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Why My Kid Hoovers and Classroom Motivation

Updated: Nov 23, 2022



The other Sunday, I was about to embark on a mammoth house clean. My husband was coming home from a week working abroad, and I wanted to welcome him back with a nice, clean home and a display of co-parent efficiency, showing that Rome had not fallen in his absence!


Looking at the damage, this was not a one-woman job, nor should it have been. Our children are no strangers to cleaning; we do ‘the hour of power’ each week (no rewards, no sanctions just an expectation) where everyone cleans the house together, so they’re used to it, but I knew the house would take much longer than an hour on that day so was prepared for them to down tools at circa 60 mins and 1 second. But they didn’t and what I really wanted to know was why they didn’t. There was no bribe, no reward, no sanction, so why were they prepared to stick with something hard that they didn’t want to do and how might this translate into classroom practice?

Here are the reasons my 10 year old gave in this order:


  • To be a good son

  • To be helpful

  • To not get into an argument

  • Because if everyone puts the effort in, it’s good for the whole family

  • I like to get the jobs out of the way first before I play.

  • Once I’d got going, I actually quite liked it.

  • You can say ‘I did that.’ if somebody came to the house and said how clean it was.

  • It’s a good life skill. We’ve got to know how to clean a house, so we can live by ourselves one day.

Here are the reasons my 6 year old gave:


  • When I do it, I can sing and dance while I spray and wipe.

  • When we’ve done all the jobs, we can play a lot after.

  • It was actually quite fun.

So how do their reasons translate into pupil motivation in the classroom?


Relationships If you analyse their responses, the first three of my son’s are about pleasing me and avoiding conflict. In a classroom this might translate into: ‘because I like my teacher and want to make them happy and I don’t want to be told off.’ The motivator here is the teacher-pupil relationship and whilst there is some merit in the ‘I’m not here to be popular’ argument, those who think they can teach a child efficiently whilst being disliked are wrong. Part of our job, like it or not, is to be engaging and relatable to a whole host of different characters and personalities and it’s a tough ask sometimes, but it's crucial if you want to get the most out of your students. Being liked doesn’t mean appeasing pupils nor trying to be popular but rather focusing on developing the 3As of any relationship: Attention, Appreciation and Affection. The latter sounds a bit wrong in a school context so is better re-framed as ‘warmth/kindness’ I guess, but you get the point: a pupil must feel something positive towards the teacher in order to want to put the work in, and we all know that the pupil who goes the ‘extra mile’ often does so because of a strong relationship with their teacher. Cognitive scientists like Willingham agree: : ‘ The emotional bond between students and teacher - for better or worse - accounts for whether students learn. Effective teachers ….are able to connect personally with students, and they organise the material in a way that makes it interesting and easy to understand. ‘ Most of Willingham’s book focuses on how teachers impart knowledge, activate deep thinking and ensure the learning won’t be forgotten, and he certainly isn’t saying that the more charismatic teachers don’t have to attend to that, however he acknowledges the importance of personality as well as expert planning.


The avoidance of a potential conflict was also motivating for my son, but when I pressed him on this it wasn’t because he was fearful of a cross and shouty parent, it was because he didn't want to argue with me or upset me because he loved me. Ergo, a pupil is less likely to want to get into a conflict with you by not doing the necessary work if they like you.

Community

There’s also reference to a community spirit in their responses. My children were motivated to clean the house because they knew that we were working collaboratively as a family for the greater good. In a classroom context this means pupils observing their teacher putting in effort into the learning journey too and also demonstrates how powerful it is to pursue collaborative class projects. One example is from the Writing for Pleasure pedagogy, which has proved that embarking on a class writing project improves children's writing because pupils are given agency and voice and because the classroom feels like a collective in pursuit of a common goal rather than the work being ‘done to’ the pupils. Furthermore, the EEF Teacher toolkit found that ‘collaborative learning approaches’ led to +5 months progress in attainment on average.

Unexpected Enjoyment of Task and Resilience

One thing both children commented on was how the grunt work wasn’t so bad once they’d got going and how they both ended up getting pleasure from a task they’d previously considered ‘boring' or 'too hard’. This reminds us how pupil motivation can change. There may be initial resistance, but we have to remember that not only do pupils enjoy challenging tasks, but they also need to be given ample opportunity to push through the boring stuff and develop resilience. In so doing, they often surprise themselves. My son, for example, actually began to enjoy the rhythm of the back and forth of the hoover! He enjoyed swapping over the attachments for different surfaces and started to feel really great when he saw how clean the carpets looked. He was then motivated to do more and more. My daughter, on the other hand, found ways to entertain herself as she cleaned to make the task more enjoyable. She did the work well and took great pride in how shiny she’d managed to make the glass. She learnt a powerful lesson in self-regulation here and found a strategy that worked for her.

There Was An End

Both children knew that they’d be time for playing and fun afterwards. This wasn’t a reward, what they meant was free-time and us all having fun together. This might translate to carefully sequencing lesson content between grunt work and the more exciting stuff or could simply be the interplay between lesson and playtime. If the children know they will work hard for a period of time but that afterwards they will be able to relax and enjoy themselves, they can sustain motivation for longer. This is the same reason we will power through a hellish exercise class - we know it will end eventually and we can relax. Moreover, working hard outside of recreation time leads to greater fulfilment during recreation time as it gives a sense of ‘earned’ relaxation or leisure. There’s fulfilment in that, so lessons need to demand something of our pupils, not only because it makes cognitive sense, but so that they can enjoy their down time or the more singing and dancing lessons even more.

Showing Off Work

My son gained some motivation from the prospect of external validation of his work. Although the highest goal of motivation is intrinsic, kids and adults alike will always seek praise and validation for their work outside of the family or classroom. In a classroom context this means shouting about pupil work far and wide, beyond your own classroom walls. Pupil work can be displayed anywhere in school, shared with other members of staff, peers, parents, the Twitter community, authors, the Prime Minister etc etc. The possibility of recognition outside of the classroom, and even better engagement with the 'real world', is, as most of us know, incredibly motivating, so it's worth making sure we include this in our planning.


Seeing the Bigger Picture

My son’s last reason for his motivation gets to the heart of all lesson construction. When looking at the bigger picture, he understood why the task was important and how doing it would help him in the future. Seeing the point in an activity or scheme of work is important for pupil engagement and motivation and teachers may need to be more explicit when introducing more abstract concepts and ideas to help pupils to understand the reasons why what they are being taught matters. If pupils 'get' why doing an activity is important and how it will contribute to their future success, they'll be a much greater buy-in.



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