Your best option? Be Mr Motivator

15th June 2018 at 00:00
When students choose your subject merely because they dislike it slightly less than another, it may be necessary to make changes to your teaching practice to ensure they remain engaged, finds Ben Wilcox

As a teacher of an option subject, I have always felt rather lucky to teach whole classes who share my academic first love and who have freely chosen to explore it with me. I have often gained reassurance during times of crisis or creative block from the fact that students had picked my subject.

Similarly, when managing behaviour, it has always been incredibly powerful to ask young people why they would make such poor choices in a subject they have opted to study.

The English Baccalaureate has changed everything for teachers like me. Students, potentially a significant proportion, may now have opted to join our haven of history simply because they hate geography more. Colleagues from core subjects may struggle to sympathise, but these changes have forced the biggest reconsideration of my practice since I trained.

It struck me that motivation was now central to unpicking how to deliver these courses. Promoting the rewards of studying these subjects will previously have been done through the options process, with little impact on some students, so with the introduction of the EBacc, it could be tempting to increase the traditional rewards we have in schools to help them perceive certain subjects as worthwhile.

Extra merits could be effective in the short term, but surely this will just create mercenaries of our students, who actually need to change their perceptions.

Behaviour policies will help to ensure compliance, of course, but what is needed here goes far deeper.

Self-determination theory – originally developed by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, and expertly unpicked by Daniel Pink – outlines that we all need competence, autonomy and relatedness in our lives to thrive. The notion that motivation comes from this is perhaps common sense, but if this had truly been present in my teaching, then the dynamics of my classes would not have transformed once the government’s changes bit. I had to change.

You may argue that creating motivation drives achievement, but the research shows the effect of achievement on self-perception is stronger than the reverse. The rewards are high for students who take up this challenge and this, in itself, will lead to greater motivation. So what changes can teachers make to support this?

Make achievements inspirational

Create bespoke activities to support students through each aspect of the course and its assessment. Regularly check understanding employing a range of methods, using formal assessments carefully, and adapting future teaching as needed. When a topic or skill is mastered, it can become the inspiration for future achievements.

Celebrate progress

Create resources to help students visually track their achievements, recognise where next steps have been taken successfully and praise scoring even just one more mark when knowledge tests are retaken as the course progresses.

Utilise specialists

When possible, give students part of a topic to specialise in on behalf of the group before sharing their learning.

Collaborate widely

Twitter can be an echo chamber for our biases and, at worst, poisonous for our motivation. Seek additional support. Facebook groups have been incredible for helping to deliver these new courses, as have teaching and learning hubs across subjects for those who share common ground. Any departmental time should be developmental and focused on these aims, saving admin for email.

Be honest

The demands of our courses should be made plain and embedded across the curriculum. This means that by the time students fully begin their courses, they are familiar with what is required of them. Building such competence will, in turn, boost motivation. This honesty needs to extend to us, too – meaningful independent study needs to be from Year 7 onwards, given what the students will undertake at GCSE. Similarly, all students, regardless of their reasons for being in our classes, need us to be the best versions of ourselves, brimming with CPD we know we could all make more time for.

Introduce greater differentiation

Use your growing knowledge of students to create working groups that facilitate peer support. My current Year 11 students prefer these to their friendship groups in lessons. Planning for the specific needs of each student and group can slip, given the countless demands on our time, so I use a colour-coding system in my planner to refocus my planning. Activities should be planned with high challenge levels but with targeted support to enable objectives to be achieved by all. Such precise differentiation is vital to avoid demotivation when there are already enough reasons for students to detest their forced “choice”.


Ben Wilcox is an assistant headteacher at The Magna Carta School in Surrey, part of the Unity Schools Trust. He is also an associate on PiXL’s executive board for history

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