English schoolchildren are among the most frequently tested in the world, and the process starts very early, at an age when children in some high-performing countries such as Finland have not yet started formal learning. There is no evidence that frequent, high-stakes testing improves educational outcomes, but a major worry for me was hearing stories this week of children who had become anxious and demotivated by the perceived pressure of tests.
I have always known instinctively, as a teacher, that self-motivation is critically important if children are to thrive and succeed at school. My daughter Lucy recently spent a year researching the world’s best educational systems, and her book, Cleverlands, will be published by Unbound in December (https://unbound.co.uk/books/cleverlands). She identified intrinsic motivation in teachers as a key driver for educational excellence – here she provides a brief introduction to the psychology of motivation.
‘Speaking to teachers in Finnish schools, I was reminded of the research on motivation that I studied as an undergraduate, and of a book on the subject that I read more recently: Drive, by Daniel Pink. Pink explains how many businesses base their policies and working practices on an outdated model of motivation, which he calls 'Motivation 2.0' (Motivation 1.0 was simply that we have a drive for survival). Motivation 2.0 is based on the assumption that humans seek reward and avoid punishment, and so the best way to motivate people is through extrinsic motivation - with a carrot and a stick (I mean this metaphorically). Without these external incentives, says Motivation 2.0, humans are inert and won't do much. However, research carried out as early as the 1940s suggests that humans have a third drive - intrinsic motivation - which explains why people will continue with some activities without any external reward, simply for the inherent satisfaction they get from the activity itself.
‘According to research by two eminent Psychologists, Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, the three elements that contribute to individuals being intrinsically motivated are:
- mastery - our desire to get better and better at what we do;
- relatedness – our desire to have positive relationships with others; and
- autonomy - our desire to be self-directed.
‘Based on other research, Deci adds a fourth element that contributes to internal motivation:
- purpose - our yearning to be part of something larger than ourselves.’
How are these four factors – mastery, relatedness, autonomy and purpose – relevant for schools such as St. Helen’s College?
Young children, I believe, have a natural interest in mastery. They are knowledge-magnets, adore collecting objects and are evolutionally programmed to develop high level skills, such as language, very quickly. Achieving mastery in anything (I remember how great I felt the day I learned to tie my shoelaces!) gives them enormous pride, and motivates them to continue learning. They can get stuck though. It’s all too easy to get a wrong idea such as ‘I’m no good at maths’, or ‘I’m hopeless at football’, and these beliefs can become self-fulfilling. On the other hand, a notion like ‘I’m really clever’ can influence children to avoid taking risks (in case they fail, in which case their self-belief will be challenged). So the work that we do on ‘growth mindset’ – the understanding that every child can and will improve in everything with effort – is really important.
Relatedness, our desire to have positive relationships with others, can be reciprocated or thwarted in schools. Like me, you can probably remember playground bullying when you were at school, and teachers who ruled by fear. At St. Helen’s College, the quality of relationships is fantastic. I blogged last week that our visiting Early Years consultant summed up the atmosphere with the word harmony, the children genuinely care for and look out for each other, and the staff do everything in their power to encourage and support the children.
Autonomy is interesting. Gone are the days when education was passive, when children sat back and listened as expert teachers lectured. Now we fully engage the pupils’ brains and get them involved in - and at times leading – their learning. The Philosophy for Children course which we introduce in the Nursery teaches children to think for themselves, to identify key issues, to critically evaluate and to build arguments collaboratively. The School Council has a strong voice and has been influential in many school initiatives and developments. Children regularly propose and run charitable activities, and give talks in assembly about matters close to their hearts.
Independent schools have long recognised the need for purpose - the yearning to be part of something larger than ourselves. Our House system is very well supported, and children are immensely proud to represent the school in sports, quiz or language teams. Our regular assemblies, when children meet, sing and pray together, help to foster this strong sense of community, and the passion with which the children sing the school song and the pride with which the older pupils guide visitors on Open Days are testament to their strong sense of belonging.
Mastery, relatedness, autonomy and purpose, the elements which characterise intrinsic motivation, are carefully nurtured and well in evidence at St. Helen’s College, and I am sure that this goes a long way towards explaining why the children are so happy and successful. As we move forward into the testing season, with school tests next week and the 11+ on the horizon, it is important for teachers and parents to continue to encourage mastery, promote autonomy, develop relatedness and acknowledge purpose. Above all, we must take great care to ensure that the children do not experience anxiety or stress, and reinforce unconditional love.
‘In the run up to an 11+ test, a child asked his father, ‘Daddy, what will you do if I pass this test?’ The child’s dad smiled and said, ‘I will hug you, say well done and tell you how much I love you’. The boy replied, ‘And what if I fail?’ His dad replied, ‘I will hug you, say never mind and tell you how much I love you’.