Why children don’t always know what’s good for them


Today a student said:

“I used to think you were really harsh, but now I know why you were like that”

Sometimes what we say to children doesn’t make sense to them at the time. They think we are being unnecessarily picky or making them do things that they can’t see the point of doing.  It is our job to stick to our guns; we must do what is needed, even if it is really painful and takes up more time than not doing it. We need to be strong within our classroom and our teaching, even if for some, the school doesn’t provide the support to make this more manageable.

 Children may ‘like’ teachers that don’t make them do the tough stuff.  But once the realisation hits them in the long term, they feel that they’ve been let down by the teachers they thought they liked, because they realise that school is about learning, not liking teachers/lessons.

The most effective way is often the most painful

Because we like it when children are happy or not giving us grief, the path of least resistance is easiest. However in the long term it doesn’t work. Teachers need to be thinking long term; if you don’t deal with this now, it’s not going to go away or miraculously make itself better.

If we do what we know is best for them it will be worth it. If you’re lucky some will realise this before they leave the school, some will realise it on results day but some will only realise it well after they leave and when you bump into them years later, they’ll tell you how important was that you did that for them. 

Sometimes they don’t know what’s good for them.


Learning & cognitive science: a whole school approach


I’ve posted several posts about how I’ve been using what research suggests to help with long term memory and learning in my lessons. However, I’ve now started working with my boss on a whole school approach as we both believe it can make a difference to our students. This blog outlines what we’ve been doing and the future plans.

Firstly we came up with the key areas that cognitive science suggests might help with learning. It went through several drafts, including sharing with the TL team. We eventually decided on ‘Principles for Learning’ and these four aspects:

We decided that the central point was important because if you don’t know what it is that you already know and what you need to know, the whole idea of learning something becomes superficial. My own students like the fact I give them the specification outline and all the keywords they need to know in GCSE; they know what they’ve got to learn.

We elaborated each section with the kinds of things that teachers and students could do to use these principles. It was very important for us to keep it as simple as possible. The principles are equally for teachers and students so they both need to easily understand and apply them.

We deliberately haven’t mentioned revision anywhere in the model. The idea of revision in most people’s minds is actually something that is done far too late. Embedding these principles needs to start from lesson 1 and continue infinitely. We also wanted to ensure that the principles were universally applicable. They are easily embedded in some subjects such as maths and history however we could see that there was limited application for some of the principles in Art. Subjects such as PE and Drama now have much more theory that these could easily apply the principles.

Each of the principles have key things that teachers and students can do to use in their learning.

These were presented to staff in a training session where we discussed what subjects already do that use these strategies, lots of subjects already do lots of them but this gave them a chance to discuss and formalise a whole subject approach. We used examples from what teachers already do and also some of the great resources created by The Learning Scientists here. They use 6 principles but we started ours before these were published and decided 4 was enough.

Subjects also identified one strategy to try out in the coming year.

Since then all the students in the school, have been surveyed on learning and how they think it ‘works’ so we can see any common misconceptions and examples of how the principles are already being used.

Further plans

  • Students will be introduced to these in an assembly.
  • They will have 4 tutor sessions on these with centralised resources for tutors to use
  • We will regularly work with teachers on using their strategy e.g I’ve run a 15 minute forum on them to recap and will do one on how I use Google for quizzes
  • We hope that teachers will use these more and more (using the language of these strategies)  including when they set ‘revision’ for homework and use these directly instead of saying ‘revise’
  • Reissuing the survey to see any changes in student understanding of what helps them to learn
  • Posters and postcards of the principles – in classrooms and to give to parents who might ask how they can help their child to learn
  • Links to all resources on the website

How will we know that these have made a difference?

We won’t know if they’ve made a real difference in learning without complex trials, which is not what this is about. We can ask staff,students and parents if they’ve used them and if they feel they help or not. We can see if we tell students to do something like ‘learn these spellings’ if they respond with one of the strategies, so they pick an efficient method. However overall we won’t be able to ‘measure’ impact but we believe that knowledge of these can benefit teachers and students enough that it’s worth the effort to share and promote their use.

