The Secret of Motivation


I saw this question tweeted today by @surreallyno :

Why is it that traditionalists rarely, if ever, emphasize curiosity as a driver of academic performance? Any ideas?

She then said that:

“The point being made is that “how” you teach these subjects has a profound effect on curiosity and overall learning.”

Bear with me as it might not immediately seem relevant but this discussion reminded me of a rather annoying AS politics essay question set last summer. It looked innocuous enough but many of our students flunked it. We had covered all the necessary material, the students had dutifully learnt the right stuff but they failed to see how their learning could be applied to the question. This is a particular issue for us with AS politics and leads to two big questions.

1. Why can’t my students see the relevance of their learning when the question is phrased in an unfamiliar way?
2. What can we do about this?

I have a good answer to question one. It is found in this brilliant article. Teaching question analysis will only take you so far. Our students did well overall but this question highlighted that they lacked broader knowledge and understanding of politics. That is not to say they did not understand what they had learnt, understanding is not all or nothing.

I don’t want to overstate the problem, our department is successful but I do want to build the best possible understanding. I could see that despite our efforts knowledge was sometimes narrowly grasped without enough understanding of the interconnections between concepts. This wasn’t because of a lack of focus on understanding. We just need more than 10 months with real novice learners especially as the course is very content heavy. Now, our students should have all been following politics actively outside of lessons. This should be the solution, a way for them to get up to speed but they frequently seemed to lack that degree of curiosity and personal motivation. They enjoyed lessons (well over half of each cohort go on to study politics at university) However, not enough news was being watched and while there was plenty of curiosity to read the sports section of the newspaper few were tucking into the political comment!

Milos’ tweet suggests the way to provoke curiosity was to change ‘how’ we taught. I presume she believes that a guided discovery or inquiry approach would stimulate curiosity. I largely disagree. I think in this case it was because we were expecting a discovery approach to work that there were problems. Our students, watching news they didn’t really understand and reading articles referencing countless issues they had no knowledge of, were understandably put off. In lessons we are always discussing relevant current events but our course is full and explaining one news story can take 15 minutes with new students.

I decided the solution was a new format for our Politics Society. Over many years I and colleagues have tried more student led or discussion formats. This year we would meet weekly in the lunch break, ‘encourage’ our year 12s especially, to attend and use the time purely to brief attendees on the last week in politics. Ultimately we would want the club to develop a discussion based format but initially our club would be very teacher led. The first sessions ended up being pure lecture as our students didn’t really ask questions and questioning them too much would turn the sessions into ordinary lessons. It seemed I had decided to encourage discussion through a club that was mainly me and my colleague lecturing! At this point we could have lost our nerve, organised some rather banal, ill informed debate or persuaded a few more able kids to lead sessions even though they were not very well informed themselves. However, my theory was that once students had access to understand more of the television news and the papers they would become increasingly enthusiastic and able to join in. This is because I believe curiosity and motivation blossom as you grasp more about interesting things and aren’t so much generic traits that can be inculcated. We can’t teach a generic ‘love of learning’, a sort of indiscriminate desire to find out everything and anything. You learn things and as you do so you often become more and more interested.

Would it work? Would enthusiasm grow or weaken as students were told more and more about current events?

Life isn’t a Disney film but I’m really happy with how it is going. The classroom is full every week. We have some regular attendees who don’t even study politics and some that had to be initially ‘encouraged’ to attend who have continued voluntarily. They like finding out stuff from us, asking us questions, having us explain, even in their own time. As our students have gained some real knowledge of events they have started to contribute and gradually there has been more discussion. Our year 13s certainly contribute more than the year 12s but that rather proves my point. The more novice the learner the more reliant they are on the teacher and the less they can meaningfully offer. A few times I have worried that a club of this sort should be student led but I’ve held my nerve and waited for our students to feel more confident they have some grasp of current events before expecting them to take the lead. Some of my year 13s were chatting about how much they are enjoying politics a few weeks ago. They explained that the more they have studied, the more interesting it has become. they have certainly gained increasing enjoyment from Politics Club and are much more engaged by current events than they were initially. One student, then another, asked me, as a favour,  if they could run a Politics Club session. I grinned – broadly – of course they could. I thought back to their start in year 12. One of them probably only chose politics because she was good at history and both subjects were taught by the same teachers. She started with no special enthusiasm but now she is genuinely excited to talk politics with anyone interested.

I think most would agree that intellectual curiosity and thus motivation to learn are important but complex. It bothers me when I hear, for example,  early years teachers,claiming that because activities are child led children will grow up more intellectually curious. There seems little basis for this claim. I don’t think discovery learning is effective but we all know of kids fired up by traditional and progressive teaching. I’ll plug away at helping my students gradually learn more of what is innately interesting about my subject. As long as they understand it I’ll not particularly worry about the way they encountered that information.

Technology has transformed my teaching!

Technology has transformed my teaching!

