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Students of Our Students’ Hearts

By Dave Stuart Jr.

The key to life change is not the acts of the will but the loves of the heart.

St. Augustine

Teaching toward the long-term flourishing of our students means that, in many cases, we desire that the lives of our students will change. We hold both a high view of the impact we can have — even obstacles like hard home lives aren't impenetrable — and a real sense of our lack of omnipotence. This internal balance is one of the key inside jobs of teaching; humble-boldness is inseparable from lasting greatness in education, be it in a classroom or as a leader.

Over this most recent school year, one of my chief takeaways from reading, teaching, and writing is that the life change we desire for our students is an inside-out thing. In short, we must help our students to believe five key things. I say it again and again, and I intend to keep doing so for as many years as I'm able.

In the St. Augustine line that starts this article, we see the timelessness of a beliefs-based approach to student motivation. Writing in the 4th century CE as a theologian, Augustine knew what social-psychological researchers are proving empirically now: that when a student values school, or a given assignment, or a given subject, that student is far more likely to do the work and do it with care. (For an example of how value predicts achievement, see this study in Science.)

I think that not understanding the mechanics at the root of our students' hearts is a key cause of our great confusion in education. Every day, it seems, there's some new fad to take hold of, some new initiative, some new “blow up everything we've always done” approach to promoting the long-term good of our students. But what happens to our professional teaching force when everyone is chasing after their own preferred Next New Thing?

I think that what happens is that it shrinks and shrivels. Fewer and fewer people see teaching as a lifelong pursuit; more and more have a “short-term missions trip” mentality — I'm going to go and help the kids for a bit, and then I'll enter my career. Woe to us, I say, when the hardhats-and-work-boots work of promoting the long-term good of our nation's young becomes an extended service project.

So rather than constantly chasing after the next fad, I would argue that we need to become deep and earnest students of how our students' hearts — and our own hearts — work. We need to think about things like motivation at a level deeper than “intrinsic” or “extrinsic.” We need to study beliefs about schooling and learning: how these beliefs form, how they can be molded. Such study breaks us out of comfortably thinking, “Well, that kid is just one of those kids who doesn't care about school — nothing I can do,” or, “He's one of those students who only cares about grades — it just is what it is.”

And I would dare say that this kind of study makes us wiser, deeper people — people who can much more quickly say, “My, what a fascinating puzzle,” when they're up against a motivational problem.

Note from Dave: Registration for the summer session of the Student Motivation Course opened up today. It will remain open until the 350 seats are filled or June 8 arrives — whichever comes first. I hope to learn with you this summer. For information on how to ask for administrative financial support in taking the SMC, click here. To register yourself, click here.

One Response to Students of Our Students’ Hearts

  1. jnolds May 16, 2018 at 8:52 am #

    Dave, this is some timely encouragement and admonishment. So much of our school discussions about motivation get stuck in the extremes of outside solutions (new programs, new technology, new positions, etc.) and overly-individualized solutions (seeing everyone as so unique and different that it’s impossibly fragmented). Your focus on the heart provides a much needed balance for exploring our common humanity in tandem with our unique differences and experiences. I really need to hear this in the final weeks of school, and I need to remember it all year long.

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