From education to employment

Motivating learners – where is my magic wand?

I recently facilitated a workshop about building and maintaining effective dialogue with learners, with the aim of exploring what works and devising strategies to do more of it. As part of my preparation, I researched learner motivation using a range of search terms in google, on the basis that if I can find useful research anyone can. It was an interesting exercise, but similarly to Norman Crowther, whose article appeared in FE News on 28 June, there is very little in the way of useful recent theoretical material. I found a Skills for Life Quality Improvement Initiative pack from 2008, citing a 1924 quote from Chesterton “A teacher’s response has crucial consequences … it creates a climate of compliance or defiance, a mood of contentment or contention, a desire to make amends or to take revenge.” Other references in the document range up to 2005, which is still fairly old. I did find more recent literature, such as Robert Marzano’s Taxonomy, Professor John Hattie’s work on ‘effects size’ and Geoff Petty’s work building on both of these studies.

Motivation is a tricky subject. A substantial line of research that interested me, drawn on by Marzano, was that of self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci, 2000) which says that the goals people pursue are either intrinsic or extrinsic in nature. Intrinsic goals are those associated with our passion for something and extrinsic are those associated with rewards or avoidance of punishment.  According to this line of thinking, in  a group of learners, some will be motivated by achieving high grades and some because they love the subject. Marzano proposes that a teacher can be either controlcompliance oriented (predisposed to using rewardspunishment) or autonomous support oriented (predisposed to setting up conditions in which there is support, choice and challenge). I reflected on Marzano’s earlier interest in ‘habits of mind’ which he developed from the work of Arther Costa and Bena Kallick. Learner motivation is not a light read, by any stretch of the imagination, but occasionally, you can find things that resonate with you and habits of mind is one such theory.  It contains sixteen habits which are characteristic of peak performers and includes things like persisting, managing impulsivity, thinking flexibly and applying past knowledge to new situations. I particularly liked finding humour, which is described as ‘enjoying the incongruous and unexpected; and laughing at oneself. “Right students, in this lesson we’re going to learn how to laugh at ourselves!

So how is a theory like this relevant for FE teachers and how can it be applied? One of the topics of discussion at my recent workshop was that of induction and its purpose. A useful exercise might be to evaluate the induction programme using a variation of ‘controlcompliance vs automous support.


Control compliance

Autonomous support

What are the components of induction that will motivate my students to learn?

What are the conditions of induction which will help learners to be self-motivated?

To what extent does induction promote controlling factors such as rewards andor punishment?

To what extent does induction promote conditions for choice, challenge and competence?

To what extent does induction impose rules, structure and systems for control to motivate learners to do what is required of them?

To what extent does induction promote identification and achievement of goals through support and encouragement, self-reliance and

To what extent does induction generate a focus on achievement of targets, grades and outcomes?

To what extent does induction cultivate a sense of well-being about the learning?

To what extent does induction focus on engagement and compliance with systems and procedures?

To what extent does induction promote creativity, independence and self- actualisation?

Adapted from Robert J Marzano, the Art and Science of Teaching, 2011

Abraham Lincoln is famously quoted as saying “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” So how much time is spent ‘sharpening the learner’s axe? Another habit of mind is that of ‘gathering data through all senses’ – to what extent does induction prepare learners to do this?

In another article on I read, Re-thinking learner motivation, the authors focus on the idea of students as consumers.

Consumers demonstrate daily the propensity to prioritise what they want to accomplish, not what they are told they should accomplish. Students should be motivated to expand their learning by delving into the online expansions of their textbooks. Drivers should obey speed limits for their own good. But they don’t. It’s human behaviour, not the behaviour of specific groups with which we’re dealing. …… Most educational establishments invest heavily in solving the problem of improving learner motivation – unfortunately, it’s the wrong problem

Re-thinking student motivation, Innosight Institute, 2010

Students know they need to learn quadratic equations, but are still compelled to text their friends when the maths lecturer is explaining that crucial part of the transposition of the formula. I was particularly taken with the premise of this particular report. They talk about learning as a job that young people are trying to do. They conceptualise learning as something the learner ‘hires’ to do a job – but it isn’t the actual job. So what is the real job that learners come into college to do? Feel successful? Make progress? Find employment? Have somewhere to be? Have fun with friends? Useful questions to ask at induction might be “why are you really here?” followed by “no, why are you really here?” This can then lead to questions like “so what can we, the college, your tutors, do to help to achieve what you really want?”  Re-thinking student motivation poses an interesting question about what and who the competitors of the job of learning  are. Any job has functional, social and emotional dimensions. An example cited in the report is the job that high brand products from the likes of Gucci and Louis Vuitton are hired to do – that of giving a sense of belonging to an elite group. In this instance, the functional job of hiring the brand is not as important as the social and emotional functions.

A theme of the recent final report on last year’s riots was the importance of brand as a symbol of belongingness to a particular group or elite. Another was the lack of hopes and dreams expressed by those who found themselves involved in the looting.  Both could be representative of the functional, social and emotional dimensions of the competition with the job of learning. The Riots panel found that, increasingly, young people do not see learning and skills as crucial to their future success. So in September, colleges face the difficult challenge of creating the right conditions in which new learners can feel they have hired learning to do the right job for them, one that creates appropriate habits of the mind, which will enable them to achieve their desired sense of success and one which ties in the college’s measure of success.

Now this is where you wish you had a magic wand. It might surprise you to learn that I do possess a wand. It is a copy of Hermione’s wand, from the Harry Potter films. It’s in a nice box and has a nicely weighted, potent feel.  You might be further surprised to hear that it is magic, but not in the way you think. I use it to help people to imagine themselves in the future and with the aid of the wand, think themselves new and different, with the magic unleashing their creativity.  It can help to develop a motivational pull towards a new and vibrant future to which learning is a viable route.

Now where can I get a magic broom?

Bert Buckley is director of Icaras Consulting, which is dedicated to helping organisations, individuals and teams achieve outstanding performance by identifying and releasing hidden talent and latent capability

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