If target grades don’t work, what will?

Part 3 in my target grades series: Part 1:  Here Part 2: Here

Although I have a very dim view of target grades I accept they come from a well-intentioned place. Their purpose is to motivate children by giving them a clear goal. As I’ve written about in my two previous posts on this, I don’t think they succeed, but this, of course, does not mean we should not encourage children to work hard. If we are to accept that target grades don’t motivate children very well then we need to think about what does.

On the whole I think teachers and schools are reasonably good at extrinsically motivating children to work hard in lessons. Using rewards and sanctions, having sensible school policies and teaching effectively generally does lead to children working hard in lessons. While David Didau[1] quite rightly points out that this doesn’t necessarily lead to deep learning, trying hard is a necessary precondition.  The hope is, that if we can build good working habits extrinsically, eventually they will become intrinsic as they are automated.

I teach my KS3 history classes three times every two weeks. I like to think my lessons are effective but, on their own, they are not enough for children to really learn what I expect of them. To do this, children must retain the knowledge I teach them and extend it by completing work outside my classroom. This is not new thinking. The importance of homework is well recognised, understood and enshrined in the English Teaching Standards[2].

Typically, I set two types of homework; self-study to review knowledge covered in my class, which is assessed in short tests, and extra reading linked to what I have taught, which is assessed through written questions and discussion. It is here I experience difficulty. A good proportion of children do what I ask of them and it is these children who learn fastest. But a significant number of children don’t work outside my lesson; while they enjoy my lessons and work hard in them, when they leave my classroom they don’t think about history at all until I next teach them. These children struggle; not completing retrieval practise or reading around the subject means they fall behind their more intrinsically motivated and harder working classmates.

As a conscientious teacher I, of course, follow up. Children who don’t study at home are given detentions and I contact their parents. This results in quite exhausting periods for everyone involved and usually results in only very short term improvements; a child will, if compelled to, learn what they should have before their test in the detention. Pushing hard on children not completing their extra reading has, in the past, often led to widespread copying of the work of conscientious children who did complete the questions based on it.

Children who are no intrinsically motivated are only completing the extra work I expect of them because they want to avoid losing free time. I suppose I could continue sanctioning and issuing detentions constantly but this just isn’t practical – it also does not prepare children for later study at college or university, at which they will be quite rightly expected to self-regulate and work hard without constant supervision.

So why aren’t these children motivated to work and what can we do about it?

Most of the students I teach who don’t work outside lessons come from environments in which academic success is relatively rare. Children who have parents who did not succeed academically themselves are generally not very well supported in studying at home. When I speak to these parents I often notice a real gulf between the volume of work they think their child should be doing, and the volume I think they should. This is a real problem because if a parent feels my demands are unreasonable it is very unlikely they will provide the extrinsic motivation necessary to ensure their child completes the work.

This issue is compounded by the fact that my goals and the goals of the parents of these children are often, partially at least, in conflict. I want the children I teach to love history, get outstanding grades, attend great universities and get professional jobs. I am willing to accept their immediate, short-term happiness might be compromised in order for them to reach my long term aims. The parents want their children to be loved, happy and content; they might want their child to attend a good university, but if doing the work required to get there makes them unhappy, they’d prefer them not to go to university at all. In this we find another reason that target grades fail; too often these ‘aspirational’ grades don’t reflect the aspirations of those subject to them at all, making them irrelevant; if you don’t want to work hard at home to get a good grade so you can go to university, why would you care if you don’t achieve them? Even really supportive parents who do provide extrinsic motivation do not guarantee that children will be motivated to work. I know lots of parents who have ‘grounded’ children, changed Wi-Fi codes, confiscated devices and still found their child doesn’t study. It is actually quite likely that I have, in the past, overstated the influence parents have. I’ll go into the reasons for this later.

Even if we do accept the powerful role parents play (and we might well be wrong to do so) I am aware of the need to be very careful; my own very typically middle-class upbringing and background does not give me right to judge the aspirations of anyone else. I am perfectly willing to accept that some children may indeed be happier if they don’t go to university. Or they may not. I really don’t understand enough about how happiness works to say.

My point here is that while of course important, extrinsic motivation is limited. We may be able to get children working reasonably hard in lessons with good relationships, and rewards and sanctions, but this will not lead to deeper learning if children are not intrinsically motivated to do well at school by working hard outside it.

Most schools do have an awareness of this. As I wrote about here, schools in areas where children do lack intrinsic motivation to work academically typically do a lot of work around raising aspirations. Such programmes usually involve external speakers, trips to universities and academic mentoring. The problem with these is that they don’t really address intrinsic motivation at all because they are really just another attempt to motivate extrinsically. The schemes assume those on them will see university as a reward worth sacrificing short-term happiness for. Unfortunately, in the absence of intrinsic motivation this just doesn’t work because children are savvy enough to know that their reward for completing academic work to get in to university is more academic work once they get there. If they aren’t intrinsically motivated to do the academic work this really isn’t much of a reward at all!