It’s time to get rid of marks, grades and levels….no, really this time.


Teachers on social media forums are stressing about grades, marks and levels, even though they have clearly been removed from key stage 3 and don’t exist in a new specification vacuum. Every week someone is asking for grade boundaries (that are made up and don’t exist) or criteria for 1-9 to use at key stage 3. In most cases I suspect this comes from school leaders that want something on a spreadsheet.

No student needs to know a grade or mark or level or % in year 9 or 10. (I do start with marks in year 11 ready for college applications and mock papers) They are meaningless. I’ve previously blogged on the reasons why and alternative possibilities here. In fact, I’ve blogged so many times I’m probably repeating what I’ve already said elsewhere.

However I thought I’d share how I don’t use any of these yet I still feed the whole school data monster.

For several years I’ve ditched using marks/grades with students on their work and in class tests. Research suggests that we always look to the grade/marks first and that will then determine how we feel about the work and how we respond to further work on it.

Feedback not marks 

When a student does a piece of written work, it is usually some aspect of an exam style question. There is a set of criteria that will make it a ‘good’ piece of work. These are loosely based the exam board mark scheme but are very specific and have additional important aspects of written work including aspects of SPAG. These are turned into a checklist of ‘done’ and ‘not done’.

Here is an example:

New spec tick lists are under constant review…this isn’t perfect at all

These make it quick and easy for teachers to ‘mark’ and it’s clear what the students needs to focus on, on this piece of work. They are the same for every student. No ‘differentiated’ versions. This makes it clear they can all excel and work towards the ‘top’. The next lesson students then make improvements to their work. If there are common mistakes or misconceptions I go through them as a class. I might model a good part of an answer or show an example of student work on the visualiser.

These tick lists aren’t perfect. I’m yet to be satisfied that they can cater for the levels of sophistication in writing evaluative answers. We’re working on this, in the the summer term.


In an attempt to create some sort of ‘progress’ measure it has been suggested to make trackers to show these developing. I have resisted thus far. On the whole they would be meaningless paperwork. Just because one aspect was ‘done’ in this task it doesn’t mean it won’t on another. The ‘tracking’ of student development is much more subtle than this. I’m pondering how to do this.

What grade will student x get?

It is nonsense to give a grade on a small aspect of what might appear in their exam. You cannot transfer boundaries from an 8 mark question to a paper worth 120 marks. That’s a fool’s game, yet I’m expected to enter data on the school’s system. So instead of looking at one small aspect of their work, I consider everything they do; it’s an attempt at a holistic grade. Essentially we’re all just making it up.

One way is to consider comparative judgement of students. Here is an explanation of how that might be done.

Ditch levels/marks/grades

So, on these pieces there are no marks, no levels and no grades. All students need to focus on is what they need to do to improve. The great aspect of this is that I’m doing what I know is good for the students in my class but still feeding the data monster. As no-one knows what they’re doing my data, mine will be as inaccurate as everyone else’s but meanwhile my students won’t have any shocks when we realise our made up boundaries bear no resemblance to what they will be measured against.

Rewards? Learning is the reward.


I’m so mean in class. It is rare I give a school reward point or much praise. I keep it for special things; really special things.

It’s partly to do with expectations. Mine are high. Therefore to exceed these is exceptional and it is when I may respond with a superlative or reward point.

So how are my students motivated if I don’t reward them? The answer is ‘learning’; learning is the reward.

Research suggests that extrinsic rewards aren’t that effective to motivate in the way we want our students to be motivated. I briefly summarised this in this blog.

I want my students to have intrinsic motivation. I think most do. I don’t really know how it happens though. I teach them stuff, they learn it, they enjoy it, they want more and the cycle continues.

My teaching is not exciting. I don’t plan fancy lessons. They aren’t very creative.

One thing is that learning is organised. Students know what they’re learning and how it fits in on the whole scheme. At GCSE it is physically organised. Their folders reflect the course and its structure. In this, they can see completion and are motivated by a sense of accomplishment.

