Desirable difficulties

This week my big Primary 1 boy received the first ‘Star of the Week’ award at school. Driving home from school on Friday night as he clutched his certificate proudly, I couldn’t help but share his pride and happiness. He’d had a bumpy start – lots of tears, anxiety and a very obvious flight or flight reaction on his first day. So in just two weeks he’s come a long way, settled in well and genuinely seems to be loving school and working hard. His award recognised this and both him and I, are very appreciative of this. But ever the reflective practitioner, over the weekend, I couldn’t help but think about all the other boys and girls who didn’t get a certificate. And also how he might have felt if he hadn’t received the award and instead it had gone to someone else. It made me consider reward systems and intrinsic motivation.

Whilst I 100% agree that learning success and achievement should be recognised, it got me thinking about the effect of rewards and incentives.

Learning is hard. School is hard. David Didau writes about ‘struggle vs success.’ If something is easy, yes learners will succeed but there’s not the same sense of accomplishment when it is achieved. Learning needs to be at the right level – not too easy, not too hard. If it’s too difficult, learners will give up, thinking that it is unachievable. Teachers are there to break the learning down, – not simplify the task but to make learning easier. Sometimes the things we are proudest of, are the things which we were most scared of doing, the trickiest, the challenges we doubted we would achieve. The things that took time, patience and resilience. So when we do succeed, there’s a huge sense of pride. It’s so important that this is recognised! Learners need to experience this struggle and success to feel encouraged. And yes it should be celebrated.

Celebrating effort, persistence, hard work is so important. Not over-praising so that praise becomes meaningless is also important to ensure that learners are motivated to keep learning. Celebrating the process and the learning, rather than the final outcome is another way in which to ensure learners adopt a positive approach to continuous improvement.

What is the purpose of school? To me, it’s about creating young people who love learning. Young people who are motivated to learn and understand how they learn. Young people who will keep on learning long after they leave school. If we achieve this, the by-products are huge. Our learners will be ready for the world of work, will be independent and resilient, confident because they know that with hard work they can achieve anything. The intrinsic motivation for our young people in the shape of success and pride in their learning journey is hugely encouraging. And it’s important to remember that everyone’s success will look very different and take very different routes.

But how do we celebrate this success? A certificate? A hot chocolate? An early lunch? A reward trip? Yes these have their place, especially when linked to core values rather than the highest test score or neat work. But I would argue that by focussing on intrinsic motivation we create learners who are encouraged by knowing they’ve done their best. And who are far more likely to keep trying their best because they’ve experienced the joy of learning.

My worry is that next week when someone else in my son’s class quite rightly receives the star award, he’ll be upset, put off and give up. Indeed there might be someone in his class this week who felt they’d really tried their best and weren’t awarded. Did they go home sad and demotivated? Or what about all the other primary ones who didn’t have a hard time on their first day and have been fine ever since? Were they any less deserving? Is this an important learning lesson for them all? That there can only be one winner? Or is it something which will dent their motivation for school. I don’t want to detract from my son’s moment of glory but I do think it is interesting to consider. It also makes me reflect on how I celebrate the success of my own learners.

‘If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward then we are a sorry lot indeed.’ Albert Einstein

Another interesting consideration is the impact of an educational system which is very much based on summative, final SQA exams and certification rather than the intrinsic motivation of learning. Is this the time to consider another way? I often wonder if some learners lack motivation because our system favours rewarding a summative end point which for some learners is unachievable in their school career. A move to certificating NPA’s and units is possibly a start to creating a richer, more rewarding learning experience rather than an exam factory in which learners are conditioned to perform in a memory test.

Lots of questions and no firm answers. But interesting considerations. I hope at least that this experience has made me personally reflect on the opportunities I create for learners to feel motivated by their own accomplishments! Our role as teachers in this is vital.

‘Education is not the filling of a bucket but the lighting of a fire.’ Yeats

Would be interested to hear your thoughts. Have a good week.

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