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Truths about Student Motivation

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Post Image- Student MotivationIt's still early in the school year, but I can already sense some of the self-driven kids in my classes. I've learned about all of my kids a little bit through the first day of school index card activity (which is partially aimed at teaching purpose); and I've learned about a growing number of them through follow-up, one-on-one, two-three minute mini-conferences in the hallway during independent work time.

Here are some discoveries I've made:

  • Katelyn, a student in my world history class, wants to be a responsible adult who volunteers in the community and holds a good job; she wants to give things back to the people who raised her; she wants to be a leader.
  • Xavia, a member of Katelyn's class, hopes to be a wise person, someone willing to go out of their way for someone else. She wants to do what's right, not what's cool.
  • Calvin, one of my inaugural freshmen APWH students, wants to get college credit so that his mom won't have to help as much with college.

These three students are a part of a small group who, through what they've written and spoken, seem to possess high levels of motivation; time and work will tell if that motivation is really there. One thing's for sure: a lot of students start the school year seeming fairly motivated, and yet far too many end the year seeming anything but.

So what's the deal with motivation?

Motivation and career- and college-readiness

According to Dr. David Conley, whom I cite throughout my “These Five Things, All Year Long” post, motivating oneself is one of the key learning skills and techniques that college- and career-ready people tend to have.

From Getting Ready for College, Careers, and the Common Core (p. 76; emphasis mine):

Effective learners… know how to become motivated  to complete challenging tasks and assignments, even in areas where they may be less interested in the subject. They use a combination of internal and extrinsic motivation. Although many educators extol the virtues of intrinsic motivation, wherein students do things for the sheer joy of doing them, extrinsic motivation has its place as well. Knowing they need good grades in order to meet admission standards if they are to pursue their goal is just as important for successful students as completing an assignment for the sheer interest or excitement generated by the topic.

So, let's pause there, because he brings out some things we need to hear.

  • While intrinsic motivation is great, it's harmful for us to teach it exclusively. We all know this from experience. For example, there are plenty of mornings when I don't feel like waking up early. And while I do decide to roll out of bed partly because I love teaching and the challenges it brings, I also do it simply because if I'm not there and prepared by 7:32, highly undesirable consequences will result. In other words, I'm predominantly driven, in the early morning, by extrinsic motivators. Does this make me a bad teacher?
  • It's foolish to aim to make every lesson interesting to every student every day. First of all, that's insanely impossible — what's interesting to one student may annoy another. And more importantly, even if it were possible to create a school where every kid was interested — solely because of great teaching and lesson planning — at every moment of every day, is it possible that this school may produce students woefully unprepared to meet life on its terms?

Don't put me on the other end of the pendulum's swing — I'm not saying extrinsic motivation is the end-all-be-all, nor am I saying that we shouldn't aim to plan and teach engaging lessons. It's finding the middle, where students are taught the value of both kinds of motivation, and where students are taught that in-class engagement is a multi-faceted endeavor in which both student and teacher play leading roles.

I'll let Dr. Conley continue; again, from Getting Ready for College, Careers, and the Common Core (p. 76; emphasis mine):

Students need help learning how to identify and harness both forms of motivation and to recognize that they are unlikely to do well in most classes without a combination of the two. While teachers and other adults can create systems to maximize student motivation, ultimately the student must manage their own motivation. They need to learn how to gear up even in situations where they are not naturally excited. They need to be given the tools that effective learners use to get through the tough times that all learners experience over the course of their schooling. Equipped with these tools and strategies, learners are ready for postsecondary environments, workplace training, the military, and other environments that expect them to be motivated and engaged.

And this is why I love David Conley's work. He “gets” that an education that results in high achievement scores and low ownership of learner isn't that valuable of an education at all.

So: what are the “tools and strategies” that, when equipped, produce readiness for “postsecondary environments, workplace training, the military,” and more? I'll hazard a guess at that next week — it has to do with the character strengths, about half of which, I'll argue, deal explicitly with motivation.

