Last week, I tweeted an invitation to a free evening PD on student motivation. The title was based on dozens of questions I’ve received from earnest teachers around the planet. Here’s the placard:
Within a few moments, an ELA coordinator from the American Northeast tweeted this take:
“Um, let’s change the title of this. What can I as the teacher do to support students who are struggling with motivation?”
Curious about this free advice, I replied, “Hmm… tell me more about that. I’m trying to understand.”
The Tweeter said,
“I don’t think labeling students as ‘not valuing school’ is fair or appropriate. Maybe our version of ‘school’ doesn’t work. We don’t know their experiences. We can only control what we do to help students who are struggling. Judging and labeling doesn’t help.”(emphasis mine)
After beating my head against the wall as penitence for using Twitter, I took a step outside of myself and found a few good lessons from the comment that I thought may be helpful for more folks than just me. These lessons are precious to me, and so I thank my colleague for her brief, tweeted remarks.
Labeling ≠ analyzing, and analyzing is most definitely our job
Labeling is attaching a fixed title to a child. It gets a bad rap because fixed labels can lower expectations, thereby perpetuating the label. This is a really bad phenomenon that costs many students their education. So we do need to think very carefully about labeling.
But as I’ve written all over the place, the research is clear that the five key beliefs — credibility, value, belonging, effort, efficacy — are not permanently affixed in anyone’s heart, so they should not be labels. They are fluid, malleable, and heavily dependent on context. It is common for a student to value one course and to not value another course — going from strongly motivated in third hour, for example, and then weakly motivated in fourth hour. What happens in that five-minute passing period!? The context changes.
In fact, the fluidity of the key beliefs can even be seen within a class period. I can think of 10 of my 120 students right now who are weakly motivated to complete a 100-word writing warm-up but strongly motivated five minutes later to participate in a pop-up debate. A fixed quality within the child hasn’t changed — the child’s context has, and so have the child’s beliefs.
So, to use the five key beliefs as labels — permanent things — would be foolish. The science doesn’t support that. But at the same time, to not use the five key beliefs at all would be negligent — you’d be neglecting to use the fruits of research to do the work of teaching better. And that would (and has) cost students their education.
Okay, Dave — so what does this non-labeling way of using the five key beliefs look like in practice?
Sure, let’s look at that.
A student says to me during a moment of genuine connection, “You know, Mr. Stuart, school is dumb. It’s irrelevant to my life. It’s pointless. It’s annoying. I don’t like school.”
I note in my mind, “All right. This student currently does not value school.” This is a rather blunt analysis, but I’ve got limited data right now, and it’s a start. The analysis continues. I keep an eye out for further clues — what’s going on with this child’s five key beliefs? What is it about school that makes this child see it as pointless or dumb?
As this analysis happens — over days and weeks — I draw from my repertoire of simple interventions that help with this kind of problem, and I bring those interventions to bear on my work with the student moving forward.
And here I find agreement with my title-critiquing Twitter friend: “We can only control what we do to help students who are struggling.” Quite right. And wise is the one who helps students after getting clearer on what needs helping. The five key beliefs help us to see — to analyze, to discern, to, dare I say, judge — more clearly, with greater love, and to greater effect. They keep us focused on what we can do, on our agency, rather than on qualities in our students that we perceive as fixed (“labels”).
So: be careful when you throw out the bathwater. Labeling isn’t the same thing as analysis. Do analyze. Do think. Do focus on what you can control. That’s part of teaching real kids in real classrooms. Equity is not possible any other way.
Strong, good judgment is good, not bad; it’s a strength!
About two decades ago, there was this person at the head of the American Psychological Association named Marty Seligman. Seligman basically founded the discipline of positive psychology, which studies the strengths of humanity and where they come from. His book Flourish lays out the PERMA framework that I use for defining long-term flourishing in Chapter 1 of These 6 Things.
My point is that Seligman is credible — way more so than me — and his work is relevant to ours in education.
At one point in his career, Seligman set out with a colleague of his to develop a definitive list of all that can be right and good in a human being. The pair arrived at twenty-four “character strengths” — qualities in people recognized as good across cultures and time periods. This book, the seminal Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, has been used as a basis for thousands of journal articles since. Interestingly, the list of 24 strengths includes one that my Twitter friend and millions of others discard with little hesitation: judgment.
What? Judgment as a good thing? As a strength? What the heck is going on?
