Monthly Archives: June 2012

Student Motivation: What Level of Engagement Are Your Students At?

I’ve worked a lot with schools wanting to motivate students, and we have largely focused on the “how.” In this work, I have named the conditions necessary for students to be motivated (as have others, such as here). My list includes student voice and choice, higher order thinking, inviting schools, learning by doing, and real world connections.

But wouldn’t it also be helpful to think in some productive way about how motivated students are?

Thinking of kids as simply being motivated or not is not all that helpful. In my work, I’ve often asked that students be thought of as “easy to teach” or “hard to teach,” and although this framework is helpful for certain conversations with educators, this isn’t really the same construct as how motivated or engaged students are.

My friends at the Great Schools Partnership have defined engagement in their iWalkThrough tool as the percent of students that are on task during the classroom observation. Again, although perhaps a useful operationalization of “engagement” for a walk through protocol, I’m not sure this is really the same construct as student motivation and engagement…

But I think I have finally found that useful, practical way of thinking about how motivated students are. I recently learned of Phil Schlechty’s five patterns of engagement, described here:

Authentic Engagement. The student associates the task with a result or product that has meaning and value for the student, such as reading a book on a topic of personal interest or to get information needed to solve a problem the student is actively trying to solve.

Ritual Engagement. The task has little inherent or direct value to the student, but the student associates it with outcomes or results that do have value, as when a student reads a book in order to pass a test.

Passive Compliance. The task is done to avoid negative consequences, although the student sees little meaning or value in the tasks themselves.

Retreatism. The student is disengaged from the tasks and does not attempt to comply with the demands of the task, but does not try to disrupt the work or substitute other activities for it.

Rebellion. The student refuses to do the task, tries to disrupt the work, or attempts to substitute other tasks to which he or she is committed in lieu of those assigned by the teacher.

These certainly aren’t the kinds of classifications that a visitor could observe on a walk through, but I believe any teacher could place each of their own students into these categories.

Here are a couple of things I really like about having this framework:

  • It differentiates students’ levels of motivation well beyond “he’s motivated or he’s not.”
  • It provides a framework for educators discussing how motivated their students are.
  • These might even be interpreted as levels and a thoughtful educator mighty work to move students from one level to the next.
  • It helps teachers differentiate their strategies for motivating students (moving them to a “higher” level) based on what category the student falls in.
  • It helps answer the question of why we (educators) might still have work to do, even when students do well on tests or are getting good grades (they could still be in the Ritual Engagement or Passive Compliant categories).

How might this framework enhance and extend your conversations with educators about student motivation?

What’s to Blame for Kids Not Learning?

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know I believe all students can learn. You know I think there are “easy to teach” students and “hard to teach” students, but I think they all can learn. So what is it that gets in the way of students learning?

When I ask teachers that question, they often generate a list like this one:

    • Attitude
    • Lack of home support
    • Learning disability
    • Learning styles
    • Substance abuse
    • Apathy
    • Defiance
    • Low aspirations
    • Lack of sleep
    • Lazy
    • Peer pressure
    • How the teacher teaches
    • Lack of preparation
    • Normal distractions

There is no doubt that home and social factors have an enormous impact on achievement. Many students come to school facing problems that cannot be fixed by anything that teachers might do. We could point to a long list of factors such as psychological problems, emotional problems, poor study habits, low self-esteem, withdrawal, aggression, social isolation, conflicts at home, over-expectations of parents, under-expectations of parents, physical or medical causes, social/class differences and expectations, conflicts with teachers, lack of academic readiness and preparation, learning disabilities, poor home life, unsupportive parents, previous traumatic experience, poverty, and low self-confidence.

When you look at lists like these, it is easy to understand why educators might fall into the trap of blaming others for why some students aren’t learning.

But we need to be careful of blame as this poem (author unknown) points out:

Different Levels of Blaming Each Other for What has Happened…

The college professor who said such wrong in the student is a shame,
Lack of preparation in high school is to blame.
Said the high school teacher good heavens that boy is a fool,
The fault of course is with the middle school.
The middle school teachers said from such stupidity may I be spared,
They sent him up to me so unprepared.
The primary teacher said the kindergarten blockheads all,
They call it preparation, why it’s worse than none at all.
The kindergarten teacher said, such lack of training never did I see,
What kind of mother must that woman be.
The mother said poor helpless child–he’s not to blame,
His father’s folks are all the same.
Said the father at the end of the line,
I doubt the rascal is even mine!

