The Meaning of ‘Meaningful’…?

Stepping Back a Little is an education blog, but I think it’s worth pointing-out that, in order of interest to me educationally, my passions are:

  1. Philosophy of Education
  2. Teacher Development
  3. Pedagogy

I’m not that interested in tips and tricks, and I only get involved in the politics stuff in as much as it appears to impact on people making a fudge of No. 1 above.

Of massive foundational import to me is what people consider the “Purpose of Education”, and I think that a truly robust and encompassing version of it must inevitably tie-in with a truly robust and encompassing ‘purpose of life’ definition, and I’m going to have the audacity to make some pretty bold claims here… (*cue rolling of eyes and sharp intake of breath*).

So…. What’s the point of living…?

Quite what makes life worth living has become an increasingly private affair (doctors rarely ask why they should prolong your life), and the impulse to preach about life’s exact value has itself become something about which no consensus is to be expected in political or educational systems.

However, there IS a commonality of purpose to life…

Ultimately, whether you seek fulfillment in this world, salvation in the next, or indeed you abdicate all happiness of your own for the well-being of generations yet to come, the personal justification for our continued procreation comes down to us obtaining and valuing some kind of meaningful experience

The selfless ones might well quibble – “No! – I do it for the greater good!” (which gives you a sense of meaningful experience). The evolutionary scientists might well quibble too: “We relentlessly persist with life due to genetic drives which care little for the illusory experience of consciousness!” they might say. However, even if this is so, the sought-for outcome of all those hidden processes still ultimately justifies itself in the form of conscious satisfactions – meaningful experiences – to that curious locked-in observer called ‘me’…

I believe then that the best – clearest – definition of the purpose of education (and – whether we like it or not the purpose of schools) is…

To build an individual’s capacity for meaningful experience.

Making them ‘cleverer’ will do that. Making them ‘productive’ will do that. Making them ‘responsible citizens’ will do that. But keeping the focus on that purpose beyond each one of those stopping-off points, will – I believe – help harmonise the pursuit of them individually. Indeed, the search for meaningful experience can effectively be the central core for making people productive citizens capable of choosing and finding their path to happiness (and for the betterment of the rest of us if we define and channel the paths to ‘meaningful experience’ appropriately). It also achieves these goals in a way which is personalisable and intrinsically motivating.

Now, I’m writing a book on how following this through in practice could actually work, but a pivotal point to it of course comes from the phrase ‘meaningful experience. It’s really worthwhile then clarifying exactly what we do mean by ‘meaningful’, as I would suggest that meaning/meaningful are in fact weasel words’

If you didn’t know, ‘weasel words’ are apparently words or phrases which…

“…make arguments appear specific or meaningful [my italics], even though these terms are at best ambiguous and vague.”

Funnily enough then, I’m suggesting that the definition of ‘weasel words’ is itself based on the use of a…. weasel word (‘meaningful’)…!

Why do I think this…?

Well apart from the basic sense of literal communicated ‘meaning’ through signifiers such as words and their definitions, meaning gets used to refer to two different things: It can mean an intellectual construction to explain circumstances (“the meaning of life”). But it can also refer to something intuited tacitly in the moment, such as the feeling you get when you’ve helped a stranger, laughed with friends or taken a springtime walk (“the meaning in life”).

In general then, there are three modes of what we are trying to get at by describing things as ‘meaningful’, and I would suggest that these represent three different aspects of what it is to be human.

MODE 1:            COMMUNICATIVE meaning – the DENOTED SIGNIFIERS, semantic, automatic, referential meaning of words and other signifiers. This includes the recognition of base-level logical relationships. I see a person pull a trigger to someone’s head. I know what this implies.

MODE 2:            INTUITIVE meaning – the PERCEPTUAL EXPERIENCES arising from participating in the present moment which motivates us to seek more of them. Actions and interactions in the world which give a continuance of ‘happiness’ – love, participation, achievement, beauty…

MODE 3:            REFLECTIVE meaning – the abstract CONCEPTUAL CONSTRUCTIONS which we use as rationalisations and justifications for happenings, and just generally explaining the purpose of everything. The stuff which – when we stop and look around – we create to explain why we carry-on seeing importance in living in the presence of suffering and mortality.

The meaning of Meaningful

Now, one could argue that a lot of the pain and suffering in life actually comes from focusing our experience and attention increasingly in our evolved capacity for mode 3 thinking. We send our minds into overdrive trying to create direct logical closure – of the kind experienced with ‘communicative’ meaning – about ‘ultimate’ matters beyond our senses.

Essentially this is the level of philosophical agonising and doctrinal shortcuts; to define into existence things because it is the only way to experience the kind of closure in mode 3, that will appease our mode 1 sense of truth and reason.

I would argue that it is the middle aspect – the experience of intuitive meaning – which is the fundamental source of life satisfaction, and that both communicative and reflective meaning ultimately serve as enhancers and contributors to this experience.