My practice as a teacher has been transformed by technology. When I began in the classroom 21 years ago technology meant one PC in a corner used mainly by my HoD and I rarely got near it. Now tech is an integral part of my working life. I cannot imagine trying to teach without using tech. To those that argue that research shows that technology has no measurable impact on learning I can only suggest they must be blind, its benefits are ubiquitous.

Those of my colleagues that know me well might be be rather surprised that I have suddenly come out in favour of tech and its revolutionary and transformational impact and ongoing potential. It may make more sense when you read my personal Top Ten Applications of Technology that have most revolutionised my history and politics teaching over the years:

1. GOOGLE. Oh my goodness it is flippin magic! Ten years ago it was useless as there was not so much useful info available but now any time a student asks a question the answer can be found in moments. Was Sir Francis Walsingham an MP asked a bright yr13 girl recently? No problem, yes Charlotte he was, for most of his career. If I have a mental block about Jacobins or Jacobites lovely, magic google is there to save me.

2. MY DATA PROJECTOR. My classroom has had one for five years. Now whatever I have found through my googling can be shared with the whole class. A kid wonders what this ‘Chinese Opera’ was that Chairman Mao’s wife reformed. Tell you what, I won’t do an impression, I’ll just find a clip! Which brings me on to the that holy grail of teachers…

3. YOUTUBE. Oh if I could write sonnets I might write one to thee oh wonderful saviour of teachers. I returned to work after a long maternity leave only four years ago, knowing NOTHING of Youtube. How can it be that something has so quickly become utterly indispensable? How did I ever teach A level politics well before its advent?

4. EMAIL. I’m not entirely sure it is a good thing that I seem to spend more time on emails than in front of a class but it is undoubtedly a wonderful tool for workplace communication. Was it only 10-12 years ago that I spent most of break time hovering hopefully near the colleague engaged in chat, that I urgently needed a word with? Behaviour in schools is helped immeasurably by good communication between teachers and between them and their students.

5. WORD PROCESSORS. The communication of knowledge from teacher to student has been totally transformed in the last 20 years. I can make resources designed specifically to meet the needs of MY class. They can spend much more time working with, discussing, organising material they are learning. For better or for worse the experience of A level is no longer one of endless note taking and once they have mastered the detail my students can refine their essays again and again.

7. SHARED RESOURCES. Someone in our department makes a resource, saves it and hey presto it is there for everyone to use immediately or tweak. The time saved is incalculable. It was oh so very different when I began teaching.

6. DATABASES. Ours is called isams. I can log in and within seconds I have student details, timetables, class lists and exam entries all just there. Databases have been around a while but only more recently become really usable by the ordinary teachers.

7. REPORT WRITING. Anyone else remember those sheets where each teacher had to write a comment? If you were last and messed up you had to drop notes in all the other teachers’ pigeon holes asking them to re- write. Mind you, I do miss the shared banter as we all sat in a room together daring each other to include the most unlikely words in our writing. I remember someone once laying down the challenge of fitting in the word ‘voluptuous’ and there was always the chance to re-hash the urban legend of the teacher that got away with a report in which the first letter of each line spelt out *TOSSER*.

8. IWB. OK I’ll admit I barely use mine but some of my colleagues love it and make great use of it.

9. VISUALISERS It is really useful to show all sorts of things to the whole class, especially good work.

10. EXCEL Keeping track of data was so much harder when my career began and spreadsheets are so useful…in the right hands.

Apologies if my list made you choke or perhaps some just rolled their eyes at my sheer naivety, stuck as I am in the dark ages equating the use of this sort of technology with grand visions of e learning. However, I would say you need to get a grip. Some of the uses of technology on my list have only been very widely used in schools for 5-10 years. Take it from a history teacher, that is rapid change. Schools are inappropriate institutions to be at the forefront of technological innovation of any sort because for example, my primary role is to teach my students some history and politics not to road test every latest IT gimmick just in case it turns out to represent ‘the future’. The financial and learning opportunity cost of waves of failed initiatives is mammoth and our pupils deserve not to be experimented on, however noble the intention.

If applications of technology are genuinely useful they won’t need the hard sell from industry ‘thought leaders’, government diktat or a punitive observation or inspection regime to ensure adoption. I don’t remember any of my top ten fabulously useful tech applications being really forced on teachers (except maybe IWBs on those that don’t really need them). In fact if coercion is necessary one can safely say the applications are not that useful. I’m so tired of going on courses to hear people tell me that *their* vision of what technology *should* achieve *must* be adopted in the name of progress. If a significant proportion of the staff and student body seem to be dragging their heels, not using that wonderful ipads as they should, perhaps it would be better to assume those uses are more trouble than they are worth, not that users lack vision. Some of the practices I have been told make universal ipad use in schools worthwhile are pitiful.

I think the saddest irony is that there is no reason to doubt that tech could continue to totally transform my practice and thus my students’ classroom experience. There are lots of great uses in different subjects. However, while energy is endlessly expended developing ‘solutions looking for problems’ who is actually identifying and really working on the real problems that tech can address?