The motivational impact of the mundane
Why does an unlikely hypothesis keep being reheated?
One of the aspects that excited me about moving to secondary school was the facilities. My primary school did not have science labs and it certainly had nothing like the woodwork and metalwork rooms I clocked during my induction day. I had an interest in computers, robots, rockets, aircraft and so on. Perhaps I would learn the skills to make a robot arm or radio-controlled model boat?
So it was with enthusiasm that I embarked upon my first rotation through a subject that was oddly known as ‘Design and Realisation’. Unfortunately, it turned out that we were not going to use any of the specialist equipment. Our teacher explained that we would work in groups to design a business, create a logo for that business and display that logo on a cardboard model of the business. I could have done that at primary school.
So, we played along. One member of our group quite liked making logos so we farmed that task out to him. I came up with the business idea — a combined slaughterhouse and meat packaging plant dubbed, ‘Floppy Cows’. After that, I chatted amiably to my friends as they cut and glued and decorated cardboard. Our amusement at the teacher’s attempts to navigate the seriousness of our proposal, before eventually having to give us a top score because we had met all her stated criteria, was tinged with bitterness.
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One of the reasons I am so jaded about progressive education is because I was subjected to its silliness as a schoolboy and I understand how disappointing it feels to be on the receiving end. And a particularly silly idea that informed the design-a-business task was that young people will necessarily be motivated by mundane real-world contexts.
Where does this idea come from? You only have to go to the children’s section of a bookshop to conclude that escapism, wizards, magic, outer space and adventure are what sell. Where are the children’s books about going to the supermarket or carpeting a house? Where are the novels about starting a perfectly ordinary accountancy firm? You will be looking a long time.
I think the origins of the idea lie in the widely held assumption that school is purely preparation for work. It comes from taking seriously the spanner that more savvy students hurl into the classroom machine when they ask us, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” Instead of confidently answering that they may never need to use it and that’s fine — that they can stay perfectly ignorant of quadratic equations, Shakespeare, the Second World War, the beliefs and practices of other cultures and everything else that goes in to being a grown-up and responsible citizen, and yet still survive in a modern western democracy — we take the question on face value and start apologising for the subject we teach.
I have a theory that this creeps in during primary school when we are imploring children to swallow the brussels sprouts of early maths. We falsely claim this will be essential for calculating change at the supermarket or for the completion of some other tedious chore. No wonder they throw this back at us as frustrated teens.
It is possible to zero-in on any single item of knowledge and make a case that an individual can survive or even flourish without it. Strangely, some people take pleasure in bragging of their hatred for Shakespeare or algebra or French or grammar or whatever. Of course, nobody hearing these exclamations cares, and so they function more as a primal scream, exorcising and rationalising past frustrations and regrets.
Picking-off little corners of knowledge misses the point because knowledge is valuable in sum. When we have plenty of mental schemas, we can start making connections. We can solve new problems and be creative. Sure, we can all point to ignorant multimillionaires mouthing off about how successful they are even though they never learnt anything at school, but for every ignorant multimillionaire, there are countless more who are just plain ignorant.
Yes, there are frustrated teenagers who lack motivation. However, this is often because they are struggling. Motivation and academic success form a virtuous circle. Success breeds motivation which breeds further success. The only way to build long-term motivation is to teach a subject really well so that students start to grasp it.
And yet nobody thinks this. They think the solution for unmotivated maths students is to ask them to estimate the volume of furniture when booking storage space. We all love moving house, right? What’s more motivating than that? Excuse me while I shudder at the thought.