A long time ago – 1st May 2011 to be exact – I wrote a piece about motivation. (You can find it here.)
I was taken to task afterwards by one person who thought I was being unfair to today’s teachers in it, and also overly gloomy. “It’s a bit bleak, isn’t it?” And it’s true that my inner Eeyore was to the fore. (Though there were some who agreed with me…)
They also asked the obvious question – if you don’t motivate with extrinsic carrots and sticks, what do you use? I did write a response at the time, but never got round to posting it. I found it again today, and thought I’d finish it off. Here you are:
NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) has some useful ways of thinking about motivation. It suggests that we are motivated – that is, set in motion – either by moving towards things that we want or by moving away from things that we don’t want.
So for example, you might see yourself in your mind’s eye as a Headteacher, and that picture might keep you working even when you’re tired and would rather do something else. Similarly, imagining the negative consequences of not getting your reports in on time motivates (most of) us to do them more or less by the deadline.
These are both fine, by the way. People sometimes want everything to be ‘positive’. But it’s good to be driven to get the coaches booked in time by moving away from your vision of Year 7’s disappointment at not getting the trip they were expecting. (And I would much rather nuclear power stations were run by people moving away from their images of what might go wrong than moving towards a bonus for keeping costs down!)
The thing about these moving towards and away from processes that go on in people’s heads is that they are individual – different people use different strategies. And a single person may use lots of different strategies for different purposes. While NLP says we’ll be able to classify it as ‘towards’ or ‘away from’, it doesn’t say what particular aspect of a situation an individual will use.
Car cleaning as an example
We can see this by thinking about cleaning a car – some people will move towards a mental picture of the shiny car sitting outside the house… or themselves driving along on a bright day in their nice clean car.. or a sense of themselves driving off after going through the car wash… Or perhaps they’ll ‘hear’ their dad’s voice from the past going, “It’s important to keep the car clean,” and maybe explaining why it helps. Yet others may anticipate the physical enjoyment of the process – the water, the suds, making the dirt disappear.
What about the ‘away from’ people? Well, they might be thinking about what people in the street would say if they saw them neglecting the car. Or worrying about the effect of the winter salt on the paintwork. Or imagining not being able to see clearly out of the windscreen and perhaps having an accident… Maybe their dad also said, “It’s important to keep the car clean,” but his reason was around what would happen if you didn’t.
And alongside all these, there will be people who don’t care – maybe they don’t have cars, maybe they don’t even notice the state of their car.
(Personal disclosure: my car generally gets washed when it goes in for its service twice a year or so. I like to be able to see out, but that’s pretty much it. And the conical hat my mother brought back from Malaysia for me for a reason that I don’t understand is still in the back seat two years later.)
What’s this to do with education?
In the earlier post, I was complaining that the stick approach to motivating teachers (and pupils) used by successive governments is counter-productive most of the time. If you want teachers to work well, you need a variety of carrots and sticks, and you need them to be in the right place – the teachers’ heads! As good headteachers and managers know, to get people going, you find the ideas and motivators that work for them as individuals and groups.
And if you want creativity, joy, excitement, reflection, pleasure and the like in a school’s teaching and learning, you use the towards motivators. There are plenty of these available: most teachers respond well to ideas like children’s learning is really important, learning can be hugely enjoyable, having new ideas for improving things and trying them out is rewarding. The pictures these ideas create in teachers’ heads pull them towards them, encouraging them to try to achieve these outcomes, and making all that hard work meaningful and worthwhile.
On the other hand, the anxiety and fear motivators so plentifully employed in many schools are the ones that push people away from the outcomes they dread. They’re easy to use: anybody would fear being “found out” by Ofsted, letting their colleagues down by not completing yet another fill-in sheet, not meeting the current set of targets.
But they have two major problems. First, anxiety and fear evoke physical stress responses in our bodies. Energy resources are directed to the big muscles of our legs and arms, and towards our hearts and lungs – great if you’re running away from a grizzly bear – less so, if you have yet another Ofsted inspection. Stress makes you stupid. (You don’t need to do calculus when running from a threat, and we’re not designed to think at the same time.) This is not helpful to anyone, including your Head who is hoping for an Outstanding. (So why do so many Heads deliberately and accidentally create fear and anxiety in their colleagues? Haven’t they noticed it doesn’t work?)
The second problem is that moving away from things often doesn’t give you a very good sense of direction. When you want something, and can see it in your mind’s eye, you know what you’re aiming at. When you don’t want something, there are lots of ways you can go away from it, and most of them don’t take you anywhere you’d want to go.
I think this is partly why there’s so much fudging of results going on in, eg, trying to meet the children’s targets. (We all know it happens – though a surprising number of people (including the government and the advisers who put the system in place) don’t seem to have worked out that it’s completely inevitable in the current climate.)
When you’re moving away from the distress of not ‘hitting your targets’ (oh, our beloved war metaphors!), letting the side down, revealing that you’re actually a terrible teacher, upsetting the children, disappointing the parents, etc etc etc, your options are limited. And at this point, you’re no longer moving towards your nice pictures of children learning… you’re just moving speedily away from pictures of humiliation and disaster…. so fudging the children’s levels seems the least worst option.* If you’re really practised, you can kid yourself at the same time. If not, prepare for a miserable period while you wonder why you’re the only one who doesn’t seem to cope properly… (Want to know a secret? Pretty much every teacher I meet starts nodding like crazy when we talk about this – you’re definitely not alone!)
I’m not sure if there’s a moral to this, or whether it’s just a rant. Perhaps the moral is this: if you’re managing people, whoever they are – including the children – be aware of what motivators you’re invoking. If you can create the kinds of pictures in people’s heads that pull them towards them, you’re going to make everyone’s life easier and more enjoyable. If you evoke the anxiety and fear pictures, don’t be surprised if you get strange and unwanted results.
And if you’re thinking about motivating yourself – try some positive towards pictures of what you want to happen. We all use this approach some of the time, but I’ve found plenty of teachers who at work almost exclusively motivate themselves by thinking of the worst that can happen and then driving themselves on the adrenalin spike this creates. Whew, it’s a tiring way of running your life, and with those stress chemicals running round your body, you don’t notice the opportunities to do things differently, more quickly and effectively, and with more enjoyment!
* You could go back and point out that the levels the children came up with were hopelessly optimistic, which meant that you couldn’t teach the material you expected to teach, which meant that you wasted time finding out what would actually be useful to teach, which meant that the target system has actually disadvantaged the children this year, as it did last year and will next year… but you’d be pretty crazy to do this, wouldn’t you?