I think it is also this aspect which – underneath internalised scripts of what we should and shouldn’t do – is the ultimate arbiter of whether we are glad we had an experience or not.

In this sense, ‘meaningful experience’ could simply be counted as those things which we are glad to have experienced in the cool light of the following day. The exact sense of satisfaction may grow or diminish over the course of time, but saying “experiences you are glad you had whilst reflecting from your death-bed” is possibly leaving things a bit late to be able to predict and work towards.

Ultimately, I think we keep on going in life most of the time because of this middle tier. We simply can’t help but derive satisfaction from routine habits: Interacting with the natural world, simple joyous human moments together, the perception of beauty and drama in the world around us, and the act of creating these moments, as well as practical solutions to situations confronting us. Perhaps much of the compulsive value of religious participation comes from this, rather than necessarily from the truthfulness of the narratives which go with them. We can’t help but love ceremony, rituals & communal sense-making, and it is the core focus of Humanist replacements for revelatory traditions. One way or another however, these intuitive experiences stimulate our rational minds to seek ‘the answer’. Whether or not we wish for it, we find ourselves yearning for a focal point way beyond what our rational minds can actually explain. Whether that is because there is actually something there – beaming down significance from above – or because it is a cognitive side-effect of our evolved drive for survival in a humanly incomprehensible existence, is not something I’m suggesting an answer for here.

Interestingly though, it also isn’t something that you need to have answered in order to adopt “To build an individual’s capacity for meaningful experienceas the universal purpose of education.



The Machine and the Organism (1)

Can we create an outstanding school based purely on routines, policies and metrics…?

The contemporary lifestyle we enjoy is only possible through the rational application of mechanistic principles. Our society has advanced due to our ability to track, predict and control the physical world, and such a formula now seems both obvious and extendible to every aspect of human life.

So, we’re swamped with ‘how to improve…’ courses drawing upon the machine metaphor, along with the assumption that the fulfilment of such approaches should inevitably result in excellence everywhere. Efficiency, accountability and measurable efficacy seem to be all that industry, the inspectorate, and (consequently) our anxious parents appear to be interested in….

What’s not to like …?!

Well… it is – I think – perfectly possible to get children to pass exams, and to get inspectors to be satisfied with what you are attempting to do as a school leader, simply through the careful use of ‘machine’ principles. This might be because you are a devotee of Taylorist management principles, Skinnerian behavioural principles, or just an adherent of any other tick-list of ‘best practice’ in how to succeed at something…

But, but….but……but…………BUT…………….Nothing will be outstanding.

We’re not machines. Neither are our classrooms, our schools, nor the wider societies in which they’re embedded. Work in Artificial Intelligence may strive to get robots to information process such that they can accurately replicate our behaviours, but, there is no pretence that they accomplish these activities in the same way that we ourselves carry them out.

Humans simply AREN’T computers! We are biological organisms which happen to have evolved the capability to perform computations at various levels of abstraction. The substrate of the human brain – and the general principles leading to ‘action’ – function entirely differently to the binary digital processing of invented computational devices.

Human reasoning only occasionally uses the slow process of logical deduction and syllogisms. In practice it tends more accurately to arrive at inferential outcomes based on a combination of evolutionary survival mechanisms: genetic, chemical and subliminally cognitive. Indeed, rational discourse is more often than not just an outward manoeuvre providing socially and psychologically respectable justification for what we’ve already done, or what we’d like to do.

So don’t think you can completely engineer the learning of a child simply through cognitive principles. Don’t think that you can just convince them rationally to become mathematicians, have a ‘growth mindset’, or to see the uncontestable logic of working hard and consequently behaving perfectly in class. Children might arrive at a point where they thoughtfully articulate the logical ‘truth’ or value of such things, but that will rarely have anything to do with you directly designing their thinking.

The idea that we can rationally plot how to move another person forward with any certainty is an illusion. We can never know for sure exactly what anybody else has experienced in their life, what their biology predisposes them towards, nor what their personal life experience will most demand of them in the future. We cannot plot in any detail a ‘personalised learning’ course for them. It’s a vanity to think we can plan much beyond simply treating the symptomatic behaviour which appears before us in any particular moment. We can’t even achieve this for ourselves….

Ultimately, human beings are organisms who need to be nurtured, challenged and sometimes cajoled towards the pursuit and fulfilment of excellence in a particular area, until such a goal happens to align with their search for personal satisfaction. If a teacher confidently declares their impact on a student, more often than not any certainly reflects simplistic hindsight. The process of progress is a subtle and messy business, emerging only after many competing interactions.

Similarly, classes too are more like organisms than machines. Do not think that you can just “manage” into existence a class of excellence through behaviourist principles, as if the children are simply a set of resources. Yes – structures, routines and consequences will benefit every child in your care, helping to channel and normalise behaviour and expectations. However, the key consequence of such things will lie primarily in as much as they enable you to connect personally with pupils as both individuals and – crucially – as a healthily functioning community, where the whole emerges independently of the strengths of the individual elements. An excellent class needs nurture.

