Engaging work

Sharon Smart (the Society’s Assistant Press Officer) meets educational psychologist Alan McLean.
WHEN a pupil ‘can’t be bothered’ with school it is often difficult to have sympathy if they then fail to succeed academically. Even teachers may struggle to be supportive, seeing the youngster’s lack of success as self-inflicted. But according to Alan McLean, who is based in the educational psychology service at Glasgow City Council, changing teachers’ and pupils’ attitudes in the classroom could help hundreds of children fulfil their potential.
WHEN a pupil ‘can’t be bothered’ with school it is often difficult to have sympathy if they then fail to succeed academically. Even teachers may struggle to be supportive, seeing the youngster’s lack of success as self-inflicted. But according to Alan McLean, who is based in the educational psychology service at Glasgow City Council, changing teachers’ and pupils’ attitudes in the classroom could help hundreds of children fulfil their potential.
‘Children are curious from birth and naturally inclined towards learning,’ he explained. ‘They are intrinsically motivated to meet their needs for knowledge and understanding and their mothers give them space and freedom to do this for themselves. But in school the pressure is to produce high achievement, meaning the schools become ever more conditional and controlling, for example stressing academic achievement as the sole criterion of worth. Some teachers believe certain pupils have no motivation, but everyone has their own motivational mindsets, it’s just that some are more learning-focused than others.’
For the past few years, Alan’s career has concentrated on re-engaging those children who have lost interest in school, and he is currently into his third year of a pilot project for Glasgow City Council to tackle disengaged learners. His work has seen him seconded from the rest of the city council’s educational psychology service, and he is the first to admit this has placed him in a ‘privileged position’. His new role has allowed him time to make sense of the learning landscape and examine why, despite several previous interventions in Glasgow, large numbers of children in the city’s 29 secondary schools and 184 primary schools are still struggling to achieve their true potential.
What he has discovered so far is that some pupils feel they just don’t belong at school and are intimidated by the pressure to prove themselves all the time. At the same time they cannot see how working hard will help them achieve their goals. Other pupils carry a ‘chip on their shoulder’ and feel their efforts won’t be recognised, believing the teachers are against them. A third group just doesn’t find much meaning in what they’re taught, as teaching doesn’t draw on any pre-existing understanding.
Yet Alan is convinced that the majority of these disengaged learners can be transformed into motivated ones, although this metamorphosis does not occur by solely concentrating on reforming the ‘bad boys’. What it actually requires is a complete change of ethos by everyone involved.
‘Of course the best motivation is self-motivation, and that’s a door that can only be unlocked from within, but it is not just about looking at the learner but the learning climate. The learning climate should be shaped around the needs of children rather than create a structure and then expect everyone to fit in. We should encourage young people to be who they want to be not who we think they ought to be. We should also be aware that there are disengaged teachers who need to be reminded how important their own levels of motivation are.’
Alan suggests the solution is to create an environment where children are given
a sense of connection with their school. All pupils should have their achievements accredited in some way, so individual progress, rather than normative progress, is praised. Pupils also have to be encouraged to work because they want to rather than because they feel they have to. Teachers can encourage this by gradually introducing autonomy and developing relationships that are not based purely on authority.
Fortunately, education authorities across the UK are beginning to acknowledge the need for such a change and the Scottish Executive in particular has been placing more emphasis in recent years upon maximising the learning potential of all young people, making it a very exciting time for any psychologist working in the area.
‘Disaffection from school is a huge issue, but a few years ago nobody talked about disengaged learners,’ Alan said. ‘All the talk was about emotional and behavioural difficulties, it was a very behaviour-management approach to the problem.
‘But behaviour management had got as far as it was going to go. Nothing new had been discovered for 10 or 20 years, so we were ready for a fresh programme.
Also interventions have always been between the soft left and the hard right, and I think in the past psychology was perceived as quite liberal. Now I think most people are fascinated by psychology, and most teachers desperately want sychologists in their school. It is now a partnership between psychology and the school system.
