It’s tragic how I start loving a subject just as it’s over

The title comes from a message on a thank-you card received from one of my wonderful Year 11 maths class in the week before their exam. Starting from the aforementioned tragedy, and with hours to go until the results are released, this is a blogpost about motivation in, and enjoyment of, mathematics.

This year, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching our elite pupils – a number of them have plans to attend grammar schools and top universities – and they’ve generally worked hard throughout the year (my set six class have been great too, but they’ll probably be the focus of something else in the future). There was some initial a*pathy (like apathy, but where you work hard enough to get reasonably good grades while omitting the final push to get the best grades), but by the end of the year they were all striving to do their best. Some of this is due to the teaching they’ve received over the years. Another part is due to the fact that we accepted that all of us were probably judged as being a bit nerdy, so we may as well get the grades to go with the judgements, but a lot of their improvement was down to them – their increased motivation, which led to doing more work, which led to an increased enjoyment of the subject, which led to better results. Some have even developed interests in n-dimensional mathematics, using and inverting matrices, formal logic and playing Go – things which all sixteen-year-olds should find interesting!

However, A/A* pupils working hard, doing well and enjoying their work isn’t particularly interesting. The thing I found most interesting was the improvement of the rest of the year group – pupils who had spent five years working below their absolute best suddenly became mathematical beasts in the month leading up to the exam. Some people call it ‘the fear’, but the pupils were enjoying their work too much for it to really be fear. It’s more like ‘the realisation that the exams are coming up, so you should probably do some more work, and when you do the work it actually starts to make more sense, so working through problems is actually quite enjoyable,’ but that doesn’t roll off the tongue as well. So my question, really, is this: how can we bottle ‘the fear’ (the positive aspects of it) and use it productively throughout the years to produce cohorts of eager mathematicians?

Looking at motivation from a different angle, I’m going to talk about archery (this is something that happens quite a lot). Every year, we get around 100 people joining the club as complete beginners. They’re an interesting group, as they are controlled for by academic ability (all had the grades to attend the university), ability (none) and initial motivation (attending a taster session to have a go at someone new).

Me as a beginner in 2008 - I don't think arms should even make that shape!
Me as a beginner in 2008 – I don’t think arms should even make that shape!

By the end of the year, we have plenty of people who drift away to do other things, and a number who compete for the university and win medals at a local and national level. We also have a third group – those who stick around but don’t really practise, get annoyed when others are doing better than them and then conclude that they can’t improve and they don’t enjoy it any more. Again, as with maths, the people who do it more, enjoy it more, so they do it more, so they succeed. They can also see measurable improvements in their own scores due to their effort, which the others would see too if they undertook the same training. I understand the mindset of working hard to do well, and the mindset of not caring and accepting poor results, but I don’t quite get the mindset of not trying, then getting poor results, then being really annoyed at the poor results, then failing to take any steps to improve the results, then watching the whole thing repeat…

Me in 2015 - you won't be seeing me in the Olympics, but it's an improvement from 2008!
Me in 2015 – you won’t be seeing me in the Olympics, but it’s an improvement from 2008!

So, to conclude, I think there are huge amounts which sports psychology and education can learn from each other, and it’s great that we have loads of pupils who work hard from day 1, and many others who really up their game in Year 11 to get the results they deserve, but I do think it’s tragic that so many only start loving maths (even if they won’t admit it) just as it’s over.


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