It used to be accepted that learning academic subjects was hard work, but there were rich rewards for those prepared to put in the effort. Teachers were proud to make this case and thunder at those who weighed it differently – that was their role as advocates. If a child succeeded, it was a demonstration of hard work and talent. If a child failed, at least some of the blame lay with that child’s lack of application.
Education has moved away from such ideas. The pendulum has swung from the cruel and violent coercion of the past to delegitimising any kind of adult-imposed authority. Schools promote the idea of managing behaviour restoratively rather than punitively; the idea of punishment for a moral failing is anathema. Educationalists argue that coercion does not lead to intrinsic motivation, only compliance for as long as the coercive measures are in place.
This presents us with something of a chicken-and-egg problem. If students have no intrinsic motivation to learn something, then what are we to do?
Many teachers will recognise that their students are not particularly motivated to learn the intended curriculum and will seek ways to make them feel more positive towards it. Perhaps they will try to relate the content to something that they believe their students do find interesting, or select an activity that they believe students will enjoy. This is the route towards the Shakespeare raps and poster work that, in my opinion, is responsible for much of the dumbing down that we have seen in Western education systems. It is also enormously patronising. But at least I can buy the idea that students might actually enjoy some of this stuff.
Others have very strange ideas about what motivates children. Some think that setting maths students complex, real-world problems will get them excited about mathematics, whereas all but those who are already quite mathematically able are likely to be frustrated by such a prospect. Others think that situating learning in mundane, everyday contexts will excite students. The psychologist David Perkins offers, ‘Project-based learning in mathematics or science, which, for instance, might ask students to model traffic flow in their neighbourhood or predict water needs in their community over the next 20 years.’