Another motivation is that I teach to the top. In every lesson, every child can achieve the ‘highest’ level. I don’t stop this by ‘differentiated worksheets’ targeting each level. They all do the same. At GCSE they either have shown me they’ve included the correct knowledge/skill or they haven’t.

Does it help them learn? I think so. Is it harsh? Probably.

It isn’t personal. It is about one piece of work. It helps them focus. I give them plenty of time to improve and move those ticks left. It then helps next time. 

The feeling of learning is important. Think of when you’ve learnt something interesting or you’ve finally understood something. There is an internal buzz we get from learning. If the buzz is experienced and is accessible, it is enough to motivate.

We do need to be careful though. There are false buzzes out there; placebos. They feel like the learning buzz but are short term and are non-transferable. If a teacher gives a kid a sweet for something a short term extrinsic buzz may occur but it isn’t authentic. It has to be intrinsic; enough to make them put in the effort to do it again. Authentic buzzes cannot be achieved if the work is…

  • Too easy
  • Too difficult
  • Rewarded at the wrong stage

Authentic buzzes are overall better for the teacher and learner. For a start they’re cheaper. But they are also buzzes for life. There won’t always be someone there dishing out the sweets for doing something well or for learning. Training students to be pleased with themselves is the bigger reward.


Which of these have an authentic buzz?

This is why learning must be about them as an individual. Competition is one thing but if you’re always at the ‘bottom’ or the ‘top’ there is no competition; it’s boring or even worse demotivating. A student (and their teacher) that can follow their own personal trajectory will feel more accomplished and thus more motivated. The competition is between you and yourself.

How I use testing with my classes supports learning but it also create the sense of ‘it’s me against me’. The year I didn’t use grades was great because the buzz didn’t come from a grade or mark but from doing better than last time. Students can see and feel their learning  through what they’ve improved on. They feel the buzz.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that learning should only be about what is ‘relevant’ and applicable to students’ everyday lives. If you genuinely think school is just about preparing for skills needed in life, get your lesson plans ready for changing light bulbs and cleaning toilets. This is not what creates intrinsic motivation. We know it’s not as if you’ve ever taught year 10/11s about writing a CV they won’t all suddenly do it really well because it ‘matters’. Kids aren’t just interested in what they ‘need’ and learning shouldn’t only be about this. (I taught my year 9s about the Fall & Original sin this week-see picture at top. Motivation for learning wasn’t just about the willies and boobs.)


There’s limited motivation in teaching how to change a light bulb.

Too many people think that their own syllabus is ‘bad’ because kids don’t need to know this stuff and won’t use it when they’re older. Intrinsic learning goes beyond this.
I love teaching. I love teaching my subject. Most of it is deeply fascinating. I share this with them. They enjoy it, they learn. Imagine being taught by someone who isn’t excited by the subject who thinks you don’t really need to know it and thinks it’s dry and boring. Three words; self, fulfilling, prophecy.

How do I know this all works? The quietest kids’ mum comes to parents’ evening. She tells me her daughter loves RS and she talks about it at home. That’s intrinsic. You can’t talk about a sweet for very long. 

Overall I think this has implications for whole school reward systems. I have spent hours in leadership meetings discussing systems and their potential costs/benefits. However I wonder, if we were to work on what is happening in classrooms (yet again I’ve already blogged on this), we could save schools ££ each year by ditching whole school rewards and focussing on intrinsic motivation and a true love of learning.

Intrinsic motivation in your students – have they got it?


What makes the difference between the students in the UK and those in other countries? This week, whilst the PISA results were published I saw a tweet which said some along the lines of “essentially the difference between the countries comes down to intrinsic motivation”. This got me thinking about whether the students I teach are intrinsically motivated and if not, is there anything I can do about it? Finally, does it actually matter?

Is intrinsic motivation important?

The most successful students in a recent exam were those that had emailed me questions and clarifications before the test. They did this independently. They were worried about the exam. They were bothered. They cared. But was that intrinsic motivation? Unless I speak with them about it I detail I cannot be sure. I need to find out why they did this.