And – yes – don’t think that you can engineer an excellent school through commercial management principles, as if your staff and children are ‘merely’ a business. Yes, you might be able to avoid a pastoral worst-case scenario with a child. Yes, you might be able to help some struggling children achieve the bottom rung of skills assessments. Yes, you might be able to pass an inspection. But that’s it. You cannot manage a school, or a class, or a child to excellence. For that, you require leadership.

Leadership principles are not just for designated ‘leaders’. Rather, they are for any of us who wish to positively influence an individual or a group. Leadership relies on the engagement of you as a person with the lived reality of the individual in front of you. You need to connect with them – one human with another – and provide for them the sufficient conditions for them to be able to grow; sometimes through firm structures and constraints; sometimes through warm nurture and freedoms, but always through an authentically human relationship which enables the child – or indeed the community – to know and trust the difference.

We are a species of social beings, and this process transcends the individual to the collective mind of the class and the school. Great classes and schools need a sense of identity, of tradition, of camaraderie, of pride, of aspiration, of empathy, of humour and – above all – of compassion and charity. We can’t simply ‘manage’ these things into being in a way which will create a healthily functioning organism.

Rather, what we need are teachers and leaders who can inspire, empathise, reassure, and generally collaborate as co-participants in the human condition.

The CCoT: What would being fully ‘teacher led’ actually look like…?

There is a lot of fuss again about the Chartered College of Teaching, and most precisely whether – a year and a half into its existence – it has become exactly what appeared to have been pledged by politicians and working groups at its inception.

Probably the single biggest issue is whether or not the College is going to end up being teacher-led, and whether this amounts to promises being broken. There are other people out there already who have addressed the counter-argument regarding just what being ‘teacher-led’ might have meant at the outset (for example, as a shorthand by politicians for saying that it would be free from politicians), and Mark Enser and Tom Sherrington have written a couple of good posts outlining these positions:

Debra Kidd also addresses the importance of us pushing-through this phase by getting behind the college – irrespective of whether it is currently exactly what we want (and she says that as someone who’s not even joined because she thinks she’s too peripheral to mainstream teaching currently).

My own viewpoints are definitely sympathetic to the view that ‘teacher-led’ was a fuzzily defined starting point, and also to the view that – by shear dint of practical reality – the Chartered College of Teaching might take years to get to where we want it to, and indeed, might never become exactly what we imagined it would look like at the outset anyway – despite being a great success. In other words it might become the organisation that we need, even if it isn’t the one that initially looked like what we wanted.

And this is where I want to highlight some distinctive thoughts regarding what it being fully led by unpromoted practicing teachers (without consultancy businesses) would look like at this point, and whether it would really ever get anywhere, both in survival terms and in actual useful outcomes.

On Twitter, if I ask exactly why it would be so useful if the CCoT was fully run by serving teachers, I get no more detail than allusions to ‘empowerment’, ‘teacher voice’ and ‘but this was meant to be something just for us!’ In practice, all that this really does is make it sound like a teaching union, but the CCoT was meant to be about “promoting high standards of practice and development” according to the government, and the heart of the existing CCoT’s mission is to “improve the quality of education for children and young people”. Ultimately then, those goals should be the measure by which a fully mature CCoT should be judged, rather than whether it had achieved them by being fully ‘teacher-led’ in a grass-roots way.

So what would be different if it was fully serving teachers filling the leadership positions…?

Time & Focus

If the CCoT is meant to be voluntary, and the serving teachers have remained unpromoted because they love the act of teaching so much, what kind of people would have the time and energy to devote to filling truly active top positions in such a big national association? It has been suggested that they would do it at their weekends and during holidays (see the comments here). Of course there are teachers who make this kind of commitment already in various union roles, but a political desire to stand-up for the little person, is perhaps a more complementary driver to action alongside a teacher staying resolutely in the classroom. Many teachers who are desperately keen on ‘promoting high standards of practice and development’ would most likely already be seeking some kind of promotion, writing books or doing paid part-time lecturing/training.


There has been a burgeoning of ‘grass-roots’ conference movements in recent times, and there is a great intuitive feel to things emerging like this. There was a suggestion to me today on Twitter that any member of the CCoT should be able to organise some kind of conference/training and have it endorsed in the name of the college. It personally seems like it would be a difficult line for the CCoT to justify, that ‘ANY meetings arranged by a member teacher will promote high standards of practice and development’. Most reasonable readers would say – ‘well obviously not just ANY old meetings’, but therein lies the rub – there would have to be SOME kind of quality assurance, particularly if down the line there is going to be accreditation available. Increasing the professional standing of teachers can’t just be based on their right to do and say whatever they want. The autonomy to go in any direction you want would be a regressive step, and I doubt would be followed by any of the 16 Royal Colleges dedicated to the field of medicine in England and Wales.

