Whichever school prospectus you read or website you browse, you will find a list of subjects taught, of facilities, and of policies. Each school will try and portray this in their own individual way and each has merit in showcasing the benefits of what education- both in general and at any given establishment- can achieve.
But what if a child doesn’t want to learn? Their report always says that they need to put more effort in, or offer more opinions, or contribute more to lessons. They might regurgitate the age-old question ‘when will I need to know this (insert the usual examples: algebra, fronted adverbials, masculine/feminine terms in French) when I leave school?’ Ergo, why bother trying?
This can be a difficult battle to face for both parents and educators. No amount of ‘you’ll regret it when you’re older’ or ‘you’ll never get a job without it’ is going to motivate some 5, 7, 10 or even 13 year olds. The motivation has to be intrinsic; there must be a sense of will that comes from the child in order to chase that holiest of educational grails, the fulfilling of potential.
But some children won’t get there on their own so how do we support them in finding this inner drive to improve?
Firstly, there must be purpose in what they do, a validity for the work that they need to put in. Knowing a child individually and what makes them tick is the key to identifying and providing this. For some, it will be a displayed piece of work or a chance for their work to go in a newsletter, to others a mere acknowledgement of their efforts in a comment or a gesture will be enough. In the examples given above, it may be enough to provide a context in which their learning will benefit them eg algebra in entrepreneurial business planning. Now I realise that some of these may be extrinsic motivations but for the feeling of hard work = achievement = positivity to be created, a habit must first be formed.
Secondly, there must be a reason for them to want to learn. Inspiring teachers, engaging lessons, a feeling of being valued and clarity of their own progression. This must be supported from home with encouragement and empathy. The horror stories of how much you hated fractions at school won’t be the motivation they need to do their maths homework! Positivity, praise and large reserves of patience are key tools in this.
Finally, high expectations must be set, at home and in school. Through the values of the school and the classroom that they inhabit, hard work and engagement must be the minimum requirement for all and communicated as such. A culture not necessarily of everyone being judged on grades but celebrated for the effort that they put in must prevail. The pressure of looming negative consequences is not a long term solution, support and encouragement for application and a sense self-understanding just might be.
If we can provide all of this then it is time indeed to hand the responsibility back to the pupil; to challenge them to utilise all of the skills that we have given them along the way and to celebrate it when they do.
(Prep School Headmaster)