Several months ago I was asked if I fancied doing a session at ResearchEd Rugby and after some genuine soul-searching where I couldn’t for the life of me get over the fact that I may have something to share I decided to say yes. Unbeknownst to me the MA Council meeting was also planned for the same day so last Saturday saw me whizzing to Leicester in the morning and then with brakes squealing I pulled up at the amazing venue at about 2:30 ready to deliver a 40 minute session on motivating the unmotivated. I’d left my notes in the car  .. but I promised I’d share some of the notes around the session which I’m doing here … do please note that they are my notes and so have subheadings etc which I’d intended (so maybe this post should be called “what I wish I’d said”!!!) to talk around …  


  • It’s all about context. Worked in a school that was previously National Challenge but went onto get “most improved school in England” and then moved to a different type of school with my HOD to see if what we did worked in a different context .. and it did! Then this year moved to yet another different school, this time on my own in an aim to gain some time to focus on other things but also with the aim of gaining some perspective on life in general.
  • I’m really wary about suggesting ideas to other teachers … who am I to say what works and what doesn’t? To quote (misquote possibly!) a popular phrase: you will always find something that works somewhere but you won’t find anything that works everywhere!
  • I’m really conscious about workload and the way I sometimes get misrepresented about some of the ideas – they are stuff we’ve tried/used at different points and all I want is for people to get at least “one golden nugget”. The impact to workload is something I’m becoming more aware of when people are given new ideas and they run with it – take for example a new HOD who has taken on the role from a previous HOD. The job is “yay” big but because they want to make an impact they make the job “yay + 1” big and all of a sudden 2 or 3 HOD’s down the road, the job has become something that is “yay +3 or 4” big and this is unsustainable. What we need to be thinking about is not doing more but doing different!
  • It’s important that you understand that some of the ideas I’m going to talk about are based in my context and that means I should mention that in terms of the attainment/ability (whatever we’re allowed to call it these days!) if we look at the distribution curve you’ll see where my teaching groups tend to be. They are generally the tricky old money C/D borderline students (new money 3/4/5 but who knows!!)


  • I wish we didn’t have to think about students that are unmotivated in maths and everyone loved it as much as we do. That’s not the case but could it be? When does the rot set in ? Is it in every subject or just in their maths lessons?
  • Its not easy to define these students but we all know them – its just really tough to verbalise a definition, so I thought I’d share this work from a student – as they say “an image is worth a thousand words”:

  • No, not that one, this one->

  • Yes it’s the same lesson. They are often the ones that at some point during the average lesson will have their head on the table, they avoid eye contact and often view teachers as their adversaries. They are basically the ones that, everything about their attitude and output says “CBA” (Can’t be arsed!) and in the majority of the cases they are underperforming to top it all off. They are the ones that have the potential to be achieving higher than their performance in the class would suggest and often gives up at the FIRST SIGN OF THE WORK GETTING TOUGH!
  • In my mind, I’ve always felt that in addition to our “gut” feelings as teachers, its important that we diagnose (wrong word … categorise??) the unmotivated students as being different from those students that are lacking in understanding or knowledge. The way we deal with a student who doesn’t attempt the work is different to one that doesn’t understand the work … One thing that I found really powerful this year was capturing through the QLA’s we use where students haven’t attempted questions in assessments … and I mean not a stroke of ink on the page … and then sharing this with parents. I’ve always got students to complete a RAG sheet following an assessment but this year we captured it centrally for a couple of year 11 assessments (again … not something I’d advocate for every assessment unless the information is used!!) and I really like the idea of sharing with parents – we’ll tell ourselves that because the QLAs are stuck in books parents can always look at them but what parents check their 15 or 16 years old books? So, in the first instance I’d be drawing their attention to questions that weren’t even attempted especially where the topics have been nailed in class. Because we’ve now got the data I’m hoping that we can build up a picture of whether this “CBA’ness” is getting less over a period of time or not, as the case may be. 

  • I’ve said that the way we deal with a student who doesn’t attempt the work is different to one that doesn’t understand the work … but we also need to be aware of a “learned helplessness” that some students use to their advantage when challenged about not doing work/being out of their seat/talking etc etc. I would therefore propose that the unmotivated student is sometimes amongst the most motivated in the room. They’re just motivated to find ways to not do the work!


  • 1000’s of pieces of research and 100’s of books out there – I would be naïve to think I can cover this whole topic in 40 minutes! … I’m not! I have read around the subject and much of what is suggested may work in one context but its about cherry picking what works for you in your context – its absolutely mind blowing the amount of stuff written on this topic.

  • But students, schools and departments are so complex. And we don’t operate in isolation there are so many other things at play on any given day.
  • So some of the things that work or haven’t worked for me and also some of the things that that come out of the research I’ve read:
    • Choice – The research suggests that an unmotivated student is more likely to make an effort if they are given a choice. Now don’t get me wrong – I’ve used all sorts of differentiated worksheets and they have their place but with these tricky students I’ve found that like water taking the path of least resistance so will these students … they will SOMETIMES do the minimum required and whilst this is OK its just OK! They are capable of so much more! So I tend to limit their choice … I don’t differentiate my worksheets for these groups … I have high expectations for all and want everyone to complete all the work … any differentiation comes from the support given to the students and the conversations we have.
    • One piece of research suggests changing your teaching style to make your lessons more engaging. I’m not a fan of this piece of advice … its smells too much like learning styles!! …  
    • Relate lessons to real life. Why oh why can’t we just learn something just because we can? Why does everything have to lead to an end product … the sense of satisfaction that comes from working out a problem is amazing! We need to capture that eureka moment and make students want to get it more often.
    • Incorporate students interests. Again, not a fan especially in my context. Trying to shoe-horn football into a lesson is just nonsense!