Blaming, however, does not help us address the issue of helping every child learn. I am reminded of the old saying, “Do you want to fix blame, or do you want to fix problems?” Perhaps another familiar saying is appropriate here:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
The strength to change the things I can, and
The wisdom to know the difference.

While it is easy to identify all those factors that contribute to a child not succeeding in school, it is much more important that we identify the ones we do and do not have significant control over. For example, we can’t control if students are sleepy unless we let them sleep in class, and we can’t control anything that happens away of school unless we adopt them (and supervise them closely!). And there is no way to control what has happened to them in the past.

So what can we control? What factors can we change? Where is the opportunity for us to impact learning, especially with students facing lots of challenges?

And the only answer is: What we do in the classroom. Instruction.

Classroom practice, how we teach and how we interact with students, is one of the few factors impacting achievement over which teachers have direct control. A few premises of this blog are that school practice does play a role in both underachievement and achievement, and that changing instruction to better meet the needs of hard to teach students can both help reverse negative achievement patterns and counter-act the negative conditions over which we have no control.

And maybe that’s the best reason for a teacher to focus on engaging students in meaningful learning: to gain a little more control…


What Makes for Good Learning Experiences?

The more we try to to help build the talents of every student and help every learner succeed in school, the more we have to be deliberate about creating good learning experiences in our classrooms. I have certainly added to the conversation about what I believe gives students good learning experiences.

The roots of those ideas are not just my own experiences as a learner and a teacher, and not just conducting research and reviewing research, but from actually asking people about their own good learning experiences. The Good Learning Experiences Activity is one of the ways I have explored different people’s perspectives on how they think they learn well.

“Think of a good learning experience,” the script for the activity begins. “It can be in school, or out of school. It can be when your grandfather taught you how to cast a fly rod, or when your teacher worked with you to write that really good essay. But think of a time when you had an ‘aha!’ or something finally made sense, or you could finally do something. Think of a good learning experience.”

I give small groups of participants a few minutes to share their stories. Next, I ask them to jot down on scratch paper what it was that made it a good learning experience. What were the characteristics of the experience? After a few more minutes to share their lists with their neighbors, we compile a class list on chart paper, an overhead, or on a projected computer.


Before reading on, just take a second to think about a good learning experience of your own, and what it was that made that a good learning experience.


I have conducted the activity with people of nearly every age group: upper elementary students, middle school students, high school students, college students, teachers, and parents. Only a few learners state that they can’t think of any good learning experience. Many of the learners state that their best learning experiences have taken place outside of school. No one has ever said that their best learning experience came from a terrific lecture, or an interesting textbook, or an engaging worksheet (although I believe each of these can be a useful teaching tool when applied wisely).

Having conducted this activity with so many groups, I am intrigued by the results. I was surprised to find that, regardless of the group involved, there were common elements with other groups’ lists. Since 1992, I informally tracked the results and found that certain characteristics of good learning experiences come up in nearly every list:

  • The work was well connected to other ideas and to the real world
  • The content of the learning experience was personally relevant, interesting, useful, or meaningful to the learner
  • The learner had choices, shared authority, control, and responsibility
  • The learning was hands-on and experiential
  • The learner learned from and taught others
  • The learner had the support of a patient, supportive, and nurturing mentor
  • The learning was individualized and although there were standards for the work, the learner could meet them in his or her own way
  • There was a positive aesthetic component to the experience: it was fun or left the learner feeling good
  • The experience helped the learner understand him or herself
  • The learner had success and accomplishment with challenging work

Now, these are my words synthesizing the lists I have collected over the two decades I’ve been doing this activity. Certainly elementary students aren’t going to use these word exactly. But doesn’t this list reflect what made your own good learning experience good?

Much can be learned by investigating how students believe they learn well. What better source for finding out what motivates students to learn than themselves?