Consequently, given that there would need to be some kind of quality assurance, how easy would it be for a grass-roots organisation to create national coverage of meetings, conferences and training-events? It would seem to me that this would be more easily achieved by teachers who have experience of doing such things, have established a network of contacts, and have sufficiently left the classroom to make their time more flexible. I’m sure that the politicians who championed the idea of the college would still view this as being ‘teacher-led’.


One of the big cravings for an organisation which promotes teacher ‘autonomy’ is such that the classroom teacher isn’t following the agenda of some other group for once. Teachers are apparently fed-up with being told what to do by politicians, consultants and school leaders. It seems that – whilst teachers are particularly unhappy with any suggestion of school leaders being professional managers who haven’t come from the teaching profession – even with those who have done years of teaching, it seems that teachers don’t think that they are best placed to lead what goes-on in the classroom.

There is definitely some merit in saying “We have so many other routes through which these people already influence what we do, why can’t we have one which is driven from our side…?” Hence I support the burgeoning in the aforementioned grass-roots conference circuit. As an aside, one irony is that one of the most successful grassroots movements – the ResearchEd conferences – is focused on getting teachers to look OUTSIDE their classroom at the work done by professional researchers who are – by and large – non-teachers. Does this promote teacher autonomy…? In as much as an informed mind is more capable of making powerful choices, then yes. What tends to happen however is that – once people have read about research, they feel more compelled to have to fall into line with it.

Anyway, my main question is whether – given that the CCoT is meant to be THE organisation raising the professional standing and quality of ‘practice and development’ in teaching, is letting this be the token ‘official’ organisation where teachers get to play God, re-channelling the direction of the teaching profession, un-influenced by external viewpoints, the right choice…? Responses to this are that it seems to work just fine in myriad other chartered professions, such as accountancy, engineering and in the medical colleges, but on the one hand I suspect that these all took a lot longer to get to full professional efficacy than a year and a half, and on the other, I suspect that there is a much clearer, harder orthodoxy in those professions about exactly what best practice looks like.

I guess, at my most cynical, I’m wondering whether the fully autonomous teacher-led CCoT would just be a national network of ‘TeachMeets’, which feeds chaotically on everyone’s personal experience and never gets to any kind of accreditation stage, or whether it would be akin to people saying: “We’re fed-up with being told what to do by non-teachers such as Christodolou, Wiliam, Didau, Sweller, Hirshe, Lemov, Kirshner, Willingham, Bjork, Rosenshine et al! Instead, we want practicing teachers to stand-up and tell us what to do, such as…. by telling us to read Christodolou, Wiliam, Didau, Sweller, Hirshe, Lemov, Kirschner, Willingham, Bjork, Rosenshine et al…”

In all candidness, I actually doubt that we will ever have a professional association quite like the Institute of Chartered Accountants or the Royal College of Surgeons. As mentioned previously, I think that the professional practice of a teacher is too broad, variable and under-specified to make a clearly defined set of criteria as easy to settle-upon and implement as in accountancy for example. I also think that it would take a commitment to revising the pay scales and career structure of teachers.

However, if it is to get close to this, in its own distinctive form, and it is to eventually be fully teacher-led, where the professional judgement of practicing teachers is so evolved as to be the ultimate arbiter of what is excellent teaching, then it is likely to take a fair number of years to get there, and it will – I believe – need to go through a phase of drawing on a broad range of expertise from across the education system and the teaching ‘profession’ as a whole.

Teachers have a lot of experience of being professional teachers within their own classroom, but practically no experience of being a profession (beyond perhaps being a force of resistance). Cognitive psychologists and traditionalist teachers are keen to point out that autonomous expertise is an emergent quality, rather than simply something which gets gifted to students at the start. Even with adults, we don’t teach someone to drive by just throwing them the keys and saying – go-off and discover it for yourself. Eventually, when we do have such people as accredited ‘chartered teachers’, it will make more sense to assert that the CCoT should be fully teacher led – drawing on teachers who have developed through its ranks. In the meantime however, let’s draw on whatever scaffolded supports that we can, from a range of well-meaning and informed professionals, all of whom have – as their professional priority – the development of professional teaching, and not simply expect serving teachers to be pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, because that’s what some politicians implied would happen.

The Beautiful Lessons of Detectorists


I’ve binge-watched Detectorists over the Easter break. For those unaware, this is a British sitcom series spread over 3 seasons and 19 episodes between 2014 and 2017. It was written by (and starred) Mackenzie Crook, who is well-known from the original Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, and who was my favourite actor/character from the original British version of The Office.

I’ve been aware of it for a while, and assumed (in my naiveté) that it was a bit like the “Off-Roaders” sketches from The Fast Show – but spread-out to sitcom level. In other words – very amusing, full-on slap-stick comedy about laughable people on the fringes of social obsession.

