I have a good size post-16 Photography group this year of 16 students, a good gender balance with some highly motivated individuals. Unfortunately, I also have an unmotivated procrastinator in there who has approached the exam preparation with all the enthusiasm of wading through custard. This reflective blog post is about my efforts to motivate him; what I have tried and what has and hasn’t worked so far.
What is In It For Me?
Extrinsic motivation is about outside demands; authoritarian processes and threats to involve year managers, parents and even heads of Post 16 all reinforce the only extrinsic goal and that is to achieve a decent AS grade (we do non-linear A levels so students have to sit an Advanced Subsidiary qualification in the first year). Intrinsic motivation is about personal satisfaction; why choose Photography (or any other A level)? There must have been an end goal in the mind of the student when he did his option sheet.
For this individual I think the intrinsic goal was ‘unfinished business’. He opted to do a short course in Photography at High School but then was taken out to do extra maths to ensure his pass grade in that subject. This is the cultural capital element; where he wanted to show his peers that he was equally adept at technology. Second, when he started he expressed an interest in Photoshop and knew it would feature in the course. He didn’t expect it to be difficult though. Third, romantic interest – a girl in the group who he started dating in the holidays before joining sixth form. Do you separate them? They gravitate back together or worse sulk like lovestruck puppies.
Well, he seemed glad to be there at the start and although not a model student he was keen to fulfil requirements, deadlines and even stay after hours to practice with cameras and have a bit more tutorial in Photoshop. The girlfriend stayed too, so everybody happy? Interest in Photoshop wained as the simple tutorials were developed into more sophisticated ones. I tried to put him on to DVD-based work throughs from magazines like Photoshop Creative but after a few weeks got a response along the lines of “I’ll do it on my afternoon frees” and “I’m going studying around at girlfriend‘s house where I can concentrate (sic)”. Yeah, right. Where next?
Josh Shipp (a youth empowerment expert and teen whisperer) says:
“You have to do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.”
This is a helpful in this scenario because it is true in many areas of life. Sometimes we do boring and onerous tasks for no other reason than it needs to be done. Helping stubborn teenagers see meaningless tasks as part of life’s greater goals is a valuable message to pass on.
Let Them Learn From Failure
As the first term came to an end, I had tried to enthuse and inspire mainly through humour but also regular reminders about opportunities open to him to study more. Of the six mini-projects I had set, the first four were done quite well but I could tell they were slackening off in effort, quality and quantity. Incidentally, these photography tasks were based on genres within the subject; portraits, editorial, landscapes, moving images, commercial and documentary/street themes. I had designed them to appeal to individual taste so I knew that some might just bomb out. What I didn’t expect was that with this particular student his interest would decline chronologically. So I let him fail… I set a deadline and expected him to keep to it – nothing wrong in that. I could have tried some different interventions before the deadline and maybe that would’ve been a more sensible option. Instead, I gave him a mark and feedback for his last two assignments that reflected his lack of effort and poor attainment.
This is where the extrinsic motivators move back in due to centre tracking of student performance. Heads of centre, year managers and then parents were informed and my poorly motivated student limped back to class with his proverbial tail between his legs and a thousand apologies for ‘letting me down’. Of course, I said he hadn’t let me down only himself in terms of motivation and things had better change next term. Six weeks later, this change in behaviour I can see was short term to keep ‘the man’ off his back and he is back to his old ways. I won’t be letting him fail without a fight again though. It just didn’t work as a motivator.
Make It Achievable
Some tasks can’t be linked to a larger outcome in a way that motivates a procrastinator. For someone who lacks confidence and/or natural ability, the motivation to do better in certain subjects can be very hard to find. Like a lovelorn puppy, my student goes through the motions on the easy tasks and avoids those that don’t motivate him, choosing instead to stare across the art studio at the ‘love of his life’. (Is wishing she would dump him bad? The girlfriend is doing well, has developed more fluent skill and trying to the best of her ability. What would the effect be on him though?).
So I created a timeline with suggested activities and deadlines, including assessment points so the students could see what should be done as a minimum. By breaking down (chunking) into smaller tasks they seem less overpowering and a bit more achievable within the timeframe. I thought that maybe he struggled with self-organisation and his some of his peers didn’t and this was a demotivating factor? I have considered incentives within the timescale too; meet the deadline, stay for an after hours studio session and choose from tub of sweets… the ‘star chart’ was rejected as too childish by the group and I got less staying behind than before. Not motivated by sweeties then. I have done the postcards home incentives but my target student isn’t bothered by that either. I intend to give him the responsibility of coming up with an incentive, something that would encourage the competitive but not discourage anyone else.
Apart from the systematic take down our academic tracking provides for the under-performer, there are quite a few responsible adults involved. Initially, the class teacher, the register/tutorial group leader, a year manager, finally a head of centre. Not to mention peers and parents. I am six weeks in to this term and now need to utilise the valuable agents of change to mentor my target student. Perhaps by sharing the cheerleading/coaching duties with others he might get to eat the elephant¹ instead of reacting like the boiled frog². I will update progress in six weeks and review which aspects may have worked.
Stupid Fables referenced above
¹How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time… via Beth Buelow
²How do you boil a frog? In very slow increments… via Forbes