Intrinsic motivation is about the learning process that a student goes through, it isn’t about being motivated to succeed to do well because of a possible reward. It is about enjoyment of learning and what it has to offer. It is separate from being academically successful in that a ‘failing’ student can have high intrinsic motivation.

I watched a fascinating clip on the BBC about students in South Korea. They showed some children who essentially were learning form 8am-11pm every day. They were shattered. They went to normal school and then to private school every day. Why? Because they feel it is the only way that they will be able to get a job when they’re older. Therefore this isn’t intrinsic motivation. It’s extrinsic. It is goal driven motivation. They may be hating the process of learning (and why wouldn’t you if you were doing it for over 12 hours a day!). Yet, has this been interpreted as intrinsic?

Could students from around the world be surveyed on intrinsic motivation, to see which countries have got this right? I assume the PISA data doesn’t record this. But it does raise a question……

Is enjoying learning more important than good results?

I did some small research into what has been already researched in this area and found some fascinating results on what develops intrinsic motivation in children.

Here is a summary of what I have interpreted from the data, and the research findings and references are below.

Implications for practice in schools

  • Consider the rewards system. Don’t reward for the ‘expected’
  • Use verbal praise & sharing of learning to reward
  • Don’t compare students with other students as a method of motivation
  • Be enthusiastic……
  • Don’t tell them you’re doing it for the money!
  • Use progression of ‘grades’ through feedback than just a ‘grade’ itself
  • Relate learning to children’s interests
  • Set high goals and measure students against their own goal
  • Give students autonomy

The research……

‘Reward students to motivate them…but not how you think’
Deci, Koestner and Ryan (2001) conclude that tangible rewards do not contribute to intrinsic motivation and in fact they undermine it, especially in school aged children.The problem is that when rewards aren’t present any longer, the reason to do something, if relying on rewards, have gone.(Covington 1998). The kind of “If someone has to pay me to do this, then it must not be worth doing for its own sake” attitude limits a student’s appreciation of the learning itself. It is only the potential reward that motivates.(Covington 2000)

This is supported by Cameron & Pierce (1994) who found that whilst rewards don’t decrease motivation, verbal praise as a reward does motivate. They found that giving a student a reward for doing the ‘expected’ has a negative effect.

In many cases, rewards in school create a system of ‘winning’ or getting more rewards than your peer, so it is a sense of competition that motivates, it isn’t intrinsic.(Covington 2000) Rewards don’t usually reward the process but the achievement. This goes against being motivated to learn over being motivated to achieve.

Covington (2000) however suggests that ‘pay-offs’ should be more things like the chance to share work or explain to others why their work is important. This kind of ‘reward’ is intrinsically linked to the learning, not the result itself or how they’ve done compared to others.

‘An enthusiastic teacher will motivate students’

Patrick, Hisley & Kempler (2000) found that in a small scale (93 students – 80 women & 13 men!) study that enthusiastic teachers did actually intrinsically motivate students. Other studies have shown that an enthusiastic teacher links with effective teaching.

Patrick et al (2000) even posit that the power of an enthusiastic teacher can awaken the ‘dormant’ intrinsic motivation in a student. This of course then assumes that every student has a dormant motivation, which if true, would mean that if we know how to withdraw it, we can make all students intrinsically motivated.

‘Good grades motivate’

Covington (1999) found that even if grades weren’t high it is possible for students to value learning. Covington (2000) also claims that if a student aims to get high grades just because they want to impress or avoid failure then their value of learning will not be intrinisc. However if a student is improving their grades through having feedback and then implementing it, then they appreciate the learning process itself rather than just a grade.

In contrast Covington (2000) highlights that ‘doing well’ can motivate but so can ‘not doing well’ however this again relates to achievement rather than appreciation of the process to get there.

‘Don’t tell them it’s your job’

Some research (Wild et al 1992) has found that students have more intrinsic motivation if they perceive their teacher to also have it. In one study it found that if a student believed a teacher was volunteering it was more motivating than knowing they were paid to do it. This links with enthusiasm. Unless you’re a great actor, an enthusiastic teacher will be seen to be enjoying themselves and thus be intrinsically motivated.