Here’s an excerpted description of judgment from the website that represents Seligman and Peterson’s ground-breaking book:
Judgment involves making rational and logical choices, and analytically evaluating ideas, opinions, and facts. To use a term that originally came from outside the character field: it is critical thinking, weighing the evidence fairly, thinking things through, and examining the evidence from all sides rather than jumping to conclusions. Judgment also involves being open-minded and able to change one’s mind in the light of evidence, remaining open to other arguments and perspectives.(Source)
Clearly, the idea that all judgment is bad doesn’t align with Seligman and Peterson’s definition of judgment. Ours is a society that needs more people who examine evidence from all sides rather than (cough) jumping to hasty conclusions. We need more people who are open-minded and able to remain open to other arguments and perspectives.
And our schools, our students, our teachers? We all desperately need this kind of thinking when it comes to improving equitable outcomes in our schools. Most of the best school cultures, faculty discussions, policy decisions, and classroom debates are built on judgment. This is the whole reason for creating argument-rich classrooms.
Now: judging like a jerk, judging based on stereotypes, and otherwise judging ineffectively (e.g., labeling a child based on that child's beliefs v. being analyzing a child's motivation using beliefs as a lens)… all these things cause harm at worst, ineffectiveness at best. And chances are that my Twitter colleague has seen too much of this kind of bad judging, and was perhaps a bit too quick to judge the title I wrote based on past experiences.
(Interesting side note: in Seligman and Peterson’s list, “Judgment” is one of the strengths of Wisdom. The others in this category are Creativity, Curiosity, Love of Learning, and Perspective.)
So, again: be careful throwing out bathwater. And do seek to judge wisely! Do seek to discern. Do seek to arrive at the best possible analyses of your students, your lessons, your curriculum, your work.
And do it with love.
And finally, our version of school definitely doesn’t work — at least not for millions of our students
There’s one way in which my Twitter colleague did not go far enough: in the comment about our version of school. I don’t think there’s any maybe about our version of school not working for some students. For millions of our world’s students (and dozens of my 120), our version of school does not work.
A few ways come right to mind:
A superficial and reactive approach to student motivation does not work for all students. Part of the reason we chase the pendulum in education is that we don’t understand what makes human beings do work with care. And so we look for tricks, approaches, gimmicks, programs, trends. We read the latest teacher-author and eagerly adopt and require their approach. And a few years later, we move to the next thing…because we haven’t worked to understand what motivates humans to begin with.
Here’s the thing: all kinds of things can work for helping students master material on their paths to long-term flourishing. All kinds of things — from the most traditional-looking approach to the most progressive ones. But none of them will work for the child who thinks the teacher is bad, the work has no value, the classroom doesn’t fit with their identity, the effort is in vain, and the goal is impossible. Credibility, value, belonging, effort, and efficacy — these are the things upon which motivation hinges.
Failure to study, understand, practice and use these will often lead to a sensation of running on the hamster wheel. I had to reread that sentence a few times to decide if it’s too strong, but I don’t think it is. I’ve seen a lot of teachers struggling over these past seven years of writing for and speaking with teachers.
Knowledge-light, “skills”-heavy curricula do not work for all students. Natalie Wexler is the latest to write about this; Daniel Willingham has been making the case from cognitive science for over a decade. Our politicization of knowledge has cost the educational trajectories of millions of children. Our skills-heavy approach to reading comprehension instruction is exacting high costs on our time and morale without the returns we’re needing. We need K-12 conversations about how opportunities to learn stuff are being provided to all students at every level.
And guess what? When you can leverage the five key beliefs into knowledge-building efforts, even our adolescent students can get excited about building knowledge about the world.
Finally, high-pressure, always-add-more-to-the-plate, incoherent approaches to teacher professional development do not work for all students. Such approaches have driven down the average years of teaching experience in the American teacher workforce. Placing a ton of pressure on people who already feel like the work they’re asked to do isn’t always best for children isn’t a recipe to make them better — it’s a recipe to make them quit. Professional development doesn’t have to look like that. It’s possible to focus, to do less but better. But it takes a great deal of discipline at all levels of leadership.
And all three of these things I've said are about identifying the problems so that we can solve them. I am so tired of aimless finger-pointing and vapid virtue-signaling. Let's do the creative, disciplined, long-viewed work of improvement.
I thank my colleague for the remarks and the thinking they forced me to do. I pray many blessings over her career.
(By the way, if you’d like to check out that free webinar I’m hosting, register here.)