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Research School Network: Maintaining pupil motivation during school closure – and beyond Hard to engage? Caroline Spalding shares some important insights into motivating disadvantaged learners.


Maintaining pupil motivation during school closure – and beyond

Hard to engage? Caroline Spalding shares some important insights into motivating disadvantaged learners.

by St. Matthew's Research School
on the

On a Wednesday afternoon in April, had you entered Room 6 at The Bemrose School, you would have found my fellow Assistant Headteacher and me scratching our heads. Piled on the desk in front of us were brown envelopes emptied of their contents. Maths worksheets, English booklets, and a scavenger hunt on a lurid shade of green paper lay fanned out in front of us.


Like many schools in areas of high socio-economic deprivation, we have been providing paper-based resources for home learning alongside our online platform. This supports the roughly 40% of our pupils who don’t have access to a suitable device or reliable internet source. The pile of work we were staring at represented the packs returned to us completed that week. And we had noticed a curious phenomenon.


By far the group most likely to return their work to the school was that of our very lowest attainers. These were pupils new to English and, in some cases, new to education. Pupils not yet ready to enter the mainstream curriculum. Why was it that this group – of, arguably, the pupils most likely to struggle with independent work – was the one with pupils most motivated to not only complete what we had sent out but also to return it to us?


Questions about motivation aren’t easily answered: this isn’t a question of cause and effect. Motivation is largely unconscious, changeable, and highly context dependent. A pupil can be highly motivated out on the sports field, but back in an English classroom they can struggle to maintain focus on the Shakespeare text in front of them. But it’s not just a question of the subject matter. Come the next English lesson they may well be eager and keen to learn.


However, writers like Peps McCrea, Dean of Learning Design at Ambition institute, have begun to synthesise different areas of research to support educators in creating conditions that are likely to motivate pupils. It was only after returning to this science of motivation, that I feel that I might have a satisfying explanation for the return of our work packs.


The resources sent to this group of pupils were carefully pitched to their starting point. This enabled these pupils to quickly feel successful. As White and Rose of Ambition Institute put it Lack of motivation is a logical response to repeated failure”. In other words, it is entirely rational for a child to want to discontinue learning when they don’t feel they are doing well. For long term retention, we know that learning needs to be effortful, but teachers need to carefully manage this to ensure that this remains a desirable difficulty’. Just telling pupils to have a growth mindset’ or that failure is simply the First Attempt In Learning’ isn’t going to cut it. Conversely, securing success supports pupils in developing a powerful mental model of achievement – one that can make them persist in similar future situations.


The resources we sent to this group were also easy to complete: each pupil was sent a pen and each worksheet contained gaps to fill. The EAST framework developed by the Behaviour Insights team following research into how to make government policy stick’, emphasises this need to make desirable behaviours easy’ and accessible’ at low-cost to the individual. It’s why you’re going to be more likely to go to a gym nearer your house (or why ordering a takeaway seems easier still).


Our learning packs for this group included just Maths and English work alongside activities aimed at building cultural capital and supporting wellbeing. For this group, these were subjects where it was perhaps easy for families to see the point and purpose of the activities. Autonomy and choice are powerful levers for securing motivation. In schools, implementing this aspect of behavioural science can be challenging. Young people – as novices – are not always best placed to make decisions about their own learning. But by ensuring the why’ behind decisions are made clear, teachers can build buy-in which, in turn, can positively impact on motivation.


Pupil motivation to return the work packs was undoubtedly supported by within school routines aimed at maintaining relationships during lockdown. Each child receives a weekly phone call from their form tutor with follow up home visits if contact cannot be established. Feelings of belonging stem from feelings of affinity with others – the idea that we are like one another. In turn, this is built on familiarity; knowing your pupils and building common ground will motivate them to try harder and persist for longer.


These weekly calls have also helped to create routine: in each call the child is asked about their home learning. We have begun to use the habit loop’ of: cue, in this case the phone call; routine, completing the work; and reward, praise from the tutor or a certificate in the post. In the most successful classrooms, teachers embed various processes that mean not only time is maximised, but that reduce the extrinsic load of tasks. What is sometimes less well understood is the impact of the routines on motivation.


We’re now working hard to make completing and returning the norm for our pupils. We’re using our newsletter, text messages, Twitter, and email to publish positive messages about the home learning we are receiving. We’re motivating staff by sharing with them the statistics around log-ins to our online platform, online submissions, alongside the numbers of paper-based packs sent out and returned work. We’re consciously choosing language that emphasises that the vast majority of our pupils are working their socks off so that fitting in means working your socks off too.


So, next time you find yourself similarly scratching your head about a pupil’s motivation – or lack of it – consider the following six questions:

How can I quickly secure success?
How can I make it low cost?
Have I made the purpose clear?
How can I build a sense of belonging?
Can I turn into a routine?
How can I make it normal’?

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