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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 21-Jul-13


Sunday 21-Jul-13

How to demotivate children (and teachers)

The UK government this week announced yet another change in the way children are tested. Currently, at the ages of 7, 11 and 14, tests for key stages 1, 2, and 3 are given to all children in England. Schools get the results by pupil, grading the children into 'levels' which identify their overall academic standard, targeted at levels 2, 4 and 6 at key stages 1, 2 and 3 respectively.

The underlying principle, of giving the government feedback on its policies before the real qualification exams start at the age of 16, is sound. The problem is that results are made public which turns it all into a circus of punishing 'failing' schools that did not get good enough results, with the predictable result that schools en up 'teaching to the test'. Non-tested subjects and all-round education suffer as the schools appear to be getting better. Students suffer too as much of their learning is just in regurgitating answers rather than learning to understand, think and create.

As with many systems that end up with extrinsic motivation, people focus on the measure at the cost of other areas, resulting in a dysfunctional imbalance. Extrinsic motivation is, paradoxically, demotivating, destroying the passion of intrinsic motivation. Teachers and head teachers have felt battered by the pressures of getting ever-increasing test results with children who are basically the same raw material. They are also often desperately despondent at what they see as ruining the real education of the nation's children. A similar effect happens in many businesses, where mechanical performance evaluations and bonuses act to drain the passion from employees.

And now, the children themselves are in the government's sights. Eleven year-olds are going to be told which percentile band they are in, by comparison with other children across the country. Imagine you're eleven and have just been told that you are in the 30% percentile. That you are way below average. That 70% of the children in the country are better than you. Is that supposed to motivate you to work harder? Or will it just look like a mountain too high. It is common knowledge that most people think they are above average. This applies to children too. Many know they are not in the top echelons, but they do hope they are not near the bottom. This system will destroy what motivation of half the kids and perhaps more. How can governments be so stupid?

I have personal knowledge of national school testing. I was a teacher and married to a teacher. I also worked for a while for the government agency that administered the tests. The tests themselves were perfectly good, being carefully constructed for reliability and validity and securely delivered. The problem was and is the way the results are used for political and managerial ends, rather than motivating our children to learn and become the best citizens they can be.

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