Monday, April 4, 2011

What do we mean by ‘motivation’?

Yesterday, in an idle moment, I was skimming the pages of ‘T-VIBE’, a semi-literate ‘yoof’ magazine included in the Sunday Monitor.  Its back page was adorned with two sizeable pictures, one of three slickly attired young men beaming widely as they opened the doors of three brand new cars, and the other of some glum-looking young people disdainfully clutching gift-wrapped presents.  This was an article about the prize-giving ceremony at one of Uganda’s foremost schools.  Whereas in Scotland the usual sort of school prize is a book token - and, indeed, schools make great efforts these days to ensure that they celebrate a range of skills and achievements - here in Uganda, one of the world’s poorest countries, three students at this prestigious establishment were given brand new Toyota Raum cars, some received cheques for 500,000 shillings (£150, more than double a government-employed teacher’s monthly salary) and others received ‘various [unspecified] gifts’.  What for?  Academic success, of course, as measured in ‘points’, presumably in A level results, the achievement of which success goes by the mysterious title ‘cantab’.  As far as we know, ‘cantab’ is nothing to do with Oxbridge entrance.

Okay, I know that Britain also has its exclusive schools for the privileged and wealthy.  However, I don’t think I have ever before seen such an unashamed celebration of educational inequality published in a national newspaper.  What made it worse was that the ceremony was led by a retired bishop who ‘urged the students to always have self-discipline, fear God and manage their own time if they are to triumph the world easily’ (sic) and the senior vice-principal (spelt ‘principle’) who commended his protégées for their ‘hard work and sacrifice’.  Nice to see the church promoting worldly success as an aspiration...   It would also be interesting to know the nature of the sacrifice.  My guess – which may be unfair – is that these young people had simply spent their leisure time studying, as is common at their age and stage, and no big deal in the great scheme of things. 

All of which has really focused our attention on what Ugandans mean by ‘motivation’.  Clearly, in the school above, it is money and the acquisition of material goods.  And that is, indeed, what the word does actually refer to in Uganda.  In our line of work we often hear people discussing how best to ‘motivate’ teachers or other public servants.  What is actually meant is not how to increase their commitment to those that they serve, such as their pupils, but how much of an additional financial reward is required to encourage them to carry out the work for which they are already being paid a salary - not a particularly high salary, admittedly, but one that can be double, or more than double, the salary earned by their peers in private educational establishments.  Indeed, we recently heard a Chief Administrative Officer claiming publicly that teachers in government schools demonstrated less commitment and worked notably less hard than their privately employed colleagues, his personal view, of course.

The word ‘facilitation’ is equally confusing for a westerner.  Whereas to us ‘facilitation’ of a conference means deciding who is going to be leading the discussion groups, in Uganda it refers to how much money participants will be paid by the organisers to attend - not just refunded after they have attended the event, but paid in advance.  We find it astonishing that participants at conferences, meetings and training sessions are actually paid to attend. Understandably, ‘facilitation’ includes travelling expenses, but it may comprise additional payments beyond that.  Indeed, ‘facilitation’ may sometimes be claimed even by people who work permanently in the location where the meeting is going to be held.  Virtually every training session in the educational world starts off with complaints about the inadequacy of the ‘facilitation’, rather a depressing experience for the presenters.  The idea that staff training is an expected aspect of the work of any professional appears to be an alien concept.  Scottish teachers are not always renowned for the alacrity with which they jump at the opportunity for professional development.  However, they usually accept that it is an integral part of the job and something that the participant or his or her employers pay for, rather than regard as a source of supplementary income.

In the same paper as the story about the fortunate sixth year students, we read the continuing saga of the disappearance of billions of shillings of public money when Uganda hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting about four years ago.  Many successful politicians apparently expect personal remuneration in the course of their duties over and above their salaries, rewards which go well beyond the inflated expenses claimed by British MPs about which the public, and the law courts, were so rightly concerned in the months before we left.  In fact Ugandans refer to this as politicians and other public figures ‘eating’ at public expense, a euphemism for unofficial rewards over and above one’s salary.  Bribes, in other words.

Given the models set by such public figures, it is hardly surprising therefore that young people at those Ugandan schools which nurture the country’s future leaders are being encouraged by their mentors to see financial reward as a key motivating factor and the mark of a successful career.  Those who achieve the greatest academic success at A Level receive government scholarships regardless of their family’s financial circumstances: ‘for him that hath, to him shall be given…’, in the words of the Bible.   Those from poorer backgrounds who struggle through overcrowded schools under the Universal Secondary Education scheme have far less chance of being rewarded and supported in this way, despite the far greater difficulties they have had to surmount en route.  And after graduation, many successful young Ugandans seek their fortune overseas apparently because of the higher salaries paid in the west, with the result that Ugandan hospitals, for example, are bereft of doctors, particularly those in the more remote regions. We are aware of some attempts by organisations like Rotary International's Interact Clubs to develop a greater awareness among school students of the plight of many of their countrymen, and a deeper social conscience, through service to the community.  We hope that such activities have a similar impact on Ugandan young people as a short spell living in a council flat apparently had on Michael Portillo.   

All this would appear very bleak if it were not for the individual examples of selflessness and generosity that we have come across in the most unexpected circumstances.  We once arrived unannounced in a rural primary school just as the local 'tailor' was measuring half a dozen orphans for uniforms which their teachers were paying for out of their own modest salaries.  Just the other day I was stopped in the supermarket by a young woman who thought I looked like a teacher and asked for advice about how to get primary children involved in recycling.  My antennae immediately went up, for we are always being accosted by people who have far better ideas than we do about how we should use our volunteers’ allowances.  However, this woman was quite genuine.  She had set up an NGO, HEAL Uganda, to encourage young people to manage waste and protect the environment.  She didn’t even mention money.  You will be pleased to know that I talked about some of the activities Scottish schools are engaged in and gave her the website address for Eco-Schools Scotland.  Here was one person, a local, not a mzungu, who wanted to make Uganda a better place for people to live in and had just got up and done something: self-motivation in action.  Good on her, I say.

In schools like Royal Pride Academy, a community school, we have found a highly committed headteacher and staff who are working for a pittance.  Many of the pupils are being brought up by extended families or well-wishers who are themselves living on virtually nothing.  We heard, for example, of an old woman who had found a baby by the side of the road and had been bringing him up for some years by herself and in very difficult circumstances.  Another grandmother is breaking rocks in a quarry to support her orphaned grandchildren.

We were delighted the other day to arrive at Royal Pride while the P6/P7 class were carrying out their weekly formal debate: this week’s topic was whether life was better in the past than in the present.  The animated discussion was very firmly chaired by one of the pupils, and points of information carefully managed.  It would be nice to think that these confident and articulate young people, following the example of their teachers, might one day be motivated principally by the desire to serve their fellow Ugandans rather than by the prospect only of pecuniary or material reward.

The motion: Early life is better than now life.
Opposition (in red) putting up a strong argument against proposition.
Attentive members of the audience.

You may also be interested in 'Hail to Uganda's creme de la creme', about the results achieved by senior pupils in secondary schools and the gap between the most privileged and the rest of the school population.

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