On Motivation (Part Two)

This is an edited extract from the introduction to Teach 2: Educated Risks which will be published in July 2016…

The Return to Oz…

In Part One of this meditation on motivation I took out my tiny violin and played a doleful tune to accompany the melancholy musical of my life (where the melody’s in the minor third).

My kidneys had picked a fight with my heart and brain and only medication was playing referee, keeping all sides apart and abated for the time being. So, although the birds could fly over the battlements once more, the ceasefire was a tenuous one, with trigger fingers itching on either side of no man’s land. 

My recent illness had, however, spurred a change of lifestyle. I had decided that my high blood pressure and twinging ticker – although not a direct result of how I had lived my life or my Dad’s dodgy genes but collateral damage from a civil war being waged in my adrenal glands – were a timely warning that I must start exercising more.

My problem, though, was one of my motivation…


I knew the only time I’d really enjoyed exercise was when I’d been walking or cycling and that was because I’d done so surrounded by beautiful countryside. The exercise had been a byproduct of enjoying the wonder of nature. And yet – in my current state of health – I wasn’t able to do this. I was confined to exercise indoors and to do so carefully whilst monitoring my heart rate and blood pressure in order to avoid any more embarrassing ‘episodes’ such as, you know, a fatal heart attack.

And so my first stab at a solution to my problem of motivation was to try to simulate the great outdoors indoors, to give myself something to stimulate me visually and kinaesthetically (that is to say, I wanted to watch something that gave me the sensation of movement, of being outdoors, rather than stare at a static image of a beautiful landscape)….

I searched YouTube for videos of virtual runs. Watching TV shows whilst running hadn’t inspired me to keep running or to run faster. I’d just wanted to stop, get off and go watch the show in the comfort and company of the living room. There was, I think, too much of a discontent between what I was doing and what I was watching, it broke my concentration; it may have stimulated me but it also distracted me from the task in hand and so I grew bored of the exercise. I needed to watch something that related to the physical activity I was engaged in so my body and mind were united in common cause.

How would I feel, instead, if I was watching the countryside pass by as if I was running through it? Could I simulate the feeling of running through the natural landscape? If so, would that spur me on by psychologically fooling me into thinking I was moving? Would it give me a destination to aim for and, ultimately, at which to arrive?

I soon stumbled on a set of videos uploaded by a professional running coach from the Netherlands that show her running through various Dutch landscapes. You can probably imagine the kind of thing I encountered: flat fields, lots of waterways, flat fields, lots of windmills, flat fields, lots of tulips, flat fields, lots of abandoned clogs, flat fields, lots of other lazy racial stereotypes, and flat fields, very flat fields, the oh-so-flat fields of Flanders. To my cache, I soon added a New York triathlete (with whom I ran around the Big Apple) and a trail runner (with whom I attempted the Five Peaks).

Whether I was following a Dutch running coach, a New York triathlete, or a Five Peaks runner, the person on the screen provided a focus. They were the pace-setter and so I wished to keep up. I know, in theory, I could have sat on the sofa eating a Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough Ice Cream and still have kept up but that’s not the point. I set my running pace by theirs and I kept running because they kept running and because I had a destination to reach and was determined not to give up until I had reached the finish line.

So the first thing I learnt about motivation was the importance of having a coach, an exemplar, a model to follow, someone to look up to, to aspire to, and on whom to base my technique. I realised it was important that the coach was regarded as an expert in their field, too, and that they set high expectations for me to follow.

But the running videos were only one aspect of my newfound motivation. I also found motivation in music…

Now that I was watching a silent video of someone running, I could listen to music rather than the TV and I chose to listen to the kind of music I found the most motivational – loud rock music. Very loud rock music, in fact. Because I’m cool like that.

Since I’d started listening to music rather than the soundtrack of a TV programme, I’d realised that music – particularly loud, fast music – made me run faster (it has the same effect on my driving, incidentally, which is why I’m only allowed Radio 4 in the car). Indeed, the louder and faster the music, the faster I ran. And music made me feel happier too which, in turn, made exercise feel less of a chore and more of an enjoyable way to unwind and relax.

So the second thing I learnt about motivation was the importance of personalisation – of being able to make choices and express preferences about the way you perform a task so that carrying out that task is more enjoyable and you’re more engaged in it. By listening to some of my favourite music I could fully engage with the task in hand, I could switch off from the world around me and focus on what I was doing and do so with a greater sense of satisfaction and reward.

