When it comes to learning, motivation is everything. Without the intrinsic desire to succeed and momentum to get there, it’s easy to give up. As a teacher, I saw this phenomenon day in and day out. My toughest battles were not about preventing chairs being hurled through windows or confiscating knives (although that came up…) but about persuading young people that they were good enough. The elusive ‘effort’ was all that was needed.

If I reflect on my five years spent teaching secondary and post-16 mainstream education, I must have had hundreds – if not thousands – of individual conversations about motivation. Many teachers agree that large class sizes and insurmountable workloads are a barrier to getting to know students individually. This means that within a classroom, individual motivation is crucial, but it depends on individual differences in personality, experiences of parenting, and interest in the subject. Being in a class of 30 or more for 25 hours of the week means it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. Teachers often have to rely on one-to-one conversations between lessons to get to know students.

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Disruptive behaviour – which the vast majority of the time is low-level annoyance– saps motivation for both students and teachers. Often, it’s a symptom of a lack of engagement in the subject matter. Perhaps the work is too difficult or too easy. Perhaps it’s unclear how it relates to everyday life. This disengagement can produce a downward spiral where the bright-eyed and keen student at the start of term seems increasingly unrecognisable.

How do you harness motivation for learning?

Being motivated depends on understanding what you want and how to get there. Lacking motivation results in procrastination. This can be avoided by breaking tasks into small chunks, planning time effectively, and regular rewards in the form of praise from people you care about and time spent doing things you enjoy.

It’s fairly pointless attempting to impose motivation upon someone else – a lament common to parents of teenagers lacking the drive to revise for exams. Yet from the perspective of a 15-year old, being told that the exams are essential for the future – of which none of us can really comprehend – it’s easy to see why motivation can flag.

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Arguably, our exam-focused education system does not equip students to plan their time because schools are accountable for results. If teachers depend on their students attaining certain grades, they do whatever it takes to get them there – and understandably so. As a result, we miss out the chance for the young person to plan their own journey to get to their goal.

Planning time effectively is key to being productive and staying motivated. I often taught time planning lessons to students in Year 12 and 13 who seemed unable to organise their work and became demotivated as a result.

It should be said that study timetables and work plans don’t work for everyone, and some of us are more diligent than others. In addition, leaving it all to the last minute in some fields can sometimes be an asset. In creative work, for example, committing to a course of action too early means you miss valuable research and thinking time. As an artist, I regularly made my best work the day before it was due for a ‘crit’, because I was toying with several ideas and wanted to make something relevant to that particular moment.

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How do you keep motivated over time?

Personally, I need rewards – and lots of them. We talk about our ‘ADHD-culture’ of staying up late to watch just one more Netflix and being chained to our phones, inserting imaginary emojis when holding real-life conversations. There is solid evidence from psychology that using rewards leads to improved learning outcomes for those labelled with ADHD. This works both ways – an excess of rewards such as watching TV and shopping means that we devalue them, causing us to strive for ever greater rewards. Exercising restraint in the amount of screen time we give ourselves makes it more desirable as a reward.

Behaviourist conditioning underlies most schools’ behaviour policies. Yet rather than focusing on punitive measures such as detentions, it’s more effective to use praise and rewards.

Cash or material-based rewards are to be avoided, as tempting as they seem for parents. We are social and emotional beings and yearn for validation from others – being told that we are doing really well in front of our peers and family is extremely valuable.

What is the greatest skill for a teacher to develop? It’s the ability to tap into a young person’s intrinsic motivation. What they like, what they enjoy, where they want to get to. Help them understand how to achieve their goals, in small steps. Let them know that they are worth it and that you believe in them – and ensure they are rewarded for their efforts along the way.

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