Pete Benyon, Project and Delivery Manager at Derby College Group (DCG) for the Centres for Excellence in SEND programme explores finding joy and interest in the ‘boring’ things.
Engagement and motivation are key to learners fulfilling their potential. So why aren’t all learners fully engaged and motivated in their education? Pete Benyon and Lucy Brown, Student Experience and Progression Coach at DCG, discuss some potential reasons.
Beneath the surface of meaning
The second half of the title of this blog comes from the summary of chapter four of John Medina’s bestselling book, Brain Rules (2008): “#4 People Don’t Pay Attention to Boring Things”.
At first, and quite correctly, this statement appears overly simple. But, like the most profound and delightful of things, it is only simple until you look beneath the surface and start asking questions like “how?”, “why?” and “what if?”.
“I’m bored” and its cousin, “this is boring” must be two statements that teachers and educators dread the most. All those hours and minutes preparing and planning destroyed in a moment by the very people you did all that work for. But… was it really all for them?
Education is the industry of anticipating the needs of, engaging with, and assessing the progress of individuals, whilst also attempting to fit every decision and action within policy, paradigm, curricula, and assessment criteria. Sometimes the choice becomes between an interesting lesson or meeting targets, two things not mutually exclusive, but not always happy bedfellows either.
Then there is the disruptive third wheel – the gooseberry – in this relationship: standardisation.
Messy, serendipitous and inefficient
In The Element: How finding your passion changes everything (2010), the late great Sir Ken Robinson wrote: “The fact is that given the challenges we face, education does not need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardise education, but to personalise it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they naturally discover their true passions.”
Put more poetically, “A joyful life is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe.” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)
Interests are triggered by interactions with the outside world. (Duckworth, 2016) These interactions cannot be predicted because we do not know when or how something will pique our interest and engage our imagination. You cannot plan for an epiphany as, by their definition, we do not know they are coming. As Duckworth (2016) goes on to explain, “interest discove[ries] can be messy, serendipitous and inefficient.”
A worthwhile and meaningful education
When we decide what a worthwhile and meaningful education is, on another’s behalf, or even worse, modelled on a perceived majority’s passions and/or way of working, then we are restricting the individual’s opportunity to develop and/or even find their passion in the first place.
We do exactly this through the standardising of measures, methods and models of teaching; dictating pedagogy from outside of the teacher/learner relationship, akin to arranging, or forcing, a marriage.
Having a purpose
When a learner is not passionate about or engaged with what they are learning and if they do not understand its purpose or how it benefits them then, unsurprisingly, the result is a demotivated learner.
Demotivated learners often don’t attend, are less likely to achieve and may not complete their course. As an aside, isn’t it interesting in the common vernacular how we promote “our” courses, teach “our” courses, but the learners fail “theirs’”?
This is particularly detrimental to the lives and aspirations of young people with inclusion needs who struggle to meet the criteria of qualifications due to a) the criteria being designed specifically for people without inclusion needs and b) the delivery and assessment of the criteria being inflexible.
Who sets the goals?
As Daniel H. Pink writes in Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2009), “Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy. But goals imposed by others – sales targets, quarterly returns, standardised test scores, and so on – can sometimes have dangerous side effects.”
Turning this around, if we genuinely built programmes around the learners, as is done through the RARPA (Recognising And Recording Achievement and Progress) process then motivation and engagement is much easier to attain. If you would like to know more about RARPA, you can book onto a short introductory webinar in February 2022, or request an in-house session, delivered by the ETF CfE at Derby College Group.
Reward as the activity itself
When the reward is the activity itself – deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one’s best – there are no shortcuts. (Pink, 2009) So, if we make education what the learner wants and needs it to be, if we plan it with them and around them, if we seek out their passions and collaborate with them on their goals and aspirations, then they will engage with learning without being concerned about qualifications, outcomes and criteria. They will be learning for the love of learning.
Or as Medina (2008) puts it:
“We must do a better job of encouraging lifelong curiosity, in our workplaces, our homes and especially in our schools.”
From the frontline of engagement and motivation
Lucy Brown is a Student Experience and Progression Coach at Derby College Group. Lucy is passionate about the engagement and motivation of young people in their learning, in their lives and in their future.
This is what Lucy has to say about finding purpose:
“Similar to Pete’s example of ‘I’m bored’ and ‘this is boring’, there is another question that a certain type of teacher dreads: ‘Why are we doing this?’”
I worked with an autistic learner who asked their teacher this exact question because they didn’t see the purpose behind what he was being asked to do. Unfortunately, this escalated into an argument in the classroom because the teacher couldn’t articulate an answer and the learner became agitated at (what he saw as) the teacher’s refusal to explain.
For me, “why are we doing this?” is a beautiful question and an awesome opportunity to clarify, re-orientate and refocus the whole group, not just the questioner. Perhaps, if you don’t know the purpose yourself, I can understand there being some anxiety, but if we cannot answer this question, how can we expect the learners to know?
Perhaps we should be asking ourselves “why are we doing this?” before every lesson and interaction so that we are always prepared.
Without clarity of purpose, any learner will struggle, but especially those who experience anxiety with the unknown, the ambiguous and the vague. It is important that we remember we teach for the learner to learn and if want them to engage them with what we are teaching and what they can learn from it, we need to know why we are teaching it first … and make sure it is not boring!”
As Nel Noddings (1986) rightly stated, “The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter” and therefore education should be all for them.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper Perennial
Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.
Medina, J. (2008) Brain Rules. Pear Press
Noddings, N. (1986) Caring, a feminine approach to ethics and moral education. California: University of California Press
Pink, D.H. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Canongate Press
Robinson, K. (2010) The Element: How finding your passion changes everything. Penguin