I’m a rare breed: an English teacher who loves data. I was gifted a well-known brand of fitness watch for my birthday which monitors my heart rate and physical activity and uploads data to my smartphone then provides me with a range of pretty graphs which I can bore people with at parties. The data my watch provides is, in my opinion, fascinating and, in my wife’s opinion, will you bloody shut up about your bloody pulse I don’t care and I wish I’d never bought you that bloody watch.

What this data did whilst I was in the early stages of my exercise routine was motivate me by providing me with rich information that allowed me to set short, medium and long term targets, then monitor my ongoing progress and evaluate my outcomes. It also – and this is the crucial point – regularly rewarded me for my achievements. I got notifications when I achieved certain goals and was sent motivational messages about how close I was to achieving the next milestone – if something was within my grasp that day but I had a limited time left to achieve it, it alerted me to it so I could “up my game”. The kind of motivation it relied on was intrinsic motivation – in other words, it didn’t offer me an extrinsic reward such as prizes or money; it just gave me the satisfaction of a job well done. And it worked.

From this third form of motivation, therefore, I learnt that it was important to have a destination to aim for and to get a regular sense of progress towards that destination, the feeling of continuous movement in the right direction.

Whatever it is I untapped, it worked. I found my muse. I began to look forward to getting back on the bike and was disappointed when it was time to stop or when my body could take no more.

In summary, I learnt that motivation requires:
1. A destination to aim for – knowing what the outcome looks like and not giving up until you reach it
2. A model to follow – an exemplar on which to base your technique
3. A coach – someone who is regarded as an expert and who sets high expectations
4. Regular checkpoints to show what progress has been made and what’s still to do
5. Regular celebrations of ongoing achievements
6. Messages about upcoming milestones – being encouraged to “up your game” when achievements are within your grasp
7. Personalisation – the ability to make choices about how to carry out tasks in order to increase enjoyment and engagement

And, ultimately, I learnt that – when it comes to teaching – it doesn’t matter what you do if your students aren’t motivated to learn. Motivation is fundamental, it is the cornerstone of great teaching. And without this essential element, this first piece of masonry set solid in our foundations, then the edifice of education would simply tumble and fall.

Motivating our students to learn provides a reference point that determines the structure of the rest of our teaching. That’s why I decided to dig out the foundations of great teaching in my new book, Teach 2: Educated Risks.

In Chapter One of that book, for example, I examine what it means to be a great teacher before analysing what great teaching really looks and feels like in Chapter Two. Then, in Chapter Three, I analyse how to model high expectations in practice. Next, in Chapter Four, I turn my attention to the habits of academic achievement, learning some valuable lessons from what the most successful students do most of the time. In Chapter Five I consider ways of closing the gap that exists in the educational achievement of boys and girls, focusing particularly on boys’ underperformance in reading and writing, and girls’ underperformance in science and maths.

Then I look at how students learn, exploring the twin concepts of constructive alignment and the SOLO taxonomy. I consider ways to help students to transfer their learning from one context to another in Chapter Seven, thus making learning universal, and share some useful lesson planning advice in Chapters Eight and Nine – coming to understand that although students crave variety, learning can be structured around a consistent five-point plan. Coming full circle, in Chapter Ten I begin to appreciate (or perhaps rediscover) the beauty of project-based learning as a way of motivating students and personalising the curriculum.

As my book is subtitled ‘Educated Risks’, in the final chapter – unlucky Chapter Thirteen – I ask the question, ‘Should teachers take risks?’ In that chapter I explore the importance of risk-taking in education – of avoiding group-think and a culture of compliance. I begin my journey towards that conclusion in Chapter Eleven by exploring some big questions about the nature of education and about our profession and professionalism. In Chapter Eleven I consider the importance of vision. I first look at the theory and then, in Chapter Twelve, look at how a vision can be put into practice by schools and colleges on the journey from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’. Also in Chapter Twelve, I consider what it means to be a professional, a member of the teaching profession, and ask whether this entitles all teachers to expect individual autonomy, to reign supreme over the kingdom of their classrooms.

Teach 2 is divided into three parts: teaching, learning and leadership. The first part – teaching – is, broadly speaking, concerned with the basics of effective teaching. The second part – learning – is about how students learn and the implications this should have on our approaches to lesson planning and curriculum design. The third part – leadership – is about the importance of having a clear vision for teaching and learning, and about developing a sense of collective autonomy, teachers working together as a profession to experiment and improve their practice.

Teach 2 is published in July 2016 in paperback and ebook and will be available on Amazon.





2 responses to “On Motivation (Part Two)

  1. Pingback: On motivation (Part One) | Bromley Education | Be Inspired·

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