How do you motivate a lower set group?
My recent edu-reads have taken me on different journies towards possible solutions to this potentially game changing question. Since September I have been trialling some new strategies, and some old ones, and I’d like to share three if they can be of use to anyone over the course of these blogs.
What comes first? Motivation or Success?
For me, it’s motivation -just(!) but it must be quickly and frequently met with success in order to nurture future motivation. What are we doing to ensure students experience success on a regular basis, and why does it matter more for our lower attainers?
I once had a colleague who basically lied to his students about the grades he gave them. He fully admitted it -he would inflate grades by a half to 1 grade, and we all cursed him (in a nice way) when we had to moderate his coursework down at the end of the year.
His students though, were 100% motivated. They literally strutted round the school, speaking of the B+ grades they had got, above their performance in other subjects, brimming with pride because, and this is the crux, they had had a lifetime of failures otherwise in English lessons.
I don’t lie to my students, but I do find numerous opportunities to mention grades, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Let me try and explain why.
Dweck, in her book ‘Mindset’ steers mostly clear of the low attainers in my view and it frustrates me, as I subscribe otherwise to the principles behind GMS. We hear of a few kids like the boy ‘You mean I don’t have to be dumb any more?’ and he starts to try, but generally most of the stories are of people who were already high achievers, but via the fixed mindset developed little interest in effort / had a fear of failure, and wanted to preserve that status. The point is though, for most of them, they had the foundation of hundreds of successes and often the added bonus of some natural genetic aptitude on the way up. We are talking about people who have/ developed a fixed mindset in something they are already pretty damn good at.
What about those young people who have had the crippling sense of relative failure to their peers throughout primary school and secondary school -literally hundreds of situations when an English activity has not gone well, and their confidence has been steadily, relentlessly diminished?
Couple this with the fact teenagers have the most incredibly fragile self-esteem; they are seeking out who they are -what makes up their personal identity, and it is obvious this is going to be linked to where their successes come.
Success = motivation / enjoyment = further success
I’ve given Growth Mindset presentations on resilience, talked about Steve Jobs and James Dyson who both experienced hundreds of failures on their way to the top. BUT what we don’t share in those assemblies is the fact Jobs was an electronics whizz at school, and was inspired/guided by his uncle; Dyson showed remarkable aptitude for engineering extremely quickly at University. For them, yes they were resilient, but there had been enough successes in the discipline to act as a safety net, a counter-balance for the short period of failures that followed.
My lower set 10s haven’t had that. They don’t have that bank of successes to offset the times they get things wrong, the times they perceive themselves to have failed.
It therefore follows that they must experience the pleasurable mental rush of success quickly, regularly, and sense that there is an achievable outcome for them equated with a commonly accepted measure of success or why should they bother?
The try hard / it’s all about your effort message is pointless otherwise.
The ‘Well done on that good punctuation use!‘ is nice and all, but probably worth 1 gramme on the scales above. Achieving a standard accepted by most as a measure of success amongst peers, must be worth a kilogram!
It is difficult enough for adults to overcome the incompetent experiences / paranoia of failure and continue to apply themselves to something -(like DIY if you’re me!), but with children, all the assemblies and posters in the world are not going to get through without tangible, relative success.
What do I mean by relative, tangible success?
When I was 11, I got into skateboarding. I enjoyed it -the buzz of going downhill fast, the clothes, the exciting places to hang-out. However, for the life of me, I couldn’t do an ‘ollie’! For those not familiar with skateboarding jargon, it’s a kind of kick-flip jump. Most of my mates could do it; I couldn’t. I tried many times, practicing on my own, sometimes with others, but I didn’t manage to master it.
This was a problem because being able to do an ollie was the relative standard. It equated to being a successful skateboarder -it was the first major trick. Most could ride like me; but anyone half decent could ollie. After a lack of success in this, despite considerable hours practicing (honestly, I did!), the motivation and enjoyment for me disappeared, and I pursued other hobbies.
Young people are particularly good at sniffing out that standard of success relative to peers and subscribing to it. Why do we ignore this?
Success = motivation / enjoyment = further success
At KS4, the relative standard of success is a ‘C’ grade or a Level 4. It’s the access level to college, to a job, our national agreed standard for being functionally literate. Students know, their parents know, and I know that if they don’t get the ‘4’ then, much as it pains me to say, in most cases (Some EAL/serious SEN excepted) they’ve not done enough. It’s simply not good enough.
I know I’m in the minority here. It is highly fashionable in teaching lately to avoid talking grades, and to celebrate progress with ‘good punctuation‘ or ‘excellent sentence variety‘. But ultimately, regardless of our growth mindset dreams, they are not going to go home singing and dancing about that. Just like budding footballers wouldn’t celebrate getting a corner kick into the area -that’s an expectation of anyone who plays football; they’ll look for what relative success is depending on their peers around them – making the school team for example. It’s these ‘relative successes’ that motivate the students to firstly enjoy the pursuit and garner the motivation to practise more for greater future success.
Every student in my group (in fact the vast majority of students in most schools) can either get/get extremely close to a ‘4’ if they apply themselves. I talk about that as the benchmark with them, and that we should all be aiming for that or higher. We look at higher Level 6 or 7 models, and I talk regularly to them in terms of ‘what you’ve said right there in exploring the writer’s intention – is Level 7 quality.’ I will return work with feedback on, and have learned to hold back the grade until after reflection work has been done, but often then I will unashamedly share what I believe their grade to be. The students who have earned ‘4’s have been over the moon. Those who are not far off are disappointed, but it may be they have to tweak a few things for next time. I will try hard to find sections of their work that I can recognise as level 4 or above quality on another piece of work.
The student who got a Level 6 in our recent end of unit assessment I celebrated as a model of success and what can be achieved by them all. I’m not sure why I would want to keep this quiet. He was beside himself with excitement -his hard work and focus had been rewarded and he had been successful. His peers who found out gave him a moving round of applause, and I thought he might shed a tear.
Motivation levels were good for him previously, but are now through the roof, as he went home to tell his parents that evening.
‘Once a student sees that he or she is capable of excellence, that student is never quite the same. There is a new self-image, a new notion of possibility. They’re never satisfied with less; they’re always hungry.’ -Berger -‘An Ethic of Excellence’
The lad predicted a ‘2’ at the end of Yr 10 with ‘slow processing skills’, earned a ‘4’ in a recent practice we did. I offered some scaffolding in previous lessons but then he did it – he was absolutely buzzing.
These experiences are a strong brick in the foundation for future resilience, for the kind of motivation levels needed to knuckle down on the Sunday night when his English homework is due, and his mates are playing X-box. Beforehand, I’m pretty certain it was a foregone conclusion which would win out.
Of course, I don’t give grades out all the time. I use many other tactics to motivate that are nothing to do with grades -some of which I’ll talk about in the other 2 blogs in this series, some not – the quiet word, the parental call, the extra day’s deadline rather than a sanction, the tougher challenge than they’re used to, discussing the profound importance of being able to read and speak confidently, the engagement with their interests and them as people.
I use them all, but for me, ensuring they experience a tangible notion of ‘success’ quickly and regularly, often via grades, still has a major part to play in motivation.
Thanks for reading.