But with knowledge comes responsibility. If you know what makes for good learning experiences, don’t you now have an obligation to insure that you model these in our own teaching? – Or at least start learning how to do these in the classroom?


(Note: I have been with educators who have used the prompt “think of a good experience” or “think of a good school experience”, and it never gets to the right information about when people learn well. If you are considering doing this activity with your own students or teachers or parents, I highly recommend that you stick with the prompt “think of a good learning experience.”)


We Had It All Backwards: The Two Types of Instruction

When I told my Curriculum Director, Shelly, about my thinking about there being two types of instruction (Instruction for Lower Level Thinking and Instruction for Higher Order Thinking), she seemed to think the idea made a lot of sense to her, especially in the context of our work around Customized Learning.

She agreed that given how curriculum is organized within Customized Learning, we couldn’t continue to emphasize lower level thinking.

And we got talking about how, since all our middle and high school students had laptops, probably the low level learning, the recall and simple application, was something that students could largely do on their own (with guidance, and coaching).

And then Shelly said, you know, we’ve had it all backwards…

She told me about when she was a high school science teacher, she did a cell unit with students. She used to spend about two weeks of direct instruction to insure that students knew all the parts of a cell. Then she would turn students loose to do an analogy project, where they would write about how a cell and it’s parts were like something else (maybe a football team, or a corporation) and its parts. Students largely worked on this project on their own.

And we reflected on the irony that we (teachers) would spend so much time on something students could probably do on their own (looking up background information). And we did so little direct teaching on something that students probably needed more modeling and assistance with, the higher order thinking.

And we reflected on how teachers should really do a unit, like the cell unit, the other way around. Turn kids loose to learn about the parts of a cell, then do a bunch of instruction and scaffolding on how to make a good analogy (or what ever kind of complex reasoning we’re asking students to apply).

Other places do it that way. Carpe Diem is a 6-12 public school in Arizona that allocates its teaching resources directed at the higher order thinking more than the lower level thinking. Students use online curriculum, supervised by educational technicians, to learn the basics within a unit. Then students spend a large block of time each day, working directly with certified teachers, doing projects and other activities that require higher order thinking (nontrivial application, complex reasoning, and creating) with the content and skills from the unit. Watch this video about Carpe Diem’s approach.


What impact would it have on your students, if we turned them loose to use technology to learn the basic information in a unit, and then we spent quality time with them, both instructing students in how to do complex reasoning, and in applying complex reasoning to the content?

Thinking of Instruction as Two Types

When our pilot teachers were visiting a school that is a little further along than we are at implementing Customized Learning, a colleague and I got talking about how we (us and our colleagues) had a lot of work to do on instruction if we were going to be successful with our implementation.

Then it hit us that a lot of teachers would say they already do a pretty good job with instruction and would object to being told that we had a lot of work to do on it.

And then I realized that both perspectives were right. We just weren’t talking about the same kind of instruction in each instance.

There are two kinds of instruction.

There is Instruction for Lower Order Thinking and Instruction for Higher Order Thinking.

So, it doesn’t matter if you use Bloom’s Taxonomy, New Bloom’s, Marzano’s Taxonomy, or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge, Instruction for Lower Level Thinking is focused on recall and simple application, and Instruction for Higher Order Thinking is focused on nontrivial application, complex reasoning, and creating.

Our teachers are really pretty good at Instruction for Lower Order Thinking. But we have a lot of work to do on Instruction for Higher Order Thinking.

The distinction, thinking of instruction as two types, doesn’t just help clarify our thinking.

This distinction would actually help us in a couple different ways.

We now could say, “You guys are really good at Instruction for Lower Level Thinking. But now, to do Customized Learning well, we need to help you get better at Instruction for Higher Level Thinking.” The message about getting better at instruction would have always been about support, but could have been taken as criticism of their abilities. Now, we can differentiate between validating their abilities, and identifying a need, and offering support to address that need.

And it helps us think about when should teachers apply each type of instruction.

And it will help teachers think about how the two kinds of instruction are different and which strategies support which type.

And it helps us think about leveraging what kinds of interventions to support teachers.

What would thinking of instruction as two types mean to you and the work you are doing in your school?

