Motivation and mastery: what’s the deal?

Just before Christmas when I was a child in year 7, my music teacher wheeled out the television and put on West Side Story. The film was roughly two hours long but the lesson was an hour. We watched half the film, and then we were done. I never saw the end. The same thing happened in the summer with Annie. The following Christmas, I didn’t see the end of Oliver. And the pattern continued in each of the final music lessons that fell before a school holiday. (Not before half terms, mind; the music department weren’t that slack.) By the time I got to year 9, I barely bothered to watch even the first five minutes of Singin’ in the Rain. I knew I wasn’t going to see the end of the film, so I tuned out entirely.

For the past few years, on and off, I have taught smallish groups that consist almost entirely of students who – for a variety of reasons – have fallen far behind where they should be. My day-to-day experience has hammered home one idea over all others: People hate failing at things, especially in front of their peers. And this is a problem because, let’s face it, a lot of our students experience a lot of failure. Something is taught, but little or nothing is really understood. The next lesson brings something new because the teacher can’t wait for every student to ‘get it’, and the failure is just left to hang in the air. The children start the film, maybe even reach the middle, but there’s no ending, no resolution. Perhaps they’ll see it next year.

As these children’s experiences of failure accumulate, many become immune to the things we commonly do and say to motivate them. We’ve all taught the kid who refuses any reward, his way of showing you that he knows exactly what you’re up to. There’s no way around it. If children don’t succeed the vast majority of the time, then they will slowly, but inevitably, lose motivation, and – this is the controversial part – I think sometimes this plays a role in children’s classroom behaviour. No amount of confidence-building or sensitivity (nor systematic use of sanctions and rewards for that matter) will undo the damage to motivation wrought by persistent failure. Now, before I’m accused of teacher-blaming, let me make this clear: there are plenty of reasons – many of them unrelated to the teaching process – that can lead to challenging behaviour. Consistent systems with clear boundaries and predictable consequences are essential, as are caring relationships and a culture of mutual respect. Nevertheless, we also have the ability, I believe, to tip the odds of motivating children significantly in our favour; not just as individuals for our own sake, however, but across the profession and for every teacher that comes after us. Every time a student experiences the initial confusion of a new concept or bit of knowledge without the eventual resolution that comes from genuine understanding, we take a small but significant bite out of their motivation in the long term. We should keep this in mind more than I think we do.

This isn’t a banal call for us simply to be better teachers whose students succeed more frequently. It is a defence of a position that demands that we slow down when we need to, that we leave fewer children to languish, their motivation sacrificed to the false gods of ‘pace’ and ‘curriculum coverage’. It is an attack on a status quo that, in my view, is too ready to accept that some kids – often a significant minority of a class – ‘just won’t get it’.* Naturally there will always be exceptions to this. One or two children in a class – perhaps those unlikely to attend mainstream secondary education – might not be ready for the curriculum as you deliver it, and you might need to draw a line, deciding to teach a concept to that child at a later date. But where we draw this line is hugely important, and in my experience, it is often drawn in the wrong place. This is my interpretation of the contract between teacher and student. It’s nothing new, of course. It’s basically part of a mastery approach: “Put the effort in, kid, and I will not leave you behind. That’s the deal.” I think we systematically underestimate the importance of honouring this deal. Quite simply, if we want to motivate more children to engage with the learning we offer, then they need to be able to trust that – most of the time at least – we will give them the chance to see the end of the film.

I hope the blog-post above might serve as a decent gateway drug for Mark McCourt’s infinitely superior series of blog-posts on the subject of mastery. While my post talks briefly about possible links between motivation and mastery, McCourt’s posts cover the subject as a whole. His posts on the subject are nothing like mine: they’re lengthy, persuasive and clearly supported by a vast knowledge of the subject. Seriously, put aside half hour or so and read them:

UPDATE: McCourt’s blog posts appear to have been removed as they are now part of his book, Teaching for Mastery. Read that instead!

* It’s astonishing how often these kids are at the younger end of a year group. If you get the chance, cross reference your class’s birthdays against your perception of their innate ability. In my experience, it is often an eye-opener.

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