Back to school: motivating and assessing pupils after lockdown

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Date published 08 September 2020

This September is like no other in history. So where do you begin? What could you choose to focus on?

In a Twitter poll, you told us your top priorities for going back to school were motivating your pupils and assessing their needs, so we asked school leaders, assessment experts and some of our in-house Learning Design team for their post-lockdown advice.

Motivating pupils when schools reopen

Caroline Spalding (Assistant Headteacher in Derbyshire) and Peps Mccrea (Dean for Learning Design at Ambition Institute).

Lockdown has been a strange and anxious time and has had interrupted education in so many ways, not least the habits and routines of learning. So how can we influence the motivation of pupils that have become accustomed to a different way of learning over the past five months?

Motivation is a complex and invisible thing: the mechanics of motivation evolved over millennia and there are a huge number of factors that come into play. It’s a deeply wired thing in our brains and our biology and so is heavily unconscious. We can’t just open up pupils’ heads and look inside.

It’s also ever-changing. There are so many factors that influence whether a pupil thinks something is worth investing their attention in and they change all the time. There’s no such thing as being motivated or not, only being motivated towards something at a particular time for a particular reason.

Here are the five core drivers that the science suggests could be good places to start:

1. Secure success

If you help pupils feel success over a period of time, that sense of success leads to increased expectancy – the sense that we will successful in future attempts. It also builds proficiency, where we feel agency and curiosity and awe, and we get the positive feeling of being fluent with something. To create success, we need to teach well and help pupils understand what success looks like.

2. Run routines

Learning requires a lot of effort, which can potentially inhibit motivation. So, the more habitual and automatic we make school, the less effort pupils must put into the process of learning. If we build our routines around the ‘how’ of learning, we can allow pupils to spend more attention on the ‘what’. This includes classroom routines, or classroom discussions that help pupils to understand what to expect next so they can concentrate on the content and learn harder things, faster.

3. Nudge norms

We are social beings who value relationships with others. We think the main lever for motivation is between pupils and teachers, but peers also have an influence on motivation. It’s important to reflect on the power of conformity because it has a significant impact on our behaviours. Highlight when the vast majority of pupils are conforming, and the rest will come along and make it natural and normal.

4. Build belonging

Feeling like people are like us motivates us. A lot of our pupils won’t have seen each other for months and lockdown will have been a traumatic time for some of them. We need to think consciously about how we build common ground with them. Something as simple as acknowledging, “Hasn’t this been weird?” could create a sense that we are the same. What else could remind your pupils what they have in common?

5. Boost buy-in

We always need to explain the rationale for our decisions to help build trust, so that we’re seen as consistent and credible. How can we use the power of story and narrative to help pupils see the journey they are going on? Try to make sure every child can answer the question, ‘why do you want to do well?’. Remind them of this when they get a bit off track and want to go home instead of going to revision on a Friday. We could even share the science of motivation with our pupils, so they truly understand.

If you’d like to hear more from Peps and Caroline about the science of motivation and other practical ways to keep pupils motivated, watch their webinar, ‘Motivating pupils when schools reopen’ as part of our Summer Series.

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Understanding and meeting pupils’ needs this term

Daisy Christodoulou (Director of Education at No More Marking), Janice Allen (Headteacher of Falinge Park High School in Rochdale), Jo Riley (Headteacher of Randal Cremer Primary School in Hackney) and Harry Fletcher-Wood (Associate Dean of Learning Design at Ambition Institute).

The children returning to school this week will not be the same as those who left in March.

As well as being taller, many will have learned new things from family members and acquired new skills. Some will have studied diligently, revising from past work and taking up resources and learning from their schools and from online providers. Some students will have had limited opportunities to learn however, and all will have forgotten at least some of what they knew in March.

Given this diversity of experience, how should teachers and school leaders prepare to meet their needs?

1. Start with purpose

Identify what you will use your assessment to do: for example, adapting the curriculum or offering targeted support. Having established the purpose of the assessment, the design should be easier – what Dylan Wiliam calls “decision-driven data collection”.

Another thing to consider here is making the return to school a positive experience for students. Can your assessments be combined with activities to rebuild the school’s culture and students’ sense of belonging?

Decide first how your school might adapt to meet pupils’ needs, then design an assessment to identify which pupils need what.

2. Build on the strengths of the school

When we asked Jo Riley how she was going to support her teachers to meet children’s needs, she emphasised the importance of using the school’s professional development programme. For example, she might support teachers to identify and model the most important skills children need.

The current situation is new to everyone, but the fundamentals of effective teaching and learning have not changed. Students’ return to a school is a chance to build on the positive foundations which teachers and leaders have already laid. Draw on the hard work that teachers have already done in curricular thinking and assessment, and the school’s existing support system for teachers, rather than beginning from scratch.

3. Keep it simple

Janice Allen noted that one big risk is that we might “try to do too much” with assessment and Daisy Christodoulou cautioned against doing things “for the sake of doing things, for Ofsted, because other people are doing them.”

Keep your approach simple, and as Daisy added: “Stay true to your principles, don’t be rushed into doing things because other people are doing them, and definitely don’t be rushed into things where there’s a big workload implication.”

Avoid over-complicating what you’re asking your teachers, and yourself, to do.

To learn more about ways of assessing pupils this term, watch Harry’s webinar, ‘Understanding and assessing pupils’ needs’ as part of our Summer Series.

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