‘Developments in pedagogy have led to great improvements in our schools. We need to accompany these advances with a greater understanding of the psychology of both the climate and the learner to consider how we can help learners want to engage.’
In Scotland this partnership has led Alan to create the Motivating Learning Climate, a model that considers how a school can impact and nurture the learner. This model is now being used by the Scottish Executive and is the basis of Alan’s recently published book, The Motivated School. It offers a set of support materials that allow teachers to reflect on the motivational capacity of their climate, curriculum and methodology. But the main thrust of Alan’s work is in Glasgow, where he has been working on the development of SELF – the social and emotional learning frame. This is a formal assessment tool to see how learners adapt and assert themselves in the learning climate; in particular, how they interact with teachers and peers. ‘It consists of 16 dimensions clustered around the three key learner needs, namely Affiliation, Agency, and Autonomy. Affiliation attempts to create a sense of belonging and connectedness
in the pupil; with teachers showing interest in the young people and offering extracurricular activities that allow the pupils to show their competence and feel connected. Agency aims to give the pupil a belief in their abilities to achieve their goals. This is achieved by ensuring all pupils have their achievements recorded and accredited in some way, with teachers stressing individual rather than normative progress. And Autonomy attempts to show the pupil they can be themselves. Here teachers lead through their relationships with, rather than authority over, pupils and pupils are given space to mature at their pace.’
More than a thousand teachers, social workers, psychologists, parents and children have helped to develop SELF through more than 20,000 scriptures which have been mapped onto the model. This allows the model to blend theory and research with professional and lay insights, with Alan describing the model as ‘providing a set of lenses to achieve a better focus on how children develop and engage in learning’.
Since January this year the process of putting SELF into practice has begun.
A number of workshops have been held to demonstrate to Glasgow’s teachers how they can use the theory in a real classroom environment. But Alan admits these workshops have taught him as much as the teachers.
‘The model is a very complex one, and these workshops allow us to pick the teachers’ brains and build on the model bit by bit. The workshops are very interactive so they help us and allow the teachers to feel a sense of ownership. Through the partnership between psychology and teaching staff the model evolves and continues to develop.’
The next phase for SELF is to assess the impact the model will have once it is implemented across the learning communities. Alan is currently working with eight secondary schools, 48 primary schools and 16 nurseries to create a common focus and a common way of understanding engagement in learning, something that has not been attempted before in Glasgow. ‘These are big challenges,’ he said. ‘We are basically seeing if we can bring all these schools together and so eventually get an overview of an entire city. We are basically asking can we get everyone on the same wavelength.
‘This is a big change, especially for secondary schools who have 200 children coming their way each year. But secondary schools are key because many pupils become increasingly disengaged at this time. This is because while the child-centred primary school engages pupils, pupils have to engage with the teacher-centred secondary. In secondary there is more teacher control, more public evaluation and emphasis on ability.’
Although it is far too early to assess just how well SELF will work in practice, Alan is convinced the model can begin to re-engage the majority of learners who have lost interest.
He said: ‘Clearly there will be children whose needs do not work with the model, and this is where you need to respect the need for clinical psychology, but I am confident that the initiative can be a success and lead to better understanding. The challenge is to take it across wide areas or even the whole city.’
And it seems the work is being acknowledged. The Education Committee of the Scottish Parliament is in the thick of a national review of motivation in schools and asked Alan to run a workshop for the committee to kick-start the review. This is the first time a parliamentary committee in Scotland has held such a workshop.
But the model does not just have to be confined to the city’s classroom. The theory has implications for a number of different areas of psychology, and Alan has already been involved in conducting some work with Scottish Enterprise applying the model to the business community. Just as Alan’s work has found in schools, economic research has found that though Glasgow has a large booming economy there is a percentage of people who are effectively disengaged from this. He is also working with the new Centre For Confidence and Well Being in Scotland to look among other things at its implications for health psychology, because he acknowledges that his own work is ‘along the same lines’ as those involved in health promotion.
‘The model certainly has a broad appeal, so it can really be seen as a good example of making psychology accessible to a wider public,’ Alan concluded.

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