Educational psychologist Alan McLean summarises his model for understanding how teachers can motivate their students

The best form of motivation is self-motivation. Pupils need to connect with teachers if they are achieve this. Teachers can motivate their pupils by meeting their needs for the three ‘As’: affiliation, agency and autonomy. They do this through the energisers that create a motivating learning climate; the flip side of the energisers are the drainers – things that staff need to avoid doing.

The energisers provide the ingredients of the classroom climate that are needed to whet pupils’ appetites for learning. The energisers effectively engage most pupils and are accessible to most teachers:

  • Engagement – how teachers show they are interested in and value pupils.
  • Structure – provides clear pathways towards the learning goals and boundaries that let pupils know what is expected of them.
  • Stimulation – comes from a curriculum that highlights the relevance of activities and sets achievable goals.
  • Feedback – provides information that lets pupils know how they are doing, guiding them from where they are to where they need to be.

Drainers expose pupils to painful and unpleasant experiences that they will want to avoid:

  • Engagement – showing they are disinterested in their pupils by embarrassing them, threatening them or voicing comparisons between them.
  • Structure – dictating the agenda and denying pupil participation by, for example, setting too many rules and refusing any choice.
  • Stimulation – leaving pupils confused as to the purpose and relevance of activities, setting goals that are too easy or too difficult and generally failing to create enthusiasm.
  • Feedback – undermining confidence through personalised blame, judgemental criticism and feedback that is generally highly evaluative and emotion-laden.

Pupil drivers
Teachers need to understand their pupils as much as possible. The pupil drivers integrate the latest thinking on emotional intelligence, self-esteem and positive psychology into an account of what motivates students.

Learner needs are at the core of the pupil driver model. A need is something that, when met, promotes our wellbeing. It is our needs that give our goals their power. However, if our needs are thwarted, we may become driven to get them met in alternative and inappropriate ways.

Personality organises how we meet our needs. How well we meet our needs is both reflected in, and influenced by, our emotions – especially how we feel about ourselves.

While all pupils share the same basic needs and the same range of emotions, each has a unique personality that leads him or her to follow different strategies for getting needs met. Most pupils want to do their best. For some, though, their goals become restricted, distorted or overwhelmed. This usually results from a combination of:

  • their own problems
  • their family and peer relationships
  • how they are treated in the classroom.

Each child’s personality organises how they meet their needs through their social competence. This is the use of social skills to get what we want within relationships. Personality shapes how we think, feel and behave and so determines how we adjust to the classroom. The study of our earliest attachments as babies helps explain how personality develops within these close relationships, and how we take these experiences on board in such a way that attachment patterns come to form the prototype for our later relationships.
Personality influences, in particular, how we think and feel about ourselves, our self-emotions. When our needs have been met we enjoy self-energising emotions. When they are blocked we experience self-draining emotions.

The main function of our emotions is to tell us how we’re coping and so motivate us to adapt to the context in which we find ourselves. Emotions are crucial in the development of pro-social behaviour. This is particularly true of empathy, the ability to understand another person’s emotional state.

The self has evolved as a mechanism to prioritise all the demands made on our consciousness. It helps us make sense of who we are and what to expect of the self and others. The self emotions can be mapped onto the three ‘As’:

  • Agency – our sense of getting ahead or our self-belief: a key factor underlying agency is the idea we hold about ability. Pupils can see intelligence as fixed or can recognise that their ability will be increased through effort.
  • Affiliation – our sense of getting along with others.
  • Autonomy – our sense of self-realisation: marked in the classroom by our attitudes towards achievement, which influence how we approach learning.

While there is much to be gained by a deeper understanding of the pupil drivers, it is important to remember that motivational resilience is not a quality of the learner but of the transaction between the learner and the learning climate. The three ‘As’ are not so much personal qualities of learners as acquired states that are more likely when certain conditions obtain in the classroom.

The learning stances
Teachers don’t need to develop different motivational strategies for each individual: pupils have more similarities than they have differences. To engage all of their pupils, teachers need to adapt the energisers to pupils’ learning stances. There are seven learning stances that reflect how students feel about themselves as learners.

The learning stances describe the fit between the learner and the learning climate. Each of the stances illustrates how learners with similar attitudes engage with the learning climate. The learning stances framework offers teachers and pupils a language with which they can discuss and make sense of motivation. It helps teachers get to know their pupils better and find ways to engage them.
Motivation to learn gradually evolves into an enduring disposition. For pupils it is shaped by and reflected in the learning stances they adopt towards a specific context or activity.

Learning stances framework
The framework allows pupils to label their feelings and motivations, and so gives them more self-control. This creates the possibility of communicating their motivation appropriately to their teachers. It lets pupils see that they can change and:

  • helps teachers become more aware of their own value judgements
  • lets them acquire a fresh perspective on their pupils
  • helps them to better understand pupils’ motives and underlying personality factors
  • helps depersonalise the situation for teachers struggling with difficult pupils.

The framework can help enhance the ‘psychological’ contract between pupils and the school. The framework helps schools take a coherent and integrated approach to initiatives including citizenship, health promotion and enterprise education.

Classroom strategies
The learning stances provide the clues needed to work out the specific energisers and drainers in any learning situation. Each stance can be accommodated by a subtle adaptation to the energisers. Teachers should use their general energisers to establish their learning climate, then supplement as appropriate with specific adaptations for each stance.

When teachers maximise the energisers and minimise the drainers, they create a positive classroom climate that engages the majority of pupils. Some children will in addition be engaged by specific stance-enhancing hooks that are tailored to particular learning stances. These are strategies that are opportunistic and are often creatively or unconventionally used. A positive stance can also be further improved by a stance-enhancing hook. Some pupils are not engaged by the staple diet of energisers and need customised hooks.

When the drainers pollute the classroom climate some pupils will become disengaged. There are also stance-specific drainers. A positive stance can be damaged by a stance-spoiler. The pupil can be re-engaged by a hook. A defensive stance can be further spoiled by a stance-aggravator. Finally, a defensive stance can be transformed by a stance-fixer.

The energisers are good for most pupils. The stance-enhancing hooks and fixers are particularly good for some stances but can in fact be counterproductive for others. For example, encouragement is an energiser that works with everyone but praise is only a hook because it doesn’t work for every pupil. Praise, like any gift, can backfire and be received as insulting.

In the same way, the drainers are bad for most pupils. The stance-spoilers and aggravators are particularly off-putting for some stances but can in fact motivate others. For example, humiliation demoralises every pupil but provocation will have varying effects across the learning stances. The same approach can be an enhancer or a spoiler.

Alan McLean’s book The Motivated School is published by Sage at £17.99