School is Boring

School is boring.

We all know it.

Kids know it.

Parents know it, but don’t want to think about it.

We teachers know it, too, but defend it. In some small way, I think we don’t want to think that the subject(s) we love could possibly be boring! But we do go on to say things like: It’s preparation for life after school. We all have to do things in life that we don’t want to do. Or, I wish students would start taking responsibility for their own learning. Or, it is the students’ job to learn.

My problem with putting the onus on students is that we are all quick to forget that kids are not in school by choice. They are in school by law. Ironically, it is we, the educators, who are in school by choice. In fact, we are getting paid to help kids learn. In fact, we are the only ones getting paid – if learning were the children’s job, wouldn’t they get paid, too? To me this all shifts the moral responsibility.

And we are quick to forget that kids are kids. And that being a kid when you are a kid is appropriate. It is what you are supposed to be!

And we are the adults.

And we spend WAY too much time trying every possible crazy thing so solve the problem, EXCEPT trying to engage students. It’s enough to make you tired!

I think teachers defend school being boring because we fear we will be blamed.

But I don’t blame teachers.

(Well, if you lecture through an 80 minute block, perhaps you should be blamed…)

Edwards Demming, the father of Total Quality Management, says that 95% of our problems come from structures, not people. And Roger Schank actually makes the argument that it is school being boring that is to blame for kids not learning more, not teachers! In response to Tom Friedman’s blaming teachers, Schank writes:

So one more time for Tom: the problem is that school is boring and irrelevant and all the kids know it. They know they will never need algebra, or trigonometry. They know they will never need to balance chemical equations and they know they won’t need random historical myths promoted by the school system. When all this stuff was mandated in 1892 it was for a different time and a different kind of student.

I’m not denying that it’s hard, or that teachers get frustrated when we are trying what we think we can and not getting any further than we do. Why wouldn’t we feel like we were treading water as fast as we can?! And maybe that even makes it (a little) understandable when we blame kids for not learning.

But, the the solution to ALL this is teachers doing more to engage students.

Not be because it is our fault.

Because it is what we have control over.

And if we want teachers to engage students, then we sure better support the heck out of teachers!

And even though its true, we can’t simply say to teachers, you just have to focus on these five things: inviting schools, higher order thinking, learning by doing, real world connections, and student voice and choice.

We need to get teachers training. And into classrooms with teachers who do a good job engaging students. And we all better remove the barriers that are keeping us from creating the conditions that students find engaging (even if it means changing our curriculum, or how we schedule students, or how we group and regroup students, or how we connect with the community and the potential classrooms outside the building).

And the good news is that when kids aren’t bored, they don’t only learn more (making teachers/us look good), they behave better (making teachers/us happier!).

We need to get beyond the (irrelevant) question of who is to blame, or the (senseless) debate of whether we should or not, and just do it! Just work to engage students!

Engaging students is a win-win! It’s good for kids and it’s good for teachers. Just do it!


How will you help make school less boring?


Positive Pressure & Support Part 3: Support

Schools need effective, practical approaches to helping more students succeed academically.

A focus on student motivation and meaningful, engaged learning, on project- or problem-based learning, on personalized, customized learning, or on technology rich learning environments are all approaches that can help make that happen, but require a paradigm shift for teachers, since few of them have experienced these approaches themselves.

Successfully implementing initiatives that require a paradigm shift for educators requires strong, deliberate leadership for school change. The key pieces of Positive Pressure and Support (setting expectations, supervising for those expectations, and supporting those efforts) are necessary components of that leadership, and is the primary way to drive your initiative to a higher level of implementation.

Teachers will start using more core strategies of your initiative when they know it is expected of them and is being monitored—but they need (and deserve) support in getting there. What follows are some of the support strategies that I’ve found helpful.

Support: Celebrating Successes
Celebrating successes is the place to start. Implementing signficant school change is a long road, so the people working to implement those changes need encouragement and to know they are on the right track. Your expectations may be high, but teachers, like students, need to progress (to some extent) at their own pace and within their own capabilities. Nudging, prodding, and pushing are much more effective when combined with pats on the back and kind words, even if it is just small things being noticed.

