Last night as I was falling asleep I remembered a story from years ago about squirrel researchers.
The primary researcher and his/her assistant set up a series of challenges for squirrels. The initial estimate was that it would take a week for a group of squirrels to "learn" the challenges and complete them easily. Once they were set up, the primary went to get coffee on the assumption that they probably wouldn't see a squirrel for half an hour. S/He returned within twenty minutes to be greeted by the gobsmacked assistant who had not only seen the first squirrel attempt the challenges, but watched it complete the whole collection in the time it had taken the primary to collect coffee.
Anyone who doubts the brilliance of a motivated squirrel can check this video, on a similar theme.
Squirrels have very few motivations, really. They want to be physically comfortable, warm and well fed. They also want their offspring to survive to maturity. The challenges that we witness squirrels mastering are always to meet one of these motivations. What is astonishing is the problem solving ability squirrels have, when the motivation is strong enough.
Teenagers want to be warm, comfortable and well fed. As social creatures they also want the respect of their peers and the more ambitious of them have a goal for their future - career aspirations, or personal goals.
What we insist of students in the UK is that they stay in education until they are 18, that they study to the highest level they are capable of and that they leave the education system with basic qualifications.
Our demands, or expectations if you prefer, don't actually meet up with any of the primary motivators of the average teenager. Other than those with a specific ambition that requires an education, what incentives are there to the students to stay in education?
I was lucky: both my parents trained as teachers and knew the value of education. I didn't have to push myself, because they managed to convince my subconscious that education is something I should have and keep trying to get more of. I didn't have a goal, or driving force to perform well at school. I did it because my parents expected me to and I didn't have any sufficiently strong motivation to drive me in any other direction. It wasn't my goal, my dream or my motivation. I think it is telling that my only A* GCSE was the one that I particularly chose (Art) - the others were either mandatory, or the best of an uninteresting lot.
But what about everyone else? We tell them they must get good GCSEs to get good ALevels. They must get good ALevels to get a good job or go to university. They must get a good degree to get a good job. But, when you think about it, those are all very abstract concepts - especially to someone who has never had the responsibility of working so that they can feed themselves at the end of the day, or pay rent, or bills. The squirrels won't complete an obstacle course in order to qualify for a mortgage and likewise our teenagers aren't in a position to understand the value of what is on offer.
We either need to give them benefit of three years of life and work experience before offering them education, so they can see what it's all about, or offer them a more immediate motivator to enable them to really commit to their own improvement.