors (parents, tools, school support) required for success, and subtle and near-hidden messages about the benefits of homework and how every student is doing it (even when some aren’t) all need strategic forethought. You can’t influence kids with a detention. You can make them eat the broccoli, though.

I am not saying that punishments have no place in the classroom. Students benefit from the safety of clear boundaries and appropriate sanctions. But we can too easily miss the ability to establish positive norms that are actually more successful influence the future behaviour of our student brethren.

So, as we seek to establish some good habits to carry our students through the rest of the 2016 school year, let’s remember to encourage them to eat the broccoli.

Perhaps I should copyright it?

Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School and author of The Confident Teacher. He tweets @HuntingEnglish

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