For the teachers most resistant to change or the most challenged by the change, celebrating baby steps is especially important. With our own children, we didn’t wait to get excited until they could run. We got excited when they could crawl, then when they could stand, and again when they could put one foot in front of the other, and on and on. We need to celebrate each developmental growth step the staff passes through.

Often the best “celebrations” aren’t time consuming or expensive. As you’re walking down the hall, walk beside the teacher and say, “Your kids were pretty engaged during that lesson. You must have done a great job with that new strategy!” Or stick your head in the door during the teacher’s break and say, “Do you mind taking 5 minutes at our next meeting to tell the staff about that thing I saw you do this week? I think others will want to know how to do that.” Or as you leave a walk through, hand the teacher a 3×5 note card, where you’ve written, “I know you were frustrated with how things went in general, but I think you need to remember that the part where you did X, Y or Z went pretty well.” (Notice how the whole thing doesn’t even have to go well to celebrate the parts that did!)

Celebrating growth, progress, and success gives the message that this is important, that you noticed what they have done, and that they are on the right track. This is the fuel that keeps a staff working on hard work.

Support: Facilitate the Sharing of Ideas
By definition, this is “new” work: new to the teachers, new to the students, new to the leadership team. Sure, this initiative may be similar to others, or share components with those you’ve worked on in the past. But I’ve been defining large-scale school change as often being A change that teachers don’t have much experience putting into action, even if they have read about it, have heard about it, or are familiar with the key ideas.

And I have a friend who likes to say, “Teachers can’t do what they haven’t experienced.” Teaches are more often stumped with implementing an initiative by that lack of knowing what it looks like, feels like, tastes like, that not knowing for sure how to put it into action, than by any intent or determination to block or sabotage (even if blocking and sabotaging are how fear of failure most often surfaces for teachers!).

As the high school in Auburn is working toward implementing Customized Learning, many of our teachers are starting to use a Parking Lot, a kind of poster used to solicit students’ ideas, questions, feedback, and input. One of our teachers recently told us that he doesn’t believe in the Parking Lot because he put one up and students don’t use it. But, if we want teachers to put into practice something they haven’t done before, we owe it to them to help them find ideas on how to put it into action – how to make it work. We know that Parking Lots have been implemented effectively elsewhere. What strategies did those teachers use, and how could we connect our teacher with those strategies?

I wrote quite a bit in the last post about how talking about the initiative in meetings and modeling lessons can help with sharing ideas. Having teachers share in staff meetings and professional development sessions about their challenges and successes with their work in the classroom provides opportunities to get advice from their colleagues and to learn new strategies. So can having teachers visit schools and classrooms where the initiative is already in action (even within your own building or district!). Alternately, have teachers watch videos or read stories of how others implemented similar work – not informational pieces “about” the initiative, but those that actually illustrate “how” the initiative works, those that provide vicarious experiences.

Regardless of how you make it happen, you need to be thinking about where you can help teachers find their new ideas on how to implement the core strategies of your initiative.

Support: Provide Opportunities for Training and Professional Development
Part of support is looking for ways to provide further training and professional development. In fact, PD may be the first thing you think of when you think “support.” I know if you are thinking of a new initiative, you are already thinking about how to get your staff trained.

But you can’t think about this only in terms of initial training. If this is a big initiative, such as Customized Learning, then you need to be thinking about implementing it in phases, that means delivering training in phases, too. In Maine, the training for the first couple phases of implementing Customized Learning is generally “Own The Learning” (awareness), “Classroom Design and Delivery” (creating a culture of voice and choice), and “Instructional Design and Delivery” (working with the curriculum and organizing instruction around it). Not all the staff needs to be trained in the phases at the same time. In fact, staggering the training for staff can mean that folks a phase or two ahead can become resources for the rest of the staff.

But even if an initiative doesn’t lend itself to clearly defined phases, make sure that you are thinking of training in ongoing, not “one shot,” terms. In our kindergarten iPad initiative, we had one training at the end of the school year for teachers new to the initiative to get their iPads, learn how to use it for as a personal tool, and how to start identifying apps that might relate to their teaching. That was followed, late in the summer, with a two-day training helping teachers think more about teaching with the iPads. Then, throughout the year, we took advantage of Early Release Wednesdays, meeting nearly every other week.

