Last time, I wrote that people are more than brains on sticks and schools are uniquely tasked with helping students to build their minds. I ended by saying that the path to the mind's optimal development is the heart. Today, I'm going to get into explaining that.
All right — so the path to the head is the heart. This doesn't mean we ignore the head — heck no, that's the spot we're uniquely responsible for! — it just means that we've gotta master the heart, too.
But… why? We need to get clearer on that.
So let's get into it.
The two ingredients in mastering anything
In order for a person to get better at something — say, writing a report in biology or playing a note on the flute — two conditions must be met.
The person must:
- Do work , and
- Do it with care.
Up to this point, schools have mostly concerned themselves with the first part: getting students to do work. All kinds of systems and methods have been developed for getting students to do work. The most popular mixtures for achieving the doing of work amount to carrot-stick combos.
- Carrots incentivize the doing of work. Get on the honor roll. Become valedictorian. Get into a good college. Get scholarships.
- Sticks create consequences for the not doing of work. Get mandatory study hall. Get a phone call home. Miss getting in to college. Miss a scholarship. Get placed on an academic probation from the team.
Both of these rely on a simple principle about people: it's possible, through punishment or reward, to coerce behavior.
But here's the thing: you can't coerce care.
A person who does a thing — even does it well — is not necessarily a person who cares about what they've done. Instead, they can be a person who is driven by their care for the carrots or the sticks.
Just so I don't give the wrong impression, I don't think this necessitates getting rid of all consequences and all incentives. In my observation, a teacher in any kind of system can cultivate care in their classroom. But what I do believe very strongly is that when we rely on carrot/stick combos to get students to do work, we shouldn't be surprise to see middling returns on the hard work we do in our classroom.
Why? Because it's pretty impossible to arrive at mastery without care.
What's care to do with mastery?
In all the literature on expertise (mastery), there's a word you'll see more than any other: deliberate practice. The late K. Anders Ericsson spent his career studying the development of expertise, but his breakthrough discovery came in the first couple years of his work. In one of his earliest studies, Ericsson found that, through a certain kind of practice over the course of two years, a guy that he was working with went from being able to memorize 8 random digits read aloud to memorizing 82. Eighty. Two. 
This shattered records from previous studies.
Then Ericsson started looking at other fields where records were being or had been shattered, and he began noticing a pattern: these new levels of mastery were the fruit of a certain kind of work.
He called this work deliberate practice, and by now it's a term many of us educators have heard of.
- Identify a specific sub-skill that incrementally challenges you.
- Practice that skill with full effort.
- Seek feedback on what you could do better. 
Now — that's pretty involved. If it feels like pressure, keep reading — it's not to me. In my own classroom practice, I don't think about deliberate practice extensively, nor have I spent much time teaching it explicitly to my students. Perhaps I should.
What I've chosen instead is to spend my energies on the more fundamental problem of how in the world to get a classroom of students to care enough about the work of learning to be willing to identify sub-skills, put forth full effort, and seek feedback for improvement.
In other words, beneath deliberate practice — beneath the kind of work that optimally advances mastery — is care, is the enlisted will. Care is to mastery potential energy in the classroom as the sun is to potential energy on the earth.
So what's at the root of care? How do we unlock it?
A quick connection, a quick clarification, and then I'll answer those questions there in the heading.
Connection: I've written often in the past about motivation. When I do that, what I'm talking about is care. And please note: motivation isn't the same thing as engagement.
A quick and useful clarification: motivation v. engagement, and why I view motivation as the superior target
This deserves a mini-detour because for years now engagement has been all the rage in education. Let's define:
- Engagement: the during-task state in which a human being becomes fully immersed in the task; it sounds like, “I'm not even totally aware that I'm doing this; I'm caught up in it.”
- Motivation: the genuine desire in a person to do a given thing with care; it sounds like, “I'm doing this because I want to; I'm working hard and smart because I care.”
So engagement is something that can get you through a task, but motivation is something that gets you to a task. And, when engagement wanes, motivation is what can get you back to it. And when engagement isn't there, motivation can get you through it.
In other words, engagement is a worthy object of study for a teacher, but it's not as resilient as motivation. It's a Thoroughbred racehorse — fast and sexy, but fragile and with limited use cases. Motivation is a Clydesdale — steady, powerful, reliable.
