When a student walks up to me with a cut on their finger, I point them toward a drawer near the back of my classroom. Band-aids are great for tiny wounds like this.
Teaching strategies are kind of like band-aids for teachers. For some teacher troubles, band-aids are perfect:
- How do I hook students into the novel Things Fall Apart?
- What's a good lesson for introducing the scientific method to fifth graders?
- How do I help students understand the causes of the Great Depression?
These kinds of questions beg for band-aids. You find a strategy that makes sense, and you give it a try.
When a student walks up to me and is feeling faint or nauseous or is sweating with a fever — that's not a band-aid problem. There's internal trouble. Something's going on inside that needs understanding and attention.
This is how I feel about problems that stem from student motivation troubles. I'm talking about problems like these:
- What do I do for apathetic students?
- How do I improve homework completion rates?
- How do I get kids more engaged in my lessons?
- How do I get my students to care about more than just grades?
- Why won’t students just do the work?
These queries are about the immediate problems that we're facing in the classroom, but searching for their answers is unlikely to fix what's actually wrong. Almost all of the time, searches like these will take you to lists of strategies or tactics or tips. They'll often be long, smorgasbord lists — the kinds that typically increase my heart rate. If you survive the list-produced overwhelm and find something you'd like to try, then it seems like you've won.
But you've only got a short-term solution to your present student motivation struggle.
The symptom will go away for a bit, maybe, because you've applied a band-aid.
The trouble, of course, is that the student motivation issues that face us aren't just the current problem that we're wrestling with. They're not little cuts. Band-aiding them seems to help today, but over time it burns us out because the problems are always popping up in new ways, all year long. We feel like we're constantly chasing student motivation, following the lead of its latest symptoms but never, after those first few days of school, actually getting in front of it.
And so we tend to get stuck in complaint cycles, and we talk in ways that we never thought we'd talk about the kids in our care.
Or we disengage, counting the days until the next break or vacation.
We need our kids to do work with care
The whole point of student motivation, as I discussed last time, is that it helps kids to do work with care.
Those are our goals for student engagement or student motivation or whatever you'd like to call it. We want kids to
- Do work (homework, studying, taking notes, debating)
- With care (effort, attention to detail, thoughtfulness, etc.)
The benefit of kids doing this is that we tend to like our jobs a whole lot more. It's fun when you give kids learning experiences that they actually take advantage of. It's fun watching kids grow and learn and advance themselves down the road of mastery. We can taste and see that our work matters.
It’s a beautiful picture, isn’t it?
But when kids don't do anything, the picture dissolves like some drawing on the beach before the waves come in.
Before we need new strategies, we need to clearly understand the heart of student motivation
School is built on a hypothesis that the work of mastering school — not prepping for high-stakes tests, but mastering school — helps you out later in life. My kids won't ever be quizzed on the Byzantine Empire, but the work of studying and discussing and reading and writing about the Byzantine Empire produces a kind of person that is more likely to go out and live a purposeful, empowered life.
I think that's true.
The trouble is that the older our students get, the more likely they are to be disengaged or bored or otherwise demotivated by school.
At some point, they reach an age where they're making judgments about school, constantly, asking themselves a few basic questions in every academic situation they find themselves in.
- Is this a good teacher? Do they actually care? Do they know their stuff?
- Does this work matter? Is it valuable? Is it interesting? Relevant?
- Am I the kind of person who does work like this? Does this line up with who I am? Do I belong here?
- If I do this work, is it going to pay off? Will I get better and more knowledgeable if I try?
- Can I succeed at this? Do I have a chance at pulling this off?
The answers to those questions that our kids are asking — every time they sit down to homework, every time they enter a classroom, every time they read a new assignment — are their operational beliefs at any given moment.
When the answers are “Yes,” then doing care-filled work is easier, even joyful. Even hard work is fun when our kids are saying “Yes” to these five key beliefs.
It's not the assignment or the grading system or the curricular approach or the teaching style that makes kids do the work and do it with care. When you dig all the way down, it's these five key beliefs:
(Note that those words line up with the questions in the preceding list.)
And those things, the research says, are incredibly malleable. For example, our colleagues at the Chicago Consortium for School Research found in a survey study that students can go from believing those five key beliefs in a first hour class, and then in a second hour class believing almost none of them. Why? Because the beliefs are highly influenced by context. (Here's the keynote where Camille Farrington discusses those studies starting around the 14 minute mark.)
In the posts that follow, my goal is to introduce each of the key beliefs so that you have a firm understanding of what they are, why they matter, what the science says about them, and how to get started on them in your setting. I’ll use some of the material from Chapter 2 of These 6 Things (get the book if you'd like to follow along), but much of what I share will be fresh, too.
(And if you really want to empower yourself with this simple, science-backed, robust approach to student motivation, tell me where to send your free checklist here.)