Where are there other opportunities to get staff trained? Can you cajole your colleagues in another district for a handful of seats in their training? Is there a workshop or conference coming up in your region that directly addresses a need within your initiative? Do you have staff that you could groom to train others on some aspect of the initiative? Do you have someone you could free up to go into colleagues’ classrooms and coach them?

Your walkthrough data, teacher survey data, and conversations about the initiative at staff meetings should help you focus on the training and support your staff needs most at that moment.

Support: Provide Resources
Do your staff have the resources they need for this initiative? Do they have their own school-issued iPad or laptop? Does the wireless network adequately support as many simultaneous users as you are likely to have? Are there apps or programs your teachers need? Can teachers get to the websites they need to get to? Is there a book that will will help them design their lessons? Are there materials teachers need to execute those lessons? Do teachers have access to the expertise (perhaps in the form of books or of people) to put their learning activities into action? Do they have a reasonable number of the texts or equipment they need?

I was once involved with a non-traditional school in a mid-sized city. The school was trying to be a project-based career academy for students who were over-aged, but under-credentialed. We had a pretty effective and engaging online literacy program for students who were struggling because of their literacy ability. But the district Director of Curriculum (who also used to be a literacy specialist) insisted that we only use the district-approved literacy program (you know, the one that hadn’t worked for these students yet…). But we said ok, and she promised to send us the materials.

What showed up were the left over materials from the other schools in the district. Not only were there not enough of any item for there to be a class set (and we had 12 classes), there wasn’t even at least a single copy of each key set of materials in the program!

If you want your teachers to put your initiative into action, then make sure they have all (reasonable) materials they may need to do so.

Support: Remove Barriers and Run Interference
Doing something new is hard enough. But it is almost impossible if you see barriers around you, or you are left exposed to criticism. One of the most important ways you can support your staff is also something that they may never know that you do: removing barriers and running interference. Teachers making a good faith effort to implement your initiative deserve support in getting obstacles out of their way.

Many of the typical barriers you’ll remove simply by following the other suggestions in this post. Does a teacher not know how to implement a component of your initiative? Connect them with training or other teachers who can share their ideas on how to do it. Is not having certain resources or materials interfering with the teacher increasing their level of implementation? Find a way to get them the resources they need.

Time may be the largest perceived barrier for teachers. Find ways to create protected, designated time for planning and collaboration. Even if you have the protected time, sometimes teachers have so much going on that the time is used for other things, or to vent (perhaps not even about the initiative). Working to have those planning and collaboration times, and creating an agenda for each meeting to guide the work can remove that barrier.

Another type of barrier is the unhappy parent or colleague member. Such complaints are often based on a little truth, but often with a lot of missing information. As a leader, you have an opportunity to protect your staff from attacks and distractions. You can deal directly with the unhappy person and take the heat, then bring the legitimate pieces of the concern to the staff member in a much more calm, safe, supportive way.

Another way you help run interference for your teachers is by encouraging everyone (especially yourself) to “seek first to understand” (one of Stephen Covey’s habits of highly successful people). What is the full story of the thing the person is upset about? Students don’t like the way the teacher is teaching? What exactly is the teacher trying? What parts does the teacher think are going well and not so well? What does the teacher see as his next steps? It may be perfectly appropriate to respond to the parent or colleague, “Well, that teacher is working hard to implement the initiative beyond where he has been trained. He’s aware of the challenges he is having and has already asked for help in addressing those challenges.” And frankly, we need teachers who are willing to take those kinds of risks and blaze a trail of the rest of the staff.

My mantra is that if we want teachers to learn how to do things they haven’t experienced before, then we better be ready to support the heck out of them. If you want to drive your school initiative to a high level of implementation, help your teachers help you get there. How you get your teachers the training and ideas they need, work to remove barriers for staff doing this work, run interference as they make good faith attempts to implement new ideas, and how you connect staff to resources will also leave your teachers feeling supported as they work to meet higher expectations.

How do you plan to support your teachers as they strive to implement your large-scale school change?