It isn’t that. Yes, there is a lovely sprinkling of clearly comedic daftness, but it is much, much richer and more mature than that; particularly if you look at it as a three-series story arc. Essentially, I feel both hugely enriched personally by watching it, and also struck by the educational messages it has for us and the nuturing of our children.

Rather strikingly, the aesthetics of the series almost say it all themselves: The beautiful folky music by Johnny Flynn croons about the value of what is gentle, nostalgic, melancholic and heart-felt. At the same time, the opening visuals of each episode directly focus your eyes on the beauty of ‘minutia’; the tiny details of the natural world around us which are there for all of us to see, if only we pay enough attention.

And this is it: Amongst all the beautifully observed subtle humour about the gently vain ambitions we all have; the messages about how childish all of us can be – both the ‘goodies’ and the ‘baddies’; and also about the genuine heartfelt sincerity in many of our apparently floored human foibles, there are big messages regarding what is truly of value in that thing called human life.

Essentially, whilst we may cognitively look for a narrative-arc of meaning above everything else, we gain a huge, addictive and nourishing sense of day-to-day meaning and fulfilment from those routine moments of mundanity which simply fit us as people – whether we like the idea or not.

One of the most powerful things which we can do for any of our children is to help them detect and value those small, subtle, apparently ‘nerd-like’ (to others) things which their bodies and inner minds draw them towards, and to put into perspective the bigger, outer attraction which we might find drawing ourselves to socially-defined glitz and glamour. It is from such routine addictions that we have evolved to derive the most satisfaction – whatever the unbridled fantasies our freer cognitive systems might lead us to imagine.

So let’s stop placing so much value on flogging children towards something ‘bigger’… ‘glitzier’… more fantastic. There simply isn’t enough of that to go around to fulfil everyone, and it almost never looks so good close-up anyway. Life is right in front of us to be lived, and we can’t re-programme what it is which will make us personally feel most happy.

In-Class Motivation – Part 3: From EXTRINSIC to INTRINSIC

This is the final portion of a 3-part blog post looking-into how teachers generate in-class motivation from their pupils.

During the first two posts I’ve explored how we confuse ourselves about the purpose and nature of ‘engagement’ in lessons, and I’ve also drilled-into the perils of overstimulation as we seek to push the engagement button.

In this post I’m going to probe the nature of human motivation itself, and give an overview of things we can tap-into to lead a general move away from external carrots and sticks towards something far more sustainable, satisfying and ‘healthy’.

Essentially, no matter how we try to dress things up or strip them down, humans are complex and messy, having simultaneous needs and impulses operating at different levels in our brain. You can’t escape from the fact that we have base animal instincts, needs and wants. You can’t escape from the fact that we also experience various higher-order cognitive and ‘spiritual’ yearnings and motivations.

You also can’t escape from the fact that in school we have to prepare children for a world which holds potentially harsh consequences if we don’t do what is required of us, but which also holds unknowable potential for satisfaction and fulfilment if we freely commit to opportunities which pass our way.

Nothing is ever as clear-cut in humans as the Operant Conditioning of B.F. Skinner, or the famous Hierarchy of Needs of Abraham Maslow would lead us to believe. As is so often the case when looking for norms in psychological functioning, the reality with motivation is that everyone is like everybody else, somebody else and nobody else, and you will never be able to predict for sure quite what will be the best thing to move someone in any one moment.

Research has, however, revealed to us some intriguing general patterns with regards to human functioning:

  1. Yes, up to a point, humans will try harder if threatened with a bigger stick, or a bigger carrot – in other words greater EXTRINSIC forms of motivation – but…
    • Remove the carrot or stick and we are likely to stop.
    • For problem solving tasks requiring more fluid or creative thinking, research suggests that the quality of what they produce is likely to DECREASE if the incentives get too big.
  2.  Humans are at their happiest and most distinctively productive when acting in accordance with things that they find INTRINSICALLY motivating- in other words, things they feel drawn to do.

A key goal for teachers then is to wean children off either the need for immediate rewards, or the need to be prodded with threats of immediate punishment, and gift them two services: Firstly, we should help them to develop the ability to delay gratification – pushing back their need for extrinsic reward –  as well as helping them to look further into the future in order to better avoid distant difficulties.

Secondly though, we should help them to find the intrinsic satisfaction which is to be had at the core of myriad intellectual pursuits – including learning in general – and with as little ‘sugar-coating’ with irrelevant fun diversions as possible. It is the opening-up of this terrain of self-motivated, addictive learning that I want to really explore.

Extinsic to Intrinsic

Of course, some educators would have it that the key to harnessing intrinsic motivation in children is for us to let them themselves decide where the learning should go, and harness our teaching to their existing strengths and interests.

The greatest value in human teachers however, is to be able to lead children into territory which they wouldn’t likely wander on their own accord, and prepare the ground and the learners such that they can make this new world their own. Let’s be frank, is there a greater single function which schools should be providing?

So how do we get intrinsic motivation to kick-in when we’re taking children into places that have been decided by us rather than by them?

