The independent and responsible students, that everyone in education claims to want to produce, are self-motivated, either by the learning they gain from hard work or by the promise of qualifications at the end of their courses. They have learnt from failures in the past that hard work pays off. But, with external examinations two or three times a year and the introduction of rewards, for meeting minimum standards instead of genuinely good acts, we make them more dependent on short term and external sources of motivation.
Declining ResponsibilityOFSTED, the UK government watchdog for education, despairs that even the oldest students show little independence and responsibility for their learning, while at the same time congratulating schools on their rewards schemes and the efforts they make to stop disaffected students from failing despite themselves. Chocolates, certificates and extra trips are used in the attempt to buy responsible behaviour, in the mistaken attempt that unearned compliments are somehow a more clever way to manipulate children than the old fashioned idea of just deserts. But of course, withholding a promised reward is itself a punishment that worryingly displaces more desirable motivations.
The Withering of Internal MotivationsEven sixth formers seem to require external motivations to get up in the morning, now that reward systems are being extended to the over-sixteens. Is it really necessary to give certificates to everyone who is not misbehaving, just to try and encourage a few young people who would be better off out of education?
The governments now plans to force all under-eighteens to stay in education or formal training. This will, naturally, make things worse. Volunteers will value the education they get more than they would as conscripts, even if they would have volunteered anyway, nibbling away
At the moment, the once fearsome mock exams, used for decades to motivate students mid-course, are now a waste of time. More than ever, the refrain "is it important?" is heard, meaning "do these marks go towards my final grade?". The proliferation of externally set exams means that class tests are seen as unimportant even by bright students, so they lose their power to motivate. Low scores are seen as par for the course, since no preparation was done.
The ResultThe govenrment's focus on reducing the embarrasingly large number of NEETs (youths not in employment, education or training) will work against the policy of producing ever more motivated and independent young people. The pressure on schools and colleges to stop teenagers from learning their own lessons from their choices and behaviour, since it risks the school's league table position, is counterproductive.
The best lessons will never come from a government initiative delivered in a classroom.