I'm not saying ignore engagement; I'm just saying know where it fits so that you can prioritize your efforts accordingly. 
A beliefs-based methodology for motivation in the classroom (Or what's at the root of care?)
As an educator, you've definitely heard about intrinsic motivation. Usually, what we mean by this is a summary of Ryan and Deci's Self-Determination Theory. (You may remember Dan Pink's 2009 book Drive, which was basically a popularization of Deci and Ryan. Pink summarized motivation into AMP – autonomy, mastery, purpose.)
Here's why I bring up this common idea of intrinsic motivation: as a classroom teacher, I don't primarily think of motivation like that. Self-Determination Theory is useful, it's just not nearly as useful to my classroom practice as the five key beliefs.
Five key beliefs? Yes. What I see all across the literature, both within and outside of education and what cries out to me in every one of my classrooms is this: at the root of care is belief. 
Belief fuels care-driven behavior. And it's not just any kind of belief. It's five in particular.
|You'll often see these things written about as mindsets. I don't like that term because it muddies up the distinct difference that I see between the mind and the will. For more on this, see my last article. Even the researchers seem to struggle with this distinction; when they define the term “mindset,” they almost always use the word “belief.”|
These five key beliefs are at the root of student motivation. They explain why markedly different-looking classrooms can have such similar motivational dynamics. What I mean is, let's say you were to find me a dozen classrooms sprinkled throughout the world. In each of these classrooms, students do work with care and are growing in mastery — but that's all they have in common. Otherwise, they're completely different — different pedagogies, different physical spaces, different subjects, different student ability levels. Sounds a bit chaotic, right? But at the root of all of these places you'll see the same thing again and again: thousands of contextual signals pointing student hearts toward the five key beliefs.
When the heart is all set, the mind is primed for development. And understanding the five key beliefs can help you get the heart set in all kinds of settings. The five key beliefs are our path to the head.
A last note: on the tension between theory and practice
It's common for teachers to complain about the gap between theory and practice. “That training was worthless; it was all theory.”
I really do get that. I experience it, regularly. But what I hope you're seeing so far in this series is that theory done well is enormously helpful because theory done well explains. When we have robust explanatory tools for understanding what we see in a classroom, we have a grid from which to
- analyze problems and
- act on solutions.
That's what the five key beliefs methodology does — at least for me and the several hundred folks around the world who have gotten quite good at it through practice and study.
But with that said, a good practitioner's theory must also be laden with practical implications. These should come both directly from the theory-supporting research and indirectly through extrapolation. The examination of these practical implications is what I do in the Student Motivation Course, in my in-person speaking engagements, and in chapter 2 of These 6 Things. But in the weeks to come, I'll also be making more of that examination public here on the blog. So stay tuned and be sure you're subscribed to the newsletter.
Now, let's close with a reminder.
What you and I are after are classrooms in which every. person. there. is invested in the pursuit of mastery — not just the teacher, everyone. And what I'm saying is that the way to do that isn't first through fixating on grades or assessments or anything else. First and foremost, it's about having a methodology for understanding the heart and enlisting the will.
That's the five key beliefs.
More next time.
 Now, it obviously needs to be the right work. Good practice is the only thing that leads to mastery — bad practice won't do it. But let's set that idea off to the side for now. We're after something even more fundamental than that.
 He tells this story in the first pages of Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.
 Courtesy of Character Lab's explainer page on the concept.
 There are several problems that come from emphasizing engagement over motivation.
The biggest problem for me is that for engagement to be optimized it must be hyper-individualized, the best examples of which would be one's social media feed. I think that we're far enough along in the social media experiment to see that optimized engagement via hyper-individualization may not yield the fruits of long-term flourishing that you and I are after.
A secondary, related problem is that I have little hope of competing with the algorithmically optimized, infinite-newness machine that we call the Internet. So not only do I not want to prioritize engagement above all else, I also know that I can't win in that arena if I try. I gain power from not trying, and I reinvest that power into cultivating motivation in my classroom.
 What's belief? It's knowledge held in the will; an effortless confidence in a thing; a certainty, a trust; a readiness to act as if something were true (that's Dallas Willard). It's largely invisible — to us and to others. We assume from our beliefs. They are more evident by our actions than by our thoughts. They exist on a spectrum.