Feeling on Top of the World: A Motivational Challenge

Recent research by the London School of Economics shows that children's performance in secondary school is affected by how they feel they did in primary school. Those who feel they were top in the their class in primary school are more motivated when they reach high school, and so perform better. It's a pattern that is far more influential in boys, who the study found to be four times more affected than girls.

It's an interesting study that provides some useful insight into the motivation of pupils. It also raises some problems and challenges in acting on its results.

Performance problems

One problem with the findings of this study is that acting on them runs counter to established wisdom. Previous studies have found that children placed in higher performing groups do better, picking up on the wisdom of peers and being pushed further. But that advantage may be undermined if it leaves a pupil de-motivated in the next stage in their education, seeing themself as an underachiever within a good class rather than a leader in a middling one.

There's also the obvious problem that not everybody can be top. The study helps in understanding all pupils, no matter where they are in terms of performance. But we can't put everybody at the top of the class without removing that label's motivating prestige.

Spreading the motivation

This is a difficult issue to tackle. Using the findings of this study to motivate more pupils relies on a more nuanced approach to what is considered success in the classroom and to pupils' feelings about that, especially those of boys.

One approach may be to find areas in which different children excel and when dealing with each child to place emphasis on the things they are good at. This is hardly a novel approach, but one should more firmly embrace.

On a wider view, if we as a society want to tackle the feeling that some kids are succeeding and others are not then we must bring a broader range of lessons into the classroom. Place more emphasis on practical as well as academic activities, or take a more balanced approach to the existing curriculum, so that more pupils get to spend quality time working in areas where they can excel.

The great divide

This study also highlights another divide in our thinking. Primary and secondary education are usually dealt with separately. It is only in recent years that the transition point between the two has been properly explored, and we still do not treat the education system as a single whole. Until we do we will keep being surprised by the disruption that comes with the shift from primary to secondary education, and keep creating a hurdle at which the most vulnerable will fall.


Picture by DoDEA via Flickr creative commons.

Andrew Knighton

About Andrew Knighton

I'm a writer and ex-teacher. You can find more of my writing on education at: http://www.degreediary.com/bloggers/27 I also have a blog on reading and writing: https://andrewknighton.wordpress.com/

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