Deci & Ryan (1991) describe a ‘self determination’ theory which says any social context that promotes an individual’s

“Make it relevant/enjoyable for the student”

Covington (2000) says that if you make the learning relevant and enjoyable for the student they will be more interested in it and this has the potential to combat any negative grades achieved. In fact, it is better in terms of motivation for a student to be personally interested and fail than to succeed but have no interest in it.

Covington (2000) actually suggests running a school around children’s personal interests.

“Make them proud of what they do”

Covington (2000) says that a good grade makes a student feel proud and in turn increases their motivation to learn.

“Set high goals”

Covington (2000) says that a student that has a high goal but doesn’t reach it is more intrinsically motivated to improve than one that is compared to others. This is because competing against others is a ‘personal’ failure in comparison but failing to reach a goal about the goal itself. It’s almost impersonal.

Setting challenging work for students (Csikszentmi- halyi, 1988; Deci & Ryan, 1992)

“Let them take control”

Deci & Ryan, 1987, 1992; Ginsburg & Bronstein, 1993; Grolnick & Ryan, 1989; Ryan & Stiller, 1991 all found that allowing students to be autonomous rather than being controlled showed greater instrincic motivation.

“An ‘academic’ home life makes a student more intrinsically motivated”

Gottfried et al (1998) found this to be true in a longitudinal study. In summary:

“Home environment had statistically positive and significant, direct and indirect paths to academic intrinsic motivation from childhood through early adolescence, indicating both short- and long-term effects across these ages. Moreover, home environment was significant above and beyond SES(Socio-Economic Status). The findings revealed that children whose homes had a greater emphasis on learning opportunities and activities were more academically intrinsically motivated” (p1448)

Does it all matter?

Gottfried (1990) summarises  that intrinsic motivation is positively related to achievement, IQ, and perception of competence. Academically gifted children were found to have more intrinsic motivation to learn.

It also links to persistence, enjoyment, involvement and curiosity.
Benware & Deci 1984, Ryan & Grolnick 1986 found that intrinsic motivation has a significant impact on high quality learning.

Covington (2000) summarises

“students are more likely to value what they are learning, and to enjoy the process, (a) when they are achieving their grade goals; (b) when the dominant reasons for learning are task oriented reasons, not self aggrandizing or failure-avoiding reasons; and (c) when what they are studying is of personal interest.” (p24)


Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again

Edward L. Deci, Richard Koestner and Richard M. Ryan
Review of Educational Research , Vol. 71, No. 1 (Spring, 2001), pp. 1-27

“What’s Everybody so Excited about?”: The Effects of Teacher Enthusiasm on Student Intrinsic Motivation and Vitality

 Brian C. Patrick, Jennifer Hisley and Toni Kempler
The Journal of Experimental Education , Vol. 68, No. 3 (Spring, 2000), pp. 217-236

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation in Schools: A Reconciliation

 Martin V. Covington
Current Directions in Psychological Science , Vol. 9, No. 1 (Feb., 2000), pp. 22-25

Role of Cognitively Stimulating Home Environment in Children’s Academic Intrinsic Motivation: A Longitudinal Study

 Adele Eskeles Gottfried, James S. Fleming and Allen W. Gottfried
Child Development , Vol. 69, No. 5 (Oct., 1998), pp. 1448-1460

Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-Analysis

 Judy Cameron and W. David Pierce
Review of Educational Research , Vol. 64, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 363-423
Academic intrinsic motivation in young elementary school children.
Gottfried, Adele E.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 82(3), Sep 1990, 525-538
Continuity of academic intrinsic motivation from childhood through late adolescence: A longitudinal study.
Gottfried, Adele Eskeles; Fleming, James S.; Gottfried, Allen W.
Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol 93(1), Mar 2001, 3-13.
What motivates children’s behavior and emotion? Joint effects of perceived control and autonomy in the academic domain.
Patrick, B. C., Skinner, E. A., & Connell, J. P. (1993).
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,65, 781–791.