During the rest of this post I’m going to briefly outline several theoretical areas offering insights which we can use when trying to make this transition. Then, over upcoming weeks, I’m going to dive down into one aspect at a time, unpicking the key aspects of it and looking at what this might actually look like in the classroom. Remember – there will be no one silver bullet here – but, between different factors, you might nevertheless be able to derive golden glows which help to transform your practice.


Getting INTO learning:

1) Piquing natural curiosity through INFORMATION GAPS

Information gaps

Nobody is curious about everything, and nobody is curious about nothing. The Information Gap Theory of George Loewenstein usefully sees curiosity as a cognitive state which arises when we recognise a gap in the knowledge which we have. It is only once we recognise this gap that we start to feel curious, and the presentation of material to help create such gaps is an area which teachers can explore in multiple ways. QI, for example, heavily relies on this approach when posing questions, and so can we.

2) Generating commitment through identifying RELEVANCE


It seems obvious that if we can persuade people why something might be relevant to their personal situations, or for their future, then they are more likely to take a committed interest in it. This is of course hard to do directly for every learning objective which we might have (and certainly could become quite time-consuming), but relevance can simply relate to how one aspect which we are looking at fits together meaningfully to another area which we have already established the relevance of.

3) Establishing interpersonal RELATEDNESS

I have warned here of the dangers and futility of trying to go overboard with personalisation, and argued here that as much as possible we should aim to “keep the pack together” – saving differentiation for differences that make a difference.

It is a cornerstone of Self-Determination Theory that a desire for ‘relatedness’ is a key intrinsic motivator. On so many occasions, in so many ways, we wish to link-up in joint enterprise with others.


4) A second key element of SDT is our yearning for AUTONOMY.

Yes, we don’t always want to be the ones having to make decisions, the outcomes of which we then carry responsibility for, but there is a significant part of us which does crave such opportunities.  Allowing children choices in what they do or how they do things doesn’t require huge concessions, or the relinquishing of all control and direction in order for it to be motivating however…

5) …And our desire for autonomy will ally closely with our need for COMPETENCE

We generally don’t feel comfortable not being able to do things which appear necessary for achieving our goals, and over time we might also feel the additional yearning for MASTERY of an area – an asymptote which can fuel our motivation late into our life.

Moving beyond Self-Determination Theory, the motivational drives associated with AUTONOMY and MASTERY, as well as the search for PURPOSE are compellingly brought into focus by Dan Pink in his book Drive (and in his Ted Talk).

Getting TRAPPED in learning:

Whilst the above factors and needs will help get us into a learning situation, and may often keep us coming back time and again, most teachers will recognise times when they did a great job of getting children’s attention and commitment to something, only for the follow-up – the actual core of the learning – to lose their attention, or not pay-back the interest which they had initially invested in it.

Much has been spoken in recent years about the need for CHALLENGE and it is true that we all yearn for something that puts us to the test somewhat. We nevertheless also prefer challenges which we can overcome, and are likely to be put-off by a never-ending stream of things we can’t achieve or master.

6) Becoming addictively stuck ‘in the zone‘ with FLOW

Screen-Shot-2017-10-24-at-17.47.09@TeacherToolkit has recently opened-up further discussion on Flow 

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s FLOW theory explores how we can become happily – indeed addictively – hooked in an activity if the level of challenge and the level of our capability are well matched, and the circumstances don’t distract us. We’ve all experienced being ‘in the zone’ in this way, and children experience it multiple times a day in the playground or gaming on some digital device. They’d just call this ‘fun’, but flow is one of the key things can make games seem ‘fun’ in the first place. Ally this with a moderate degree of autonomy as well, and you have a potent mixture…

7)  The Progress Principle and the power of small wins.

We can call this “the progress principle”: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.””

Although Jonathan Haidt was responsible for the above quote, The Progress Principle as a theoretical work originated with Theresa Amabile – based on the analysis of exactly what keeps people motivated at work. It fundamentally teaches us two key things:

  • That our experience of small steps towards a goal affects our enthusiasm on a day to day basis – whether or not we have achieved the overall objective.
  • That small losses, set-backs, irritations and upsets have roughly three times the emotional power of small gains and victories.

When trying to encourage children to enjoy wrestling through ‘the learning pit‘, or hoping that they will fully recognise the value of a growth mindset for themselves, this is worth exploring further.

8) The Contagion of Vital Essence

I’ve alluded to this previously here, and most recently here, but this last section is a theoretical area I’m personally wishing to explore, based on practical observation. Namely, that every aspect of life – every aspect of everything in fact – has somebody who finds it fascinating. There is no such thing as something which is inherently boring, nor inherently exciting.

BBC - What I Learned...If you do ‘boring’ things, does that make you a ‘boring’ person?

My proposal is that everything that we try to teach to children is found by some people – somewhere – to be obsessively exciting – or at least compulsively absorbing. Why is that? What is it that can be so compelling about just about anything when looked-at in just the right way, from just the right perspective?

It could well be that it’s a whole range of things alluded to above combined together – the right information gaps, personal relevance, the drive for mastery etc. but I have a suspicion that – once we’ve learned to see something in a certain way, humans can interpersonally transmit what’s vital about that thing through their personal example, explication and enthusiasm, and the interest – the bug – can catch. The task for teachers then would be to get inside the core areas that they are responsible for teaching, and – whether or not they’re already enthusiasts – at least find what the essence of it is that can give it such vitality in the eyes of the devoted.

To summarise then, over the next few weeks I will be exploring in more depth the theories behind each one of these ways into intrinsically motivated behaviour, and looking in each case at how we can make fruitful use of them in the classroom. After each one I will seek to crowd-source further examples of how this can be done, and add them as an appendix to the post. I hope that as many of you as possible follow and join with me on this journey…

In-Class Motivation – Part 2: The Threat of OVERSTIMULATION

This is the second of 3 posts looking into challenges at the heart of motivating children to learn in the classroom. In the first post I looked at how we can get confused when seeking to ‘engage’ children in lessons, with the danger therein that we might divert them from the actual intended learning outcome.

This situation arises partly from the sincere recognition that if children aren’t engaged ‘with’ an activity, then they aren’t going to learn from it, but it is also fuelled by a desire that ideally they will also be engaged ‘by‘ it, as this will do the job of motivating them to engage more generally, and also entice them to willingly come back for more in the future. We should also, I will keep saying, seek for school days to be an overall enjoyable phase of life.

During this post, I want to shine a light at an overlapping aspect of this situation; namely the frequently difficult line which teachers tread when trying to galvanise the disengaged children to become ‘engaged’. Effectively, we often actively seek to stimulate children out of their boredom – to wake them up and to kick them into fruitful participation. The world is full of opportunity for this these days – from multiple methods of gamification, to myriad technological and multi-media extravaganzas.

However, whilst we need our pupils to be stimulated into action, what we also most probably find is that children can often easily be overstimulated – at least as far as their ability to control their activity levels is concerned. Indeed, some children seem to have very little useful territory between being bored and disengaged, and being overstimulated and disruptive, and they will flip from one to the other in the blink of an eye.

The Challenge of Stimulation

All teachers will know the scenario portrayed – and I’m NOT just talking about children with a diagnosis. The children who excitedly shout things out when it’s not their turn, or who become oblivious to just how loud they are when talking in a group, or who take a joke too far, or laugh too long, or who push the boundaries of what’s physically intended from an activity. Whether it’s through them being too boisterous, giddy or ‘experimental’, there probably isn’t one of us who hasn’t at some point found ourselves uttering the frustrated words “Right! If you’re going to be like that then we won’t do this again!”, or simply shook our heads when reading a suggestion for an activity thinking “There’s no way I could do that with THAT class…

Risks of Overstimulation 1

So, overstimulation can lead to an unwelcome and disruptive level of hyperactivity, and if we are determined that we do want to give our children the most stimulating experiences that we can, and that we don’t want the enjoyment of the many to be spoiled by the few, then we need to build for ourselves some kind of CONCRETE LINING – a metaphorical security mechanism which will minimise the chances of things going too far, or which will enable us to easily press a class reset button to pull things back into a degree of order.

Such a label can sound somewhat draconian, but the beauty of it is that the stronger our ‘concrete lining’ is, the more ambitiously active and stimulating can be our style of teaching.

Perhaps a more creative way of picturing this would be to call it “THE WOK OF STIR-FRY TEACHING” You decide if that helps. The point of the metaphor is that our enthusiastic method for making a stir-fry is always going to be limited by the suitability of the container that we have to hand. It needs to be robust, spacious and appropriately shaped to allow whatever is inside to move, and it really needs to be something you can keep a firm grip on.

In reality, we should have multiple levels of these kinds of checks, controls and assurances. For example….

The Woks of Stir Fry Teaching

The school should have a transparent and smoothly enforced rule and consequence system; all teachers should mirror these in their classes – along with the establishment and rehearsal of all kinds of simple habitual routines which streamline functioning; and each activity should have the clearest possible outline of what is involved, what is expected and what can be expected. But out of all of this, I believe that the drilling of simple routines can be one of the most powerful levers for skillful and active teaching. Habits become things which we do without thinking, and indeed which can become quite hard not to do. Make them your best friend – but you will need to work at pushing them initially.

So is the solution then, to build rigorous walls of control mechanisms and then we can hit eager learners with every explosive teaching technique in our arsenal?

Risks of Overstimulation 2

Well, probably not. Yes, I still support the idea of having out-and-out striking, memorable and ‘fun’ learning experiences, but I believe we have an emerging problem which hasn’t had an awful lot of research done on it in the classroom

Essentially, as with so many other areas of life, if we constantly use technology, exciting games and high-octane scenarios to turn the adrenaline levels up to 11, then we are gradually going to find that these techniques start to lose their efficacy. Human minds thrive on stimulation, and novelty is a key driver of this. Through sensory adaptation for example – the kinds of visceral multimedia experiences which seem so exciting the first time round can become humdrum and so ‘yesterday’.

