Motivation – finding a way through the woods

Motivating secondary school students is now,  in my recent experience,  a main part of the job of teaching Art at A-level.  I want my students to be independent learners to develop their own projects, plan a bit within the time available, explore and develop and then synthesise the thinking and research and experimentation into coherent art works that show fantastic technical ability and reflect themselves and their burgeoning world view so that what they have made can speak to a wider audience.

I want this for them, because it makes them artists.

Speaking yesterday to two A-level students who are far behind in their units, I realise that I have used threats and fear rather then positivity.  I can justify this in a shallow way, because with both of them I have tried passion, excitement, co-working and the provision of lots of my time and some spoon fed solutions, and I know co-teaching colleagues have done this with them to.  However, is the problem with these students at least partly to do with their setting and their response to the curriculum structure that is put around them:

‘In fact the idea of conveying passion and enthusiasm misunderstands the nature of the relevant kind of motivation.  Motivation is not an emotional cream dolloped on top of a dry cognitive cake. On the contrary, the motivation and the cognition are all mixed up. It is rather a way of connecting directly to the subject matter…….motivation involves an evaluative perception of the subject matter.’

Gill, S and Thomson, G (2012) Rethinking Secondary Education, A Human Centred Approach, Harlow: Pearson. [Available online at:] (p188)

Gill and Thomson are comparing a traditional model of an ideal teacher in a system of ‘learning as acquisition’ with ‘teaching mainly as an issue of transmission or delivery of predefined knowledge’ (Ibid p186)  with a more progressive ‘humanist’ or alternative education setting stressing teacher as facilitator or mentor. They find the second wanting as well,  because ‘mere facilitation is not sufficient to challenge the student’ (p197).  Their proposal is that the role of teacher be split into mentor, counsellor, specialist tutor and academic tutor with specific detail applied to all of these roles, but crucially, these roles should be performed by different individuals.  The motivation aspect appears, in this model, to sit within the role of the Mentor.

Gill and Thomson propose:

‘…a step further: a kind of deep listening that allows the innermost voice of the young person to be heard, that which guides a young person’s fundamental choices regarding his/her direction in life, potential and human becoming. For a young person to own his or her learning requires a rejection of passivity. It needs a non-coercive environment but it also depends on the capacity of teaching professionals to provide empowering guidance to the students.  With support of their mentors, young people can sit firmly in the driving seat of their learning.’ (ibid p 268)

I hope that I have provided some empowering guidance this week.  The self reflective point is to ensure that I do not echo the coercive environment that I am located in.  Is it possible to provide some high standards within the 4 separate roles identified by Gill and Thomson, within the perilously short time available with each student.

Motivation is going to be a key part of my research project – identifying what it is, how to encourage it and measure its presence is still a work in progress. Gill and Thomson’s central idea is that ‘cognition motivates’ (p63)  and ‘it matters dramatically how students contextualise their activities’ (p64).  They  need to know why they are doing things, and how that understanding can power motivation.

‘Usually… (motivation)…is conceived as an inner force pushing us outwards.  Here we stress the opposite; motivation is often like drawing in the valuable aspects of what is around one. It can be a pulling in rather than a pushing out.’

The authors then go on to compare this to love of another person, whereby the love becomes ‘perception with feeling’.  Thus students ‘falling in love’ with the subjects or topics that they discover becomes a metaphor for the motivation they can experience. (P67)

Can all students fall ‘in love’ with art, with photography A-level, and all the other things they have to do, or is that state only for a select few, and most of all can that ‘love’ be made explicit……



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