#cftrecommendations Motivation

Is motivating students a hard goal to achieve: learn from Educational Leadership?

Unlock their Motivation



The most recent issue of Educational Leadership, Motivation Matters, an ASCD journal is devoted to the work of writers, thinkers, and educators on the subject of motivating students to learn.  I have made my way through these excellent articles and learned a great deal about this elusive quality, motivation, that we hope all students innately possess or learn through their schooling.

In my many conversations with teachers, I am not surprised when I hear them say:

If they only they were motivated to do their homework.

I wish my students were motivated to come to class prepared.

The results on this test were not what I had hoped, I don’t think my students were motivated to study.

These may not be exact quotes, but you know where I am headed with them.  In school conversations, there are many teachers who look to place responsibility for lack of performance squarely on the student.  Generally, the reason for inadequate performance is lack of motivation on the student’s part.  But is this fair to students?  Could inadequate performance on the part of students be a result of:

  • our lack of understanding about the human quality of motivation;
  • our lesson plans may not stimulate student interest and motivation; or
  • our classroom protocols built into a lesson are not engaging all minds at all times.

These may be reasons why students lack motivation, but it could be that a student really does struggle with his or her own demons that hold them back. Regardless of the reason, it is still the responsibility of every classroom teacher to engage the minds, hearts, and bodies of all students in their presence.  Right?

In Amy Azzam’s article, Motivated to Learn: A Conversation with Daniel Pink, an important takeaway from Daniel Pink’s perspective is that teachers need to “downgrade control and compliance and upgrade autonomy” if they want to help students’ motivation come alive.  Daniel Pink believes that in the workplace and in school, we rely less on routine skills involving memory and more on 21st Century skills like creativity, communication, decision-making and collaboration.  Our out-dated “if-then” methods for motivating students using rewards have not evolved as quickly as our need for teaching and applying higher-order skills.  Pink also explores the difference between compliant and engaged behavior.  He sees schools as mostly demanding compliant behavior from students, which works against getting more engaged behavior.

Another point Pink raises is that “play” is something that all students enjoy doing.  They have no trouble engaging in play.  However, school tends to limit “playfulness” to the playground.  The classroom is the place where “rigorous” and mindful activity takes place, certainly not playfulness.  Pink points out that “it’s possible for things that seem, on the surface, to be play to be absolutely rigorous.”  As educators, we should think about how our classrooms can be places where rigorous learning involves some playfulness.  It might be more engaging for students and hence help them with their motivation.

Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda wrote an article entitled, 4 (Secret) Keys to Student Engagement.  As with Pink, they also draw our attention to the distinction between compliant and engaged behaviors.  They define the two behaviors this way.

Compliant learners follow directions, diligently complete assignments, and get good grades mostly because of their effort or adherence to directions.

Engaged learners often pursue their own train of thought about the topic under study, regardless of the task at hand.  They tend to focus on the learning and share their thoughts unprompted, without consideration for those around them.

I think it would be fair to say that all teachers have had experience with compliant versus engaged learners.  While teachers might not fully subscribe to Jackson and Zmuda’s definitions, their own definitions will no doubt be quite similar.

The 4 (Secret) Keys to Student engagement that they reference are:

  • Provide clarity
  • Offer a relevant context
  • Create a supportive classroom culture
  • Provide the appropriate challenge

While the four keys don’t seem so secret in my estimation, the authors package the story of the four in a compelling article.  We have known that these four qualities are a subset of ingredients that go into creating a lively and engaging learning environment.  (see a CFT post on qualities of a good school or classroom)

Rick Wormeli, a former teacher, consultant and author, wrote an interesting article directed at the middle school years, Motivating Young Adolescents.  In his article, Wormeli presents six strategies that he offers as motivating for young adolescents.  There are:

  • Adopt two mind-sets
  • Empathize and build trust
  • Remember where they are
  • Give descriptive feedback
  • Teach the way the mind learns
  • Tell stories and spark curiosity

I love the way he frames these strategies.  Not your typical Compare and Contrast research-based strategy from Harvey Silver’s Strategic Teacher.  Wormeli’s strategies are more about knowing the student, responding to where they are, and teaching them in ways that align with how they learn.

I thought his first one was unique in its approach.  Here is how Wormeli describes the two mind-sets.

In the first mind-set teachers need is the recognition that motivation is something we create with students, not something we do to them.

There is a tendency for teachers to think motivation comes from the inner soul of the student.  While that may be true, I think Wormeli is saying that teacher co-create motivation with students.  We are part of the motivation equation and so if motivation is absent in the student then we are part of the problem and solution.  He points out that our involvement must be more than trying to manipulate the student into becoming motivated.

His second mindset is:

There is no such thing as laziness.  Humans are hard-wired to do demanding and complex things.

Young adolescents want to be engaged in demanding and interesting learning environments.  Our responsibility is to provide the framework for them to do just that.  Wormeli suggests that if a teacher believes a student is lazy or labels a student as such, the teacher should look deeper because there is always something else going  on in the student’s life.

Finally, Wormeli as a great list of the top 12 demotivators in learning (page 30).  We should all read the list.  If you don’t agree with them, share a comment on my blog.

There is another wonderful article in this rich edition written by Richard Curwin, Can Assessments Motivate?  In a mere 3 pages, Dr. Curwin lays out a compelling reason why every classroom teacher needs to look in the mirror with regard to his or her assessment practices.   I have read a wealth of the literature on assessment and Dr. Curwin’s simple but elegant piece provides the context for why our assessment practices in schools need to be under a microscope.

Dr. Curwin writes:

Test scores reflect the values of the tester as much as the achievement of the student.

What does our fixation on test scores, whether high-stakes or unit tests, say about us as educators?  Tests, making test keys, and evaluating tests have built-in error because humans are involved.  Can we really say with confidence that there is a difference between two students, one who have a 79 average in math (C+) and another who has an 81 (B-)?

Curwin suggests that we count improvement.  Not a novel idea, but one that few schools or teachers see as valid.  More improvement should count for an increase in performance.  We know that when students are given “credit” for improvement it increases their motivation to try even harder.  Here are Curwin’s seven ways to encourage effort and build motivation:

  1. Never fail a student who tries and never give the highest grades to one who doesn’t
  2. Start with positive
  3. See mistakes as learning opportunities
  4. Give do-overs, (see the CFT post on giving do-overs)
  5. Give students the test before you start the unit (that way they know what the target looks like)
  6. Limit your corrections (too many corrections go unnoticed)
  7. Do not compare students

In ending the article, Curwin writes:

Imagine a school where every child does his or her best, and not give up hope of learning.

Using that statement as a lens, can that be used to describe your school?  If not, then change is imperative.

There were many other good articles in the edition so take a look and see what strikes your fancy.  I would strongly suggest creating a teacher seminar with this edition as a resource.  I would love to hear your comments.


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