  • Interrupt that cycle of failure –  A BIGGIE!! I’ve mentioned that often these students are also demoralised. I like the phrase “orchestrate positive academic experiences” … which comes down to the thing I think makes the biggest impact – we need to give them a sense of success that leads to confidence that leads to success that leads to … you get the idea.
    • The difficult thing is what comes first?… confidence and success are like the chicken and the egg problem and this is where we need to craft carefully structured lessons. For years we’ve been modelling questions such as this example for simple interest but the one that the students do takes teeny tiny steps / they have to make a little cognitive jump themselves. Often the lessons are very much “I do” where we model the work and then “you do” where the students do something similar but not the same question with just different numbers (of course there are topics where that will be the case!) and then maybe “we do”.

  • Don’t focus on the students’ performance in relation to his peers. Duh!
  • Praise, praise ,praise .. now this one is something that I really struggle with. I just feel that praising the unmotivated needs a different strategy. Students have a bullshit detector and know when you are being insincere and so for me, the first thing I’ve done is to stop that over the top praise … “oh well done for using a pen” … I’ve stopped taking them aside for “chats” and now I am brutally honest about what I see in front of me …so I no longer praise their performance/effort but the work (this sounds counter intuitive I know!) and do so very genuinely. What I am trying to do is develop a sense of pride in their work … a sort of pride in excellence … just for the sake of it being excellent. Not for sweets, or house points or to avoid a detention .. “just because they can”. From a theoretical point of view I’m trying to tap into that intrinsic motivation.
  • I introduced what started as a presentation watch (I’ve written about this before when I first came up with the idea of presentation posters specific to each subject across the whole school) whereby a small number of students in every class were called up at the end of the lesson to show me the amount of work that they had completed. You’ll know your students in terms of whether to make it public but I chose to have their names up on a board at the front for almost all groups apart from one group where this was counterproductive. The intention being that every lesson I would mark their books using RAG for effort (RAG123 was a marking idea introduced on Twitter by Kev Lister a long time ago which is where the origins of the codes come from) and then 123 for their understanding of the review questions we do at the end of almost every lesson. I chose to use the RAG code for effort to signify that “effort comes before understanding” … the intention for the student was that they needed to get 5 smilies on the board (or in my planner) to come off “watch”.
  • 2 x 10 … an idea I read about as a concrete strategy to build up a rapport with students who were disinterested. This was something that made me think about how hard it is to sometimes be nice to someone that obviously doesn’t like you as a person or a teacher and this stands for students too. We are the adults in the room! The idea is that you “get over yourself” and start with the aim of building up to being able to genuinely being able to enjoy your interactions with the student over a period of 10 lessons by greeting them at the door with a “morning/afternoon” but nothing more and build up slowly to more of a conversation over time .. but doing nothing that is forced. Everything is very deliberate about your interactions, always genuine. This felt very much like the old adage .. unless you have anything good to say, say nowt!
  • One of the biggest things that changed my practice years ago was introducing the idea of continually revisiting topics from previous lessons – I’ve written about “bread and butter” topics loads of times!! They are now something that I do every lesson with year 11 as part of our scheme of work but have used them in all years before now. The important thing is that they follow our SOW in the same order so that the students know that they have been taught the topics and there is really no excuse .. they also never get me telling them to ignore that question because we haven’t done that topic yet. This interleaving is really important for me and key to being able to teach right until the end because we are constantly revising material from previous lessons … it’s a really important part of my lessons and if I was still doing them 20 minutes or even 40 minutes into a lesson to cover an important point or misconception then so be it!
  • Curriculum … we need to ensure that the content that students are accessing has an appropriate challenge and its not “more of the same” just with more difficult numbers. Part of this links to making it a continuous 5 year journey. Can’t keep intervening in year 11 … its unsustainable and so need to be proactive in the lower years to reduce the need in year 11. Analogy with 3 lane motorway .. one of the KPIs for year 7 should be getting students to enjoy maths .. but also getting the fluency that is required in all things “number” … developing a sense of “numerosity” is so important but again we need to ensure that students are given enough opportunity to revisit these skills continually … if we don’t use it, we lose it! Sometimes we lose students because we haven’t checked their prior knowledge is secure … use the 10 squared = 100 example where a student is lost because they’re sat there blown away by this fact because they thought it was 20.
  • Strategic seating plan with no compromise. EVER! You will all have had lessons where a student moves seat and when challenged says “I asked you at the start of the lesson and you said yes” … when what actually happened was they mumbled something at you when you were handing books out and taking the register at the same time. Make them move … don’t ever give in! One of the best things I ever did was get someone to observe me .. not to judge but to make a count of where my questions were aimed … its enlightening!! Try it! … turns out that I quite liked asking questions where I knew I’d get the right answers!

The key messages for me (as to whether if that is what came across) that I wanted to come out of the session were that we need to break the cycle of failure and provide opportunities for success – through carefully chosen examples and by continually revisiting prior learningAt several points during the 40 minutes I went off tangent … as I tend to do and so have adapted my original notes to take out some of the stuff I never mentioned. This may or may not have made sense but I’m posting it anyway!!