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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 10-Feb-12


Friday 10-February-12

The extrinsic end of education

I went to another interesting lecture at the RSA last week, given by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools in the UK and the new boss of Ofsted. He was talking about schools assessed as 'satisfactory' as being, in fact, unsatisfactory. He's a tough-talking former failing-school turnaround head and surely understands schools from close in. He spoke of bad teaching and the importance of targets and incentives, yet didn't seem to get the link between them.

Come question time there were questions about what support teachers should get rather than just punishment. I challenged him on his apparent fondness for extrinsic motivation, but he was unrepentant, saying big improvements had been made in schools by measurement and targets. And that's just the pernicious nature of extrinsic methods. It often seems to work, yet there is invariably a sting in the tail.

A classic example is the school where my wife teaches. It was recently pronounced 'outstanding' by Ofsted. Yet she and others are concerned about the almost paranoid focus on appearances and results. There were weeks of preparation before the Ofsted inspection, with much preparation of nicely labelled folders. It seemed far more about appearances than education. Ofsted know this and are planning unannounced inspections, which should give a better view, provided the inspectors can see the truth.

The results-focus is more long-term and more damaging. In desperate clawing up the league tables, the approach seems to be to document and regularize everything. Lessons are planned down to minute details and must be delivered to plan, even if nobody is learning. And there are endless worksheets that are handed out in a project-managed march rather than intelligent interaction with the students.

Teaching seems now more about training kids to pass tests and not about educating them to succeed in life. And you can see the effects in the complaints from universities and employers about unable young people, leading to accusations of declining real standards. There is justification in accusations of schools becoming 'exam factories' and the metaphor reaches long and loud.

Along the way, schools have found 'management' and a number of extrinsically-driven careerists have found their way into the profession. My wife's head of department is a classic case. With four years teaching experience and a glib mastery of management-speak she set about regularising everything while demolishing the passion and motivation within her team. In an already stressful profession, she castigated and micro-managed competent teachers into 'proper teaching' with herself as an empathy-free model.

My wife must have seemed to be the epitome of incorrectness. She has a highly engaging style with students, using Socratic methods of challenge to draw out understanding and provoke independent and interactional thinking. After 35 years, she doesn't need detailed plans, although she still researches widely for her lessons. She brings in religion, history, psychology and more as she knows you can't understand English literature without a broad cultural and human understanding. Her lessons are high energy performances with laughter and surprise. Whatever it takes to keep them engaged, get them to think and help them remember. She is intrinsically driven herself and uses intrinsic motivation to infect her pupils with a deep and lasting passion for the subject.

Unsurprisingly, all the kids want to be in her class and she even has parents stopping her in the street and begging her to teach their children. She's far from a soft touch, mind you, and holds strong discipline. Kids don't respect teachers who are soft and lessons soon become chaotic. One of her secrets is that she gives respect and expects respect. Even if a child has misbehaved, in the next lesson the slate starts from clean. She also spends untold hours after school and in her 'free time' helping anyone who needs it.

It is also not surprising that she has a drawer full of thank-you letters and that former students from years ago still seek her out.

So it was a surprise recently when her head of department decided to inspect one of her lessons and then spent forty minutes telling her what a terrible teacher she was, taking each point in the teacher's performance standard and saying my wife had failed on all counts and that there was grave concern for the class. Shocked, my wife explained how she was indeed doing what she was told she was not doing, but any evidence was dismissed as irrelevant.

The only conclusion was that it was personal. My wife is honest and straightforward when others are often too scared, and had in the past offered views when they were unwelcome. The head of department wanted blind conformance and obedience, not challenge, and had decided to 'throw the book' at her. Paradoxically, this was a foolish thing to do, as it was so total, criticising on every single point, that it lost all credibility. My wife has been at the school for 17 years and always has been assessed as good or outstanding. Either everyone else was wrong or something was wrong here.

Fortunately, when she spoke with the head teacher, he saw the truth of the matter and sorted things out. But it could easily have been so different. The Ofsted chief spoke of getting rid of bad teachers, but all it takes is a personal difference and a callous manipulation for a good teacher to be ousted. The result is more fearful teachers and less passion in teaching. Some results may go up but education goes down as innovation, openness and true understanding give way to blind regurgitation. As teaching is dumbed down, so also is learning.

And this is just a corner, a mere tip of the iceberg that extrinsic motivation can bring. With an intrinsic approach, it is assumed that teachers want to do a good job and are intelligently supported in doing so. Education and national success are understood as a system. Improving education is through leadership of people, not imposing process. Like my wife, truly great results can best (and perhaps only) be gained through the human qualities of care, respect, intelligence and challenge.

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