My daughter came home with the results from her Christmas tests yesterday and they were disappointing. Some of the low marks were for subjects that she is normally very good at, so I was a bit surprised, to say the least. My daughter started off by making excuses. The tests had been impossible, lots of her class mates had bad results too, some of the questions concerned lessons she had missed when she had been off sick. I pointed out to her that I felt she wasn’t taking any responsibility herself. Perhaps she could have spent less time on her phone and the computer and made more of an effort to study and made sure she got notes for the classes she had missed. My daughter got upset, and cried that she had made the effort but that it was all stupid and pointless. All that useless stuff that she’s not interested in and is never going to need in real life.  “Why do I have to know what the value of x is, why do I have to know the names of all the Prime Ministers we’ve ever had, and learn stupid poems that I hate, what is the point? And no matter how many times I go over it, I can’t remember it!” It was as if I heard an echo of myself in the past.

It is a well-known fact that it is easier to learn something when you’re interested or when the experience is fun. If you enjoy what you’re doing, you’ll want to come back for more. If learning can be a positive experience, then how come the overall learning experience in school is not fun, but something that my children describe at best as “boring”?

It is true that modern technology means my children have far more distractions than I did when I was in school.  But I think part of the problem is that the traditional educational system is still a form of coercion. Students have to adapt to the system, it doesn’t adapt to them. Systems work with the greatest common divider, the school curriculum has to be followed and it doesn’t look at the unique talents of individuals. Students have little choice and there is always pressure in the form of an implied threat of punishment. Coercion can invoke three responses: avoidance, rebellion and compliance. In a school system that means students playing truant, being disruptive or trying to find the least uncomfortable way to function within the system. Some self-motivated students will work hard, but most students simply put in minimal effort. I know I did. My motto was: “Do not do today what you can still put off tomorrow”. That habit of procrastination was hard to break and stayed with me a long time after I left school. I remember that the only times I was motivated to work hard was for the very few individual teachers who managed to make things interesting, like the Classics teacher who brought us Xenophon’s Art of Horsemanship to translate, or the history teacher who sent us into town on a medieval mystery trail.

Back to the horses.  Horses respond to coercion exactly the same as humans do: with avoidance (flight), rebellion (fight), or compliance. Most systems of horse training are of course based on coercion, even if it isn’t recognised as such, but with legs, spurs and whips  there is always an implied threat. Who hasn’t kicked on a horse at some time? I have. Natural Horsemanship and pressure and release techniques are often perceived as more horse friendly, but four phases of increasing pressure is still coercion.

In my last post I described how walking with Cassie as part of her rehabilitation programme has not been easy. When Cassie didn’t walk actively as she was supposed to, I fell into the trap of using coercion without even realising it. But Cassie did. I thought stopping at the halfway point to give her time to graze would be a reward, but of course I was totally wrong. Cassie enjoyed the grazing, but there was no connection with the exercise before it. I should have responded immediately when it was going well. As far as Cassie was concerned I wasn’t doing anything to motivate her, I used pressure and she was having none of it.

I don’t want Cassie to become a compliant horse, a horse that just puts in minimal effort and is zoned out for most of the time. I want time spent together to be fun for both of us. That means I have to plan ahead and think about what I want to do beforehand, to consider what will motivate Cassie, how I can make things interesting for her and what, apart from food, Cassie will recognise and enjoy as a reward for an exercise well done. I am considering clicker training.

I asked my daughter if any of her teachers tried to make things more interesting. She dismissed them: “As if they care…” I thought that was really sad and I didn’t know what to say to her.


8 thoughts on “Motivation

  1. It appears that you and I share the same school experience and attitude. I still procrastinate! 🙂 I do not have children, but I do know how boring school was for me. I think I would have been a much better student if the courses had been made more interesting and if the teachers were more enthused, but they weren’t. It’s unfortunate that their performance can’t be evaluated by the students…. teachers really aren’t doing THEIR job if they don’t motivate and encourage students to learn.

    Strangely, I know a lot of people who prefer compliant horses! Not for me personally. I like a little attitude to keep me on my toes. 🙂 BTW, Shannon at It’s Quarters for Me is a clicker training queen!

    I always enjoy the way you present your observations.