At this point it is worthwhile pointing out the inherently reductive nature of my argument so far. Framing the work children do in school in the context of the extrinsic rewards they obtain by doing it assumes what the learn has no utility beyond grades and consequent wider life opportunities.  This, of course, isn’t true. What children learn in school has value in itself. Framing the argument this way is also practically unhelpful in that if children don’t want careers that depend on academic success then it really doesn’t matter how wide a range of opportunities within that field we offer them. To achieve what they are capable of students must be intrinsically motivated.

Building intrinsic motivation

The factors affecting intrinsic motivation are complicated. Most of us, as I did before doing some reading on it, probably assume that our upbringing plays a big role. This seems like common sense. As I have discussed, parents that lack intrinsic motivation towards academic work do seem more likely to have children that lack it too. However, the problem with making this link too strongly may be to equate correlation with causation, in that it ignores other factors that may also play a role. It also seems likely that in making the link confirmation bias also plays a big role, with us over-emphasising examples that support our preconceived prejudice and downplaying the examples that contradict them. Brian Boutwell[3] points out that, when the very sad examples of abuse and neglect are controlled for, parenting has far less of an effect generally than it is usually assumed to, and that this has been borne out through twin studies, which generally show that hereditary traits are more influential than parenting is.

Putting aside genetics, about which we can do nothing, and parenting, about which can do very little, still leaves some positive implications for how we might better motivate the children in our schools.

Firstly, extrinsic motivation is likely to be an important precursor to intrinsic motivation. As I wrote at the beginning of this post, school rules and routines have an enormous role to play in automating good habits. These habits may, over time, become the foundations of intrinsic motivation but won’t unless they also lead to rewards that are intrinsic to the subjects children study. This has played out well in my own recent experience; before a recent set of tests I supervised extensive revision in lessons, structuring the sessions in a way that would be replicable in the homes of the children in the class. As a result of this, most children in the class, particularly those who didn’t usually study, did better. These children enjoyed the feeling of success and found the next sequence of lessons more interesting, because the embedded knowledge they had gave more nuance to the new material. Of course, I don’t have time to do extensive revision in lessons before every assessment but I am hopeful that they will come to see that the success they enjoyed is replicable and that this feeling will build their intrinsic motivation.

In this approach I see the possibility for a much more powerful and productive approach to target setting than the performance goal based target grades which plague English schools at the moment.

I propose, humbly and with full knowledge that much thinking and critique is necessary, that we replace target grades with subject specific learning goals based on the knowledge organisers gaining traction in English schools.

The knowledge children need to know should be carefully curated and standardised at departmental level and, while informed by content required at GCSE, would not be solely based on it. Standardised exams would be given at the end of each full term to test the degree to which this knowledge has been embedded. These exams would, as has been well articulated by Michael Fordham[4] and Daisy Christodolou[5], contain a range of assessment methods relevant to the subject area, but would not (perhaps should not) be in the same format each time. They would test content over a long period of time, not just on the material taught in the immediate weeks leading up to them.

School data tracking would not track progress against any grade at all, apart from perhaps in the latter stages of Year 11 when it might be appropriate, but on how much the child had improved. Progress could be tracked with a simple 1-3 number, representing improvement, stagnation or regression. This progress number would also take into account, especially in the most knowledge rich subjects, that the amount of material on which children are tested is continually growing, which actually means maintaining a score might actually mean improvement.

Learning targets set by teachers would be subject specific and based on discrete knowledge, not generic skills. For example, in my subject, history, a target might be “revise the reasons why there was a disputed succession to the throne after the death of Edward the Confessor” if this was an area on which a child had performed relatively poorly. The child could then be given the relevant knowledge organiser and a productive homework after the test would be to complete work on this. I am completely certain this would be more productive than the standard “describe features in more detail’ sort of nonsense which still seem to be very widespread.

In implementing such a system it would, of course, be very important to ensure that the vast majority of children do make progress and succeed, with careful thought given as to how to best support those that do not. This is not just necessary at an individual level but to the cohort as a whole; if a critical mass of children are not improving then this becomes normalised and students, perhaps more influenced by their peer group than anyone else, would lose motivation to do better.

I hope that the ethos this would create would be one in which continual improvement is expected and that an increasing body of knowledge has intrinsic value. Freeing children from having to think about how close or far away they are from a target grade, with all the other problems these have, would allow them to focus on learning for its own sake from the point at which they are, which I think would be far more helpful in building intrinsic motivation than the system we struggle with at the moment.

As always, I am up for robust critique of what I have written here and am well aware that there is a huge amount I’m probably too uninformed to have even considered. I’d be grateful to anyone who can constructively point out where I’ve gone wrong and what I should look in to.  In addition to those I have referenced I’d also like to thank Tom Sherrington and Joe Kirby for their work in this area, which has been really very helpful.

[1] http://www.learningspy.co.uk/learning/does-engagement-actually-matter/


[3] http://quillette.com/2015/12/01/why-parenting-may-not-matter-and-why-most-social-science-research-is-probably-wrong/

[4] https://clioetcetera.com/2017/03/04/the-curriculum-as-progression-model/

[5] https://www.amazon.co.uk/Making-Good-Progress-Assessment-Learning/dp/0198413602


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