After well over a year of Covid disruption we know all too well that pupil motivation is important in our classrooms. However, sometimes we fail to give it the intentional focus that it deserves. If we want more motivated students, we first need to know what motivation is, what it is influenced by and how it can be put into practice.
I have a student who seems to actively fight against learning in my classroom, particularly after the most recent online learning period. I had almost given up, and then saw him in a totally different light in a PE lesson where he was focused, engaged and actively learning. That’s a key point. Motivation is specific towards a situation, not a general character trait.
But how do I make this student more motivated towards science? It’s a hard thing to do when motivation is a highly complex, invisible and mostly unconscious process. In his book Motivated Teaching, Peps Mccrea breaks motivation down into five core drivers and shows us how they can be actioned. I have briefly summarised these below, thought about where I have seen them put into practice especially well at St Julian´s and my key takeaways to build the motivation of this student in my classroom.
We are less likely to pay attention to something when we think we are likely to fail. And mostly we think we will fail because of our past experiences – it’s an evolutionary response to conserve energy. Mccrea defines a prior success rate of around 80 per cent as enhancing motivation towards a particular outcome. So how do we action this with our students? In most cases we shouldn’t lower the bar. We need to clearly define what success is and how it can be obtained. We do this with exemplar outcomes, clear instructions and scaffolding of tasks.
“Tom introduced, demonstrated and scaffolded the task in such a way that his students understood exactly what success looked like.”
I recently observed my colleague Tom Ackner´s year 3 class making model dinosaur fossils using salt clay. The students were so engaged with this activity, and one of the reasons behind this (aside from a general fascination with dinosaurs) was that Tom introduced, demonstrated and scaffolded the task in such a way that his students understood exactly what success looked like and the steps they needed to take to be successful. During the activity Tom circulated the room, praising and sharing examples of success. If a student became lost Tom quietly helped them to identify where in the process they were and how to get back on track. No one got left behind.
Mccrea talks about routines (both behavioural and instructional) as reducing the cost associated with a particular outcome. They help to streamline lesson time and reduce the cognitive load associated with a particular activity, freeing up more brain space for the new content and skills. We don’t always have to be introducing new and exciting activities, in fact, some students would find this quite stressful. If we implement a few routines really well it can make a huge impact on learning.
Another colleague, Deborah Roberts, has been working on a different kind of routine with her year 8 form group – breathing exercises. When first introducing the routine she layed out the purpose, helping her to build buy-in from her group, as well as giving a time frame and an overview of what the routine looks like, helping to reduce the anxiety that some of our students experience when they don’t know how a task will play out.
Every time Debs practises this routine she is able to slightly reduce this explanation and it becomes increasingly automatic for the students to switch into a calm and mindful state. This sets them up for a positive approach to the school day and equips them with skills and coping mechanisms for life.
“Routines help to streamline lesson time and reduce the cognitive load associated with a particular activity.”
We all conform to social norms, whether they are “we don’t do our homework”, saying please and thank you or not picking your nose in public. We can consolidate the norms that we want in our classroom by pointing out positive behaviour, modelling it ourselves and telling stories (perhaps about previous classes) to communicate what the norm in our classroom is.
Our PE teacher Aleutia Edgar does a great job of involving her PE students in highlighting positive behaviour and celebrating the success of others by asking students to point at someone who has made progress in the lesson (granted this might be easier in lessons where learning is more visible). Doing this also highlights that success in her lessons is about making progress, not being the highest achiever.
We pay more attention to something when we feel like we are part of a group with a common goal. As teachers, part of our job is to create an atmosphere where all students feel included and cared for. Teacher Jo Stedman is amazing at creating an environment of trust and inclusion, both in the classroom and in the biology department. She shows interest in everyone, recognises and champions the contributions of others, and uses collective language and humour to build a sense of community which then encourages students (and teachers) to follow her lead.
If you have ever watched my departmental colleague Gareth Cawson teaching chemistry you will know that he has an anecdote to go with everything, whether it is latex allergies or cliff jumping at Casa da Guia. You can’t help but be engaged when in his classroom as everything seems so relevant and interesting. He makes students see “the why” from their own perspective and the effect of this is evident in their engagement and focus.
So, after reflecting upon Mccrea´s work and the good practice of my colleagues, I have been considering how I can utilise this to build the motivation of the previously mentioned student towards science.
I can develop his sense of belonging and self-worth by showing more explicitly my interest in him as a person, that I care about him and his learning. I need to get to know his interests, drivers and values better and then personalise my teaching to ensure he feels engaged and understands the relevance of his science lessons to his everyday life. Granted, it isn’t possible to enhance learning in this way with every lesson, but it’s a good place to start with a student experiencing low levels of motivation.
“I can develop his sense of belonging and self-worth by showing more explicitly my interest in him as a person.”
I see routines as being especially helpful in supporting the learning of lower ability students, but I also appreciate the confusion and increased cognitive load that accompanies a student having to remember many different routines used by their many different teachers. In this respect perhaps St Julian´s would benefit from a whole school focus on embedding behavioural and learning routines that are consistent throughout.
I can help to secure the success of this student by being more intentional in checking for understanding prior to an activity and sufficiently scaffolding tasks to his ability to ensure that he too is able to feel the satisfaction of success when he is able to overcome challenges. Being more vocal in praising the use of correct strategy and effort within my classroom will help to build more positive norms.
And who knows, with these changes maybe he will start to love science as much as I do.