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Student Motivation Problems Crush the Kids — and They Crush Us, Too!

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Motivation can seem like a boring topic. At least, it did to me when I was in my undergraduate EdPsych classes.

But here's the thing: when kids aren’t motivated to do work with care, the whole endeavor of education breaks down.

  • You can’t passively master anything, except passivity. For our kids to master art and science and mathematics and history, they’ve got to do work. And for that work to have its maximum impact, it’s got to be done with attention and focus and curiosity and engagement.
  • When teachers are faced with unmotivated kids, they get frustrated. One of the most painful things for an educator’s heart is to put work into lesson planning or paper grading or relationship building or curriculum mapping, only to find that their efforts are met with apathy or silliness or grade-mongering or complaint.
  • When teachers get frustrated, they quit — either fully or partially. I define quitting broadly. It’s not just when you put in your letter of resignation. It’s when you say, “Eh, yeah, that kid’s not teachable.” Or “Her home life is too rough.” Or “Whatever, it just is what it is — you can lead a horse to water, right?” When you quit, you stop growing.
  • Or sometimes, teachers respond to frustration with unsustainable overwork. This is what happens to many of our best people. They meet problems stemming from student motivation issues, and they respond with 80-hour weeks. Within a few years, they’re gone — used up like tissues.

So here’s the thing: we need education to work. You do, I do, my dad does, my kids do. The people in the next town do, and the next state, and the next nation. From Brisbane, Australia to Portland, Maine, and all the other places in the world. Without a functioning education system, human flourishing doesn't happen — not in developed nations at least, and certainly not in an equitable manner.

And so we’ve got to figure out a way to get kids to do work with care. When this is happening in my class, I look like a better teacher and feel like a better teacher and get results like a better teacher. And the best thing is that it's all sustainable — I’m not crushing my family or my health beneath the burden of overwork.

How Do We Get Kids to Do Work with Care?

The five key beliefs are the core of the core of student motivation. They are what makes kids do work with care.

  • Credibility says, My teacher is good at her job. So guess what? The research shows us that when kids are taught by a credible teacher, they perform better. Guess why? Because in that teacher’s class, they do work with care.
  • Value says, This work matters to me. Do you know many kids who are motivated by work that they view as totally pointless? Me neither. I know few adults like that, either. But when they do value the work, it’s so much easier for them to do. And the value belief is highly malleable at the classroom level.
  • Belonging says, I belong in this academic setting. Want to know something? The research shows us that when people identify with the place they’re in or the work they’re being asked to do, they’re more likely to do it. And with care.

Are you seeing a pattern here? These things are common sense, but the beauty is that they're also heavily vetted in our best research on teaching and learning.

  • Effort says, I can improve in my knowledge or skills if I work at it. The research is overwhelming, much of it popularized by Carol Dweck in her work on mindsets. When human beings believe this, they’re more likely to do work with care — especially when we teach kids how to put forth the right kind of effort. Kids then get stuck in a positive feedback loop.
  • And finally, Efficacy says, I can succeed at this. You might be a teacher who has a lot of kids defining success as something totally determined by grades. And success to them is unattainable. The good news is that we can help kids develop wiser definitions of success — definitions that increase the degree to which they do work with care.

Is Student Motivation Really a Top Priority, Though?

Okay, fine — student motivation is important. But is it worth the time right now? We can only fit so many things on our plates, right?

There’s no doubt about it: learning about the five key beliefs was, at one time, something new on my plate. Honestly, it was on my plate for years — because I was reading so much of the raw research, trying so many things out in my room.

But eventually, when I cohered my thinking around the five key beliefs, this new thing on my plate suddenly changed my plate forever.

So I want to clear something up right now. The term “student motivation” doesn’t really grab at your heart. It sounds boring, honestly. It's far from a felt need. And the “five key beliefs” — that doesn't sound much better. It all sounds detached, abstract, imaginary — like knowledge that'd be “nice to have,” but not a necessity — at least not right now while I'm so busy.

But listen: student motivation is the problem behind our daily problems. The behavior issues in sixth hour, the low turn-in rates in fifth hour, the poor achievement in second, the grade-mongering in first — these all have the same roots.

So that's why I'm excited to master these five key things.

What About You?

I'd love to hear from you on this: Why are you looking for something deeper than grades and positive reinforcement tokens? What's your big WHY for studying student motivation? Leave a comment and tell me. I'd love to hear from you.

Want to learn more about these beliefs? Head here.

One Response to Student Motivation Problems Crush the Kids — and They Crush Us, Too!

  1. Lacey November 26, 2018 at 4:24 pm #

    I have to believe that teachers who have their own “buy in” or their own “passion” for what they’re teaching is a big part of student engagement and motivation. No more squelching a teacher’s ideas, attempts, wonderings, or outlandish ideas. Instead, support teachers and their DIFFERENCES! For far too long, we’ve tried to make all teachers do the same thing, at the same time, and with a purpose to get the same results. But that doesn’t work. When was the last time a teacher taught a subject they didn’t want to, or taught it in a way they didn’t believe in, or were forced to focus on other assignments outside the classroom. These poor teachers are pulled 10 different ways, or more, and people wonder why they aren’t coming up with more fun ways to teach the various kids or why they aren’t able to take time for each student. In addition to teachers losing interest and passing that on to kids, I think that students not being held back for their own responsibility is a HUGE part. If I never had to fix, redo, or start over on something in my job that didn’t go well then why would I try the first time? I’d start to be the teacher that “quit” emotionally and just coasted into retirement. Honestly, if adults think that teachers ought to be held to a standard, forced to re-teach topics for mastery, then why aren’t we holding students to the same concept and forcing them to redo grades if they don’t master them. If I’m not a good teacher, then it doesn’t make sense to promote me to administrative level so I can be the boss to other teachers (because we all know how much teachers listen to admin who’ve only taught for a couple of years or sometimes not at all!)

    It’s common sense that people have gone away with thinking it would work and now are curious why it isn’t working when we have the example in the adult world,…..it won’t work without holding all people to their own accountability.

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