Author Archives: Mike Muir

About Mike Muir

I'm an educator interested in collaborating with other educators on engaging all learners, proficiency-based learning, technology's role in learning, and leadership for school change.

Focus on 6 High-Impact Motivation Strategies

Teachers struggle to reach seemingly unmotivated students. It is true that the degree to which students are “self motivated” is a key factor of student academic success, and it is probably true that we cannot actually motivate students. This is the old idea that we can lead a horse to water, but we cannot make him drink.

The idea falls flat, however, when it is accompanied with the assumption that there is nothing teachers can do to help students be more self-motivated. This is compounded by the fact that teachers too often try low-impact or no-impact motivation strategies thinking they will help (probably because they are used so often and seem to have legitimacy, even if they don’t work well). These low-impact/no-impact motivators include grades, detentions for not doing homework, bribery rewards, showing enthusiasm, being nice to students, or statements like “you’re going to need this in high school (or college, or work, etc),” or “it’s going to be on the state test.” 

The good news is that there are, in fact, at least 6 high-impact strategies for creating the conditions for student to be self motivated. This is the idea that we may not be able to make a horse drink, but we can certainly salt his oats.

6 High-Impact Motivation StrategiesOne approach to creating the conditions for student self motivation are the 6 Meaningful Engaged Learning Focus Strategies which grew out of me dissertation so long ago. Schools working to improve student motivation, engagement, and achievement concentrate on balancing six focus areas:

  • Inviting Schools
  • Learning by Doing
  • Higher Order Thinking
  • Student Voice & Choice
  • Real World Connections
  • Continuous Improvement

Here’s a brief overview of each strategy.

Inviting Schools: Sometