Getting better all the time

Me used to be angry young man

Me hiding me head in the sand

You gave me the word, I finally heard

I’m doing the best that I can

Lennon and McCartney, Getting Better

Now, I am as prone to making simplistic statements on which to hang policy as the next school leader. I recently wrote a discussion paper for our leadership team about teacher development – fully referenced, appropriately nuanced and mildly provocative – in which I claimed that three conditions were required to secure teacher development: teachers who are motivated to improve; teachers who know what to improve; and teachers who receive useful feedback on their progress.

It passed by the fire pit of our meeting without challenge or comment. Because it is ‘truthy’, right? By which I mean it has the alluring ring of being correct. You see such simplistic drivel all of the time – in motivational posters, in leadership literature, and, it would turn out, in policy discussion papers which I have laboured over. None of us are immune to it. I would like to claim that I was hoping to provoke a reaction, but I wasn’t. I was merely hoping to make a complicated topic easier to get a handle on.

But when we settle for the intuitively appealing, we risk missing the truth that hides behind the rhetoric.

On reflection, the part of my claim that particularly does not stand up to scrutiny is the assertion that teachers must be motivated if they are to improve. This statement feels correct because we cannot easily imagine teachers developing their practice without being motivated to do so. Furthermore, the claim implies an unpalatable alternative, which is that unmotivated teachers require some coercion, or are left to fester at their current level of proficiency! Neither fit our narrative of school improvement whereby teachers are on a continual path to excellence and job fulfilment due to their collective acceptance that being good is not good enough.

As I was mulling over the growing sense of not quite right’ness about the whole question of teacher motivation, Zoe Enser wrote this excellent blog in which she asks what we should do about those teachers who don’t want to improve. I’d like to put my own spin on this debate.

Firstly, let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the classroom teacher doing a 40-year stretch: NQT to retirement. How realistic is it for us to expect them to maintain a high level of motivation to develop their practice over the length of their career? Now, I am not arguing (before anyone calls me ageist) that everyone naturally winds down in the latter stages of their career (although some do, and God knows the older I get, the more sympathy I have for this). But it is likely that teachers will have phases of their career where their attention is focussed on professional betterment and phases where, frankly, other things are more important. Those early years as a parent, when you take on a management responsibility, or when you are the only one available to provide care for an elderly parent, are all moments when your energy and attention is directed – rightly – elsewhere.

It is not that the motivation to improve disappears, more that other motivational urges (or survival instincts) are stronger. Motivation is not binary or exclusive. We can be motivated towards various objectives, but not all of them can become the focus of our attention. I am motivated to write a work of fiction, but not enough to displace the other goals I would like to pursue. By telling teachers relentlessly that it is their ethical duty to continuously improve, we risk disenfranchising those for whom it is justifiably not the top of their agenda right now. This isn’t about being an apologist for complacency, it is about human regard for one’s employees. We can continue to support these teachers in improving but without expecting them to come skipping down the CPD aisle with a research paper in hand.

But I am going to go further than simply arguing that we can’t expect everyone to be motivated to improve all of the time and question whether motivation is actually a necessary condition for improvement, or the thing we should be focussing our attention on.

I have been teaching my A Level Business class about motivation over the last couple of lessons. One of the misconceptions this age group often have about motivation is that it is about getting someone to do something. This, I explain, is ‘movement’, not motivation. I demonstrate this by asking them to stand up. They invariably all do. I then tell them to sit down again. There are a few grumbles and quizzical looks. I then ask them whether I motivated them to stand up and sit down.

The point of this exercise is to highlight the difference between doing something and wanting to do something. It leads to an interesting debate about whether incentives/disincentives (such as money, sanctions, or even praise) are ‘movers’ or ‘motivators’. The problem with ‘movers’, I explain to the class, is that they are transitory because once the incentive is removed the behaviour stops. We are left with this idealised notion that our goal should be to create the conditions for true motivation, whereby workers have an internalised desire to do better.

But are we correct to denigrate external factors which create movement in this way?

A couple of years ago, we set about trying to establish better routines for starts of lessons at my school. We weren’t quite sure how far to push this agenda or how it would play out in the (fairly liberal) culture of our school. One of the approaches we brought in was to require new Year 7 students to stand behind their chairs at the start and end of each lesson. Standards of behaviour are generally very good at the school, so teachers weren’t screaming out for a new whole-school directive. As expected, there were grumbles about this requirement. I imagined the staffroom discussions going on: ‘What next, silent corridors?’ However, we insisted that it should happen, alongside the strengthening of lesson-start routines which teachers had more autonomy to decide on.

The lesson-start focus made a significant impact. Punctuality improved and students settled much more quickly (we tracked this through regular snapshot surveys and lesson visits). And then the pandemic hit.

In the hullabaloo of returning to school last September, we were too distracted to insist that the new Year 7 classes should all stand behind their chairs at the start of lessons, or that this routine should carry through for last year’s cohort to Year 8. And yet for many teachers the routine stuck. They didn’t need to be directed to do so because they had proof of concept: their lessons went better when they adopted routines to start the lesson in a more structured way than they might previously had done.

This anecdote (somewhat simplified for the telling) is offered to make the point that motivation doesn’t always proceed improvement. In fact, motivation may lag behaviour. Many of the teachers became motivated to maintain stronger lesson-start routines because they had direct evidence that their lessons would be calmer and more productive as a result. It is also interesting to note that the motivation in this example does not arise from some abstract moral commitment to improving life chances for children, but from a quite self-interested desire to be able to get on with one’s job and have a more pleasant day.

The prevailing narrative around teacher development is so often that teachers should be motivated by a moral purpose to improve educational standards and this drives them to continuously improve. If this is the case then great! But this narrative also leads us to assume that teachers who do not appear to embrace change in their practice are somehow morally deficient. Firstly, it really isn’t that simple. Secondly, we cannot afford to rely on ‘higher purpose’ assumptions to drive improvement. We are all motivated by both abstract notions of our professional identity and purpose and by the immediate desire to get through the day and attend to other matters of concern. Thirdly, we should not assume that practice follows motivation. To change someone’s mind, it may be necessary to change their practice first.

Which brings us to my favourite motivation theorist, Frederick Herzberg. He is not my favourite because of his theories, but because of a clip of him speaking that I came across many years ago. The clip is wonderfully 1970s in tone. He is like a loungeroom singer, dressed in a dark suit and chalk in hand as he addresses the audience in a sleazy, Massachusetts drawl. If you can imagine if Tom Waits were a motivational speaker, you’ll get the idea. Here it is!

Herzberg makes the point about the difference between movement and motivation. He also illustrates his argument with the example of playing the piano.

What, Herzberg asks, would determine our motivation to play the piano? Well, firstly we need to be able to play the piano. Without the ability to play the piano, we can’t be motivated to play the piano. Secondly, he continues, we need a piano. We can’t be motivated to play the piano if we don’t have a piano. Ability and opportunity. And then the sting: Herzberg tells us that what we substitute for opportunity is ‘cultural noise’, such as talk of responsibility. He reminds us that simply giving people the responsibility to do something without the opportunity and ability to do it is idiocy.

We have plenty of cultural noise in schools, not least the ideal of moral purpose – an appeal to some intrinsic moral superiority that teachers possess which drives their every action. One would hope that this fire is in the belly of most teachers, but fire in the belly is also a description for indigestion. Without an outlet, this fire will burn away at your insides. It is not enough to tell teachers that they should feel a moral responsibility to improve; we must also equip them with the ability and opportunity to discharge this responsibility. If their classroom is so chaotic that the simple act of instruction is a struggle, there is no opportunity to get better. If they lack the skill to design diagnostic questions which uncover pupil misconceptions, the desire to improve will lead nowhere, and this desire will fade over time as the teacher receives continuous negative feedback from their environment. As behavioural change will sometimes proceed motivation, so too will skill development and working conditions. Without these, we may be motivating teachers to be ineffective.

There is one more point in my critique of motivational assumptions that I would like to make, and that is around the idea that teachers change intentionally.

There is some evidence from the field of psychology to suggest that group norms are more influential in determining behaviour than an individual’s beliefs or goals. I do not intend to unpack the evidence to support this here, but suffice to say it is a relatively well supported claim. If true, how might this affect teachers’ practice?

My assertion is that teachers become more effective if they work closely with more expert others (for evidence of this assertion, look up papers by Papay and colleagues) and that this is in part because they adopt the norm behaviours of effective practitioners. In other words, we fall in line with those around us and, where this practice is effective, this leads to us adopting more effective practices. High performing teachers hunt in packs.

We can easily imagine scenarios where this will be likely. Teachers may informally share ideas for teaching tricky concepts, have their assessment practice sharpened through moderation with more experienced peers, witness how a colleague settles a class calmly and assertively, or work from a well-sequenced scheme of work developed by a group of colleagues. These effects are partly about working in a well-run department, but also about copying behaviours. There is a tendency to conform. We also tend to take the path of least resistance – it is easier to behave as those around us do than to constantly evaluate whether what we are doing is right, effective, or optimal. In the right environment, teachers will improve with little conscious intent or deliberate action. The only motivation in sight is the motivation to fall in line.

Perhaps high performing teams lead to high performing individuals, not the other way around. Similarly, motivation may not reside with the individual but in the collective. We attribute individual performance to being the result of an upward trajectory of personal development, but what if context explains it better? It is much more likely that we will improve if it is normal to do so.

Let’s return now to my opening claim about the conditions required for teacher development: teachers who are motivated to improve; teachers who know what to improve; and teachers who receive useful feedback on their progress.

This claim now appears embarrassingly presumptuous in placing the responsibility for development entirely on the shoulders of the individual teacher. It also makes assumptions about motivation that do not stand up to scrutiny. It is entirely possible to improve without first being motivated to do so. It is also quite unfair to expect teachers to universally prioritise their own development above all other competing goals. Furthermore, it is unreasonable and unwise to expect teachers to continually engage in ‘development’ efforts if the organisational conditions are not in their favour. In theory, a workforce highly motivated to develop appears desirable and perhaps even a prerequisite for organisational improvement. However, in reality it is unlikely that we will have universal enthusiasm and it may not be wise to insist upon it. It is entirely possible to improve a school without an appeal to moral purpose or a demand that teachers continually disrupt the regularities of their practice for the greater good. Thinking about teacher development requires us to go beyond truthy statements and simplistic assertions.

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