What does cleaning up have to do with classroom motivation? Assistant Headteacher, Kate McCallam, shares all in this article.

One 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-parenting efficiency (showing that Rome had not fallen in his absence!).

Looking at the damage, this was not a one-person 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 it would take much longer than an hour on that day, so I was prepared for them to down the tools at circa sixty minutes and one 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 they didn’t want to do, and how might this translate into classroom practice?

Here are the reasons my ten-year-old son 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 could 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 six-year-old daughter 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 my son cites 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 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. It’s a tough ask sometimes, but it’s crucial if you want to get the most out of your students.

However, being liked doesn’t mean appeasing pupils, teaching only things that interest them, 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’ but you get the point: a pupil must feel something positive towards the teacher to want to put the work in.

We all know 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.” 1

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.’ This 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.’2

Unexpected enjoyment

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 must 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, 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 great when he saw how clean the carpets looked. 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 considerable pride in how shiny she’d managed to make the glass. She learnt a powerful lesson in self-regulation and found a strategy that worked for her.

There was an end

Both children knew there would be time for playing and fun afterwards. 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 students know they will work hard for a period but afterwards they will be able to relax and enjoy themselves, they can sustain motivation for longer.

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 they can enjoy their downtime 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. 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, 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, there’ll be a much greater buy-in.

References and further reading

1‘Why Don’t Students Like School? Daniel T Willingham p 65
2 Education Endownment Foundation (2023) Teaching and Learning Toolkit. Available at: https:// educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/educationevidence/teaching-learning-toolkit

Author

  • Kate McCallam

    Kate is assistant head at the British Section of the Lycée International in Paris. She is also a published writer and a proud trustee of Arvon, the UK’s leading creative writing charity. Kate also provides writing training and workshops.
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