All parents know that the best schools are the ones that have a clear set of values, a shared vision, and a common purpose. This culture of positive learning is built up over time as a collaborative venture between students, teachers, the school itself, and parents, instead of being a fixed blueprint for every school, class, and child.
It has long been the tradition in schools that children make improvements through a combination of rewards for good behaviour or negative consequences for poor behaviour.
However, it’s my opinion that this is an outdated viewpoint.
When we use consequences as the only incentive for learning, we achieve only short-term gains. To develop positive attitudes about learning, I believe the best way to motivate students to make progress is to instil a sense of ambition and drive within them. The job of the teacher is not to only teach children, but to inspire them to learn.
The same is true for parents. We shouldn’t ask how motivated our children are, but how our children are motivated. This is a subtle, but key difference.
To achieve this higher level of intrinsic purpose in learning, schools and parents need to work together to help children understand why they need to learn and what the benefits are.
In the early stages of development, children learn because they need to communicate their basic needs and survive in the world. They do this by mimicking, practice, and sheer determination. A child’s first steps never come easily, and several false starts can cause bumps and bruises along the way.
Perseverance eventually prevails, and nearly all children manage to stand on their own two feet when they are around a year old. Some do this earlier, some later, but they do it out of necessity, driven by their own desire to emulate those around them.
Once in school, the strategy for academic learning will traditionally shift responsibility away from the children and transfer to the hands of the teacher. This creates a new order in learning where the motivation is driven not from within the child but by their teacher.
Some students respond well to this, with these children working for their teacher because they have rapport with them and are encouraged to complete tasks due to this special bond. But because this isn’t always a successful way of teaching and learning, we should shift our thinking to cooperation.
As one example, children are made to read books in silence in many schools, and this is something you’ll often see being designated on a school timetable. This is a common strategy seen in schools to raise literacy levels. But when that directed activity is not enforced, reading levels drop significantly.
Likewise, schools that incentivise students with “reading passports” — where they collect stamps for each book they’ve read or join other rewards-driven activities — discover that as soon as those rewards are removed or they lose their impact, the motivation to read also dissipates.
The focus on consequences leads to a situation where creativity, innovation and deeper thinking are stifled.
If children are keeping their heads down to avoid negative attention or doing just enough to achieve a reward, they won’t push themselves beyond their comfort zone into deeper learning. The motivation, in this case, isn’t coming from within.
The alternative is seen in schools that create reading spaces around the school, both in and outside the classroom. Here we find that a more subtle approach works much better. Investing in a well-designed library — or creating comfortable reading spaces in classrooms, corridors, and outside spaces — lets children choose to take time to read on their own.
By making their own choices, they make the learning their own too. The difference is powerful; a suggestion rather than a directive is all that is needed to guide them on the right path.
If we involve children in the why, what, and how of the curriculum, we see more engagement in the process, with children displaying a willingness to stretch themselves and a desire to create new pathways for new ideas.
Personalised learning is not about a bespoke individual teaching method but an approach where learners, their teachers and parents are all in partnership. They work together to focus on what students are learning, how they are learning, and why it is important.
What’s the takeaway? Parents who choose schools that have a nurturing culture of learning in all corners of the school, and who work to inspire and empower students to love learning at home as well, will see their students excel beyond expectations.
About the author
Dr Creissen worked in a variety of schools in the UK prior to leading international schools in China, Europe, and the Middle East. Between 1994 and 1997, he was a Board Member of the Training Development Agency for Schools and was a qualified School Inspector. In addition to his degree and teaching qualifications from the UK, he has an MA, MBA, and a doctorate in Education. Terry was awarded the OBE by the Queen of England in June 1997 for Services to Education. He is a keen musician, a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts (FRSA), and a long-time member of Mensa. Terry is passionate about education and strongly believes that the needs of the learner should be our priority in school improvement strategies.
Terry is married to Deirdre with whom he has three grown sons. He is Regional Managing Director, China International Schools for Nord Anglia Education.