A final note on motivation and life readiness

We got into teaching because we wanted to help students flourish years after they've had us; every day in our classrooms, we aim at readiness for career or college, but also readiness for life.

And I would guess that, anecdotally, we all know that the skill of motivating oneself is critical for life readiness, too. We all have important things in our lives that we work towards even when we don't feel like it.

When my students, in twenty years, don't feel like being better spouses, parents, or citizens, I pray they'll have learned a bit in my class to help them do the work despite their feelings.

Thank you to Dr. David Conley for his career of work dedicated to giving us a clear picture of what we're really aiming for in a K-12 education.


10 Responses to Truths about Student Motivation

  1. Phil Nienhuis September 15, 2015 at 9:49 am #

    Yes, we want to believe that “pure intrinsic motivation” is the ideal and maybe achievable. But let’s be real: how often do I go to PD workshops and the bowl of candy in the middle of the table serves to entice or prod us to more actively participate. Daniel Pink (Drive) discusses the three key elements of intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. He’s so right! Yet, even the highly motivated student often need the enticement of a reward. Human nature. Go figure!

  2. James September 15, 2015 at 11:10 am #

    Thank you for presenting this complex approach to our students and their needs. It’s hard to sit through so many PD sessions where our students needs are always presented in such over-simplistic, 2 dimensional ways.

    • davestuartjr September 15, 2015 at 12:11 pm #

      Amen, James — we need simple, understandable approaches to the real, complex problems we face. Our students’ needs are complex; great PD will help provide simple, focused strategies for attending to them with our hearts and our heads.

  3. davestuartjr September 15, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

    Yes, Phil — we are more complex than one or the other. It’s always great to hear from you! All the best in your work.

  4. Sherri Priestman September 15, 2015 at 12:33 pm #

    I appreciate having permission (since it will happen anyway) to have lessons/units/skills to teach that don’t wow every kid. There was a time when kids were expected to provide all their own motivation, then a period in which we teachers were expected to provide all the motivation. It’s nice to see the pendulum swing to the gray, complex middle. I’m sorry for the generation of kids who have grown up believing that they should follow their hearts, all the time, and do what they love, only. Interwoven into this job we all love are moments, hours, and days that are intensely frustrating, discouraging, and, yes, boring. It’s only when we bring all our motivation to bear that we can power through the tough times. Thanks, Dave.

    • davestuartjr September 15, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

      Thank YOU, my friend! 🙂 Your words are balm to my heart; I’m tired! Thank you 🙂

  5. Shelby Denhof September 15, 2015 at 7:44 pm #

    Looking forward to your follow-up article next week, Dave. “Motivating the unmotivated” has been on my mind since I started at Wellspring and has now followed me to my new teaching job. I teach one hour of Reading Extensions, which is a course for 7th/8th graders that don’t read at grade level, and many of the students need that spark of motivation to tackle challenges that aren’t their favorite things (and that’s putting it lightly). I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on teaching kids how to gear up for things they aren’t excited about.

    • davestuartjr September 15, 2015 at 8:21 pm #

      Shelby, so glad to hear from you. What you’re interested in is at the edge of my practice and knowledge — I am excited to keep exploring it, year after year. Next week (or maybe this Saturday) I’ll share one angle toward the problem.

  6. Maria Giacometti Robertson September 15, 2015 at 8:08 pm #

    I’m so glad to hear other teachers say they struggle to balance engagement with entertainment. I want students to be engaged in what I teach but sometimes as a student you have to delay the gratification of being entertained for a bigger payoff further down the road. Sigh…a difficult concept for 7th grade students to grasp.

    • davestuartjr September 15, 2015 at 8:24 pm #

      Yes — very difficult for 7th graders, and not much easier for 9th graders (but definitely easier, I would say). Middle school is certainly one of the most important times in a kids’ education — this is where they begin to develop their conception of what schooling is going to be like for the rest of their life, what their role is in that schooling, etc. You have a high and noble calling, Maria!

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