  2. omg, I just made fridge magnets which say “Force = Violence.” Why I did this is a whole other story which I am not yet ready to tell.

  3. Wolfie, I’m glad you enjoy my posts, thank you! I couldn’t imagine being happy with a compliant horse, I think they lose part of their spirit when they retreat like that and it’s their spirit I love so much in my horses!

    June, I’m curious now!

    Shannon, thanks for the link, I’ve just read some of her articles and it makes complete sense to me.

  4. I can sympathize with your daughter, I’m a horrible procrastinator and my junior high years were not as good as they could have been. I have a hard time focusing in an hour long class on something I don’t really enjoy, or if the teacher is not presenting it in an interesting way. I was lucky though, I went to a self-directed high school which meant I did not have any classes and I was able to choose what my projects, reports and stories were about. The teachers at my high school were very supportive of any idea brought forward by a student for a project. Having control over my learning and having teachers who genuinely cared and were interested in seeing what I could do made my high school years the best I could have hoped for.

    I unfortunately know and am related to a few people who prefer a compliant horse. I like a well-behaved horse but I don’t want one that listens to what I say simply because that is the easy thing to do. Socks is a very opinionated mare and she expresses her opinions on everything. She doesn’t always get her way but I won’t lie, there have been times when the trail she wanted to pick turned out to be much better than the trail I wanted to pick. I love the spirit in her, it’s what makes her Socks and not just any other horse.

  5. I can sympathize with your daughter because I was the same way in school. Like you I would wait until the last minute (sometimes on the bus on the way to school) to actually get something done. Most teachers are there taking up space and putting in their time. There were maybe four teachers during my whole school career that I actually liked and listened to. My one daughter had the same problem as most by being put in a system that expected everyone to be a cookie cutter person. She once wanted to paint her art project of a carousel horse black and the teacher told her no just do the pastel colors like everyone else. This was in third grade, well she did it black anyway, and the teacher refused to hang it up with the others. Now that’s telling the kid something.

    My horses are not at all compliant but have the ability to think for themselves in situations. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’d say Dusty, Blue and Mellon are the most opinionated of the herd.

  6. good morning! I finally responded to your comment regarding horse insurance on my blog (back around November 9); I’m so sorry to hear about the injury, and that there wasn’t sufficient insurance coverage.

    I certainly know what it is like to enjoy learning when it is about something you enjoy… in large part that is how I study for my various bar exams- if I make the concepts about horses, then I think it interesting and applicable to my life! I just wrote a post about commercial paper (boring to most people), but when it relates to buying/ selling a horse trailer, voila, applicable and interesting!

    My husband is similar to your daughter; he doesn’t like the ‘system’ of exams and school. My survival method that I try to help him with (and may work for your daughter) is to turn school/ studying into a game… the game to success within the system is to realize that you need to know substantive material, but beyond that, you need to learn how to jump the hoops the system has in place. If you can figure out the secret to do the hoops and jumps they want from you, then you will be far beyond other students in the game. To pass the California Bar Exam I told myself that ultimately it didn’t come down to substantive knowledge, but whether I could beat the exam structure itself. haha, I’m a bit of an education nerd…. so I would just suggest that your daughter 1. scheme to outwit the system 2. make the knowledge about horses and 3. at the end of the day, education is the ticket to get somewhere else in life, the means to the end, and there is an exciting world waiting for her out there! 🙂

    Whew, long comment, but its just such a great topic of discussion!

  7. Cjay, your school sounds wonderful! Unfortunately, the curriculum here doesn’t leave much room for students to put forward their own idea’s for projects. Hopefully that will change in the future, there is so much evidence that this type of education doesn’t bring out the best in the majority of students.

    GHM, that is a very sad story, art should be about the autonomy and freedom of self expression, not something you should be able to fail at. Obviously that teacher was a great believer in compliance!

    Corinne, that is a good point about beating the system. I had a friend who did that by constantly calculating how many points he had to score to pass with a minimal pass mark! I guess it is hard for a lot of secondary school students to see the gain or even the connection with real life when they’re not even sure yet what they want to do once they finish school. It doesn’t help when TV and newspapers are full of negative stories that there is no future here for young people because there are no jobs when they come out of college.

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