Some time ago, I asked colleagues to tell me about a student who seemed especially demotivated. Here's what Stephanie shared:
I have an eighth grade student that I’ve been encouraging to participate more in his own education. He argues with me that I should just let him draw. He tells me that all his other teachers have just let him draw because then he doesn’t cause trouble. He does indeed create disturbances with other students if he isn’t drawing. I believe this is also work avoidance. I’ve tried to give alternatives — drawing the scene of the book for the hero’s journey rather than a narrative retelling. But there is only so much I can do and my feeling is that if he keeps avoiding the work — he keeps avoiding the work.— Stephanie (shared here)
How Student Motivation Works
Before we dive into the scenario, a quick intro.
As I explain in my bestselling book, student motivation in any given classroom comes down to Five Key Beliefs:
It's important to understand a few things about these:
- They are all malleable, meaning they can change.
- They are all context-dependent, meaning they can change based on where a student is or what a student is doing.
- They build from the bottom up, meaning that problems in the lower parts of the triangle will always negatively affect problems in the parts above.
- They are useful for both analyzing and acting upon problems with student demotivation.
(My book unpacks each of these beliefs in depth. You can learn more about the book here.)
Analysis: What's Happening With This Student
Here, I'll just pull lines from Stephanie's submission and share what I'm seeing.
- I’ve been encouraging [him] to participate more in his own education. Each attempt at encouraging a student like this is a signal to that student that you care about their development. This builds Credibility.
- He tells me that all his other teachers have just let him draw because then he doesn’t cause trouble. If this is true — and we can't be sure that it is — then it's bad for the default Credibility that this student will bring to all of his classes. He's learned that teachers care more about order in the class than they do about him actually learning.
- He does indeed create disturbances with other students if he isn’t drawing. I believe this is also work avoidance. I agree that it sounds like work avoidance. This lends credence to the claim that other teachers allow the student to draw as a sort of unspoken “peace treaty:” you get to draw, I get to run this classroom without your disruptions.
- I’ve tried to give alternatives — drawing the scene of the book for the hero’s journey rather than a narrative retelling. But there is only so much I can do. I love the effort here. However, I don't think that recasting assignments is necessary for cultivating more motivation.
- My feeling is that if he keeps avoiding the work — he keeps avoiding the work. Yep. And if he keeps avoiding the work, he will keep not growing toward mastery.
In terms of the Five Key Beliefs, this is what's going wrong:
- Credibility is a problem because teachers have allowed the work-avoidant behavior to persist.
- Value is probably the biggest problem here, for a couple reasons:
- Drawing holds a very HIGH value for the student, and when drawing is always an option, then the work of learning is always going to pale in comparison. Because drawing is always an option, it's harder in situations like this than it would be if the student, instead, highly valued playing video games. Video games aren't at hand during the school day, and so even though video games may be highly valued for many of our students, during class we're not competing with video games because they're not there — the context is video game-less.
- If other teachers are really letting the student draw instead of work, they are signaling to the student that the work really isn't that valuable.
- Effort and Efficacy are obscured for us. It is likely that the student doesn't know what good effort looks like and has experienced past failure. BUT we can't know for sure because right now we're just trying to get the student to engage with work.
- Belonging is likely a problem, too. Though we don't have any student language in Stephanie's comment, it's likely that the student would tell us that he just doesn't fit into school, that school's just not for him, that he isn't a school person, etc. In other words: we'd get language that indicates that his sense of self — his identity — is not aligned with the context of school.
So what do we do?
Action: What to Try With This Student
A key strength of my approach to student motivation is, rather than needing to differentiate for each individual student, you can instead blanket the whole class with regular, high-leverage strategies (e.g., Woodenizing effective effort, unpacking assessment outcomes, turning your class into a feast of knowledge) that lend themselves to self-differentiation. (To see the 10 strategies I include in my book, check out the Table of Contents here.)
But with particularly challenging students like our drawer friend, targeted interventions are needed. I'd recommend three things:
- First, conduct a 2×10. For 10 school days straight, pull this student aside for two minutes and have a non-academic conversation. Talk of school is strictly prohibited. (Here's an explainer video of the strategy, and here's an explainer article.) This will have a few important impacts:
- You'll solidify your Credibility. You already have some from the encouragement you've been trying and from your attempts to differentiate the student's assignments. 2x10s will lock you in.
- You'll start cultivating Belonging because folks tend to identify with places where they experience genuine care.
- Second, try some Why Conversations. In my book, I examine these in Strategy 6: Valued Within, but here's the gist: pull the student aside and genuinely ask them, “Hey, I've been trying to figure out how in the world something like [insert your class here] is important for someone like you. I just can't figure it out. Can you help me?” What you're trying to do is ask the student to be the expert on why your class is valuable. Treat it like something that's genuinely puzzling you and that you genuinely want their perspective on. Ask them to be creative. Tell them you plan to use what they say with future students.
- This is the basic pattern that attributional retraining studies tend to use for creating shifts in mindsets. I examine these kinds of studies in my Student Motivation Course.
- Once these are established, begin requiring the student to attempt all work. Whenever the student is drawing instead of working, tell them you love their artwork but now it's time to do [insert current task]. Wait by their side until they put the drawing away and get back to the task. Ask them if they need any assistance and remind them that you're after their growth.
These three things should help quite a bit.
For those still reading, do you have any other ideas? Place them in the comment.
P.S. Thank you to Stephanie for submitting her student scenario!