Throughout this year I’ve been struck repeatedly by the thought that, within the school, my students have all that they need at their disposal to achieve enormous success. They have well-motivated teachers with good subject knowledge, an inclusive and aspirational ethos, superb facilities, a strong pastoral system and a broad and rich curriculum that offers bounteous opportunities for learning and the pursuit of personal passions. In theory, all they need to do is turn up, follow the advice and guidance they’re given and work hard – and the world will be at their feet! If only!
Of course we can do everything we do even better; we’ve got a long list of things we need to improve on. But it seems to me that for a significant number of students, the ingredient with the greatest scope to increase and to have an impact is their capacity and willingness to work hard. This is the X Factor. The not-so secret ingredient. I’d suggest that, if we could measure it, the range on the scale of students’ default-mode effort level is greater by far than any other factor – teacher quality, for example. I’m thinking that, whilst we need to develop our pedagogical know-how, approaches to assessment and curriculum planning, the gains from these things would be dwarfed by the gains we could make if every student worked as hard as the most motivated and hard-working student in any situation. This is the gap that needs to be narrowed.
In thinking this through, I’m aware that what teachers do and what students do are closely inter-related; I’m aware that family context is massive; I’m aware that socio-economic factors have a significant impact on students’ home learning environment and their aspirations; I know that we have a responsibility to support students in transcending the limitations of their circumstances. I also know – from reading Dweck and about Dweck, that effort isn’t enough; it needs to be applied in the right direction on effective strategies that improve learning. It’s more complicated than simply ‘work harder’.
But with all that said, it’s a simple truth that the students who seem to work hard do well and those that don’t, don’t. I’ve lost count of the number of times dealings with underachieving students have led me to think: Come on, this is down to you; take some responsibility, get your act together, pull your finger out! Do some work! Make an effort! I’ve also asked students on several occasions something like: ‘Why are you making it so hard for us to teach you? Don’t you want to succeed?’ They always say yes – but it’s like the couch potato dreaming of doing a 10K run without breaking sweat. All in good time. When I’m ready. Whilst this state of mind may not be entirely of their own making, we need to show them that they have the power and the responsibility to change it. We can’t do the hard work for them.
Obviously, all of this largely comes down to motivation. We could all be super-fit if we were all motivated to exercise intensively enough and frequently enough. Knowing how to do effective exercise is important – but the motivation to exercise is the key factor. The same applies to learning. I’ve just re-read this superb blog series from Joe Kirby. I recommend reading them all:
Each post ends with some concrete suggestions for teachers and leaders. We all need to consider this area closely to see what mileage there is in taking more explicit steps in this direction. Above all else, I’m convinced that we’ll make significant gains from the simple determination to insist that the students who need it the most, work harder on every task we give them. This will require numerous mutually supporting motivational strategies and at HGS we’re hoping that our initiative to develop short-term learning goals in the form of Assignments will make an important contribution. It’s probably also true that a higher degree of old-fashioned metaphorical whip cracking is what some of our students need to help them catch up with the rest. I know schools that have made huge gains at a deep level, beyond the vagaries of the exam system, through systematic work on this front. In the fitness metaphor, school systems and strategies need to create the conditions where skipping training to slob out on the couch is something that just doesn’t happen.