Similarly, at a more cognitive level, if we are also continually over-working the “Hey! You’re never going to believe this!” trigger, then children will gradually habituate to the situation, and initially strong emotional responses will also fade with the law of diminishing returns, in a process of affective adaptation.

The bottom line to all this is that we’re either going to have to keep trying harder, or we’re going to have to keep trying something different. There is no shortage of anecdotal popular culture evidence to this effect. The kinds of movies and shows which blew people away 20 years ago just don’t cut it now, and we will all have experienced the ways in which many children these days just aren’t that interested in museum exhibits which don’t flash, buzz and interact.

There is another way of course. Whilst there will always be a place in classrooms (I think), for the audacious, eye-catching and memorable – for those moments which stay in the heart and mind for many a year, and which can act as pivotal emotional memories upon which to found a whole raft of cognitive learning – there is another direction entirely which we can go in to gain the emotional, behavioural and intellectual commitment of our pupils.

It is to that that I will turn in the final post in this series, when I look at the movement from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation.

In-Class Motivation – Part 1: BEING ENGAGED

In my previous two posts I made a dual case:

  • We morally SHOULD aim for school – including lessons – to be overall a joyous, happy, ‘fun’ part of life worth living in itself (not just safe & dignified).
  • For both moral and practical reasons we SHOULD nevertheless educate children to deal with both the absence of fun, and for the ability to eschew immediate pleasure in order to access higher forms of positive affect

I’m following those up with a brief 3-part blog series about practical issues which arise from this for our in-lesson teaching techniques.

To start with, I’m taking a freshly envisaged fly-past of engagement – something which I devoted a heavyweight trilogy of posts to here, here and here. I will follow that up with a look at the challenge of overstimulation, and finally ‘explicit’ vs ‘implicit’ motivation.

So, being ‘ENGAGED’…

The pursuit of the first goal I mentioned above, combines with some pretty reasonable common sense and cognitive science to convince us that we really do want children to be ‘engaged’ in lessons; most of the stuff which we are trying to teach children beyond pre-school is the kind of stuff which will only get into long-term memory if it is thought about (the ‘biologically secondary learning’ of our cultural creations). Someone who is disengaged won’t learn anything, and we want them to enjoy themselves so we really do need things to be ‘engaging’, right?

The word engaged can rather confusingly be used to imply different things:

We can be…

Engaged IN  (Action)

Engaged WITH  (Thinking)

Engaged BY  (Interest)

Now, there are some later phases of learning where simply being engaged ‘in’ doing something can be beneficial (overlearning), but in general, for initial learning and deliberate practice to take place, we really need to be actively thinking and engaging ‘with’ something.

What about being engaged ‘by’? Well, we don’t actually have to be engaged by something to be engaged with it. So learning doesn’t require that something is naturally ‘engaging’ to us.

However, there is my initial assertion that overall, schooling should create a positive affect in children, and for this to come about, there needs to occur a fair number of learning activities which they find naturally enjoyable. Exactly quite what this might mean in practice I will address in the next two posts.

Additionally, there is also the important case that in order for children to engage with thinking about something, they have be motivated to do it – one way or another. One of the simplest ways of this happening is if they are naturally interested in it, and they WANT to engage with it. A powerful further step beyond this is that positive emotional experiences are addictive – humans will want to repeat them without much cajoling. Consequently, there are multiple reasons as to why we should want a fair proportion of our teaching and learning activities to be actually ‘enjoyable’.

Here though, we can run into a classic problem…

Engagement Unpacked

Hopefully the above diagram will make some sense on its own, but the bottom line which I would hope for you to take from it is that misguided attempts to ensure that learners are ‘engaged by’ their learning can lead to the adoption of activities which really don’t help them learn what it is that you actually want them to learn, all that much.

Of course, there is always something which can be learned from anything we do – so I would want to be careful in stating that nothing is being learned – but we presumably pick particular learning objectives for a reason.

Also – of course – if you take seriously my assertion about school being ‘fun’ overall, it might be that at a particular point and time you really do just want them to do something ‘fun’ to inject positive affect into what is otherwise a pretty dry or relentless period of learning. Some would say that that is what break-times are for. I would say that that’s not a sufficient ‘get-out clause’ for multiple reasons (perhaps another time).

Consequently then, the first message from this trio of posts is that whilst we SHOULD strive for our lessons and learning activities to frequently contain things which learners will find naturally engaging, we must be very careful to not let this divert us from ensuring that whatever it is that the children are engaged BY, their minds still remain engaged WITH the actual objective of learning, as closely as possible.

In the next post I am going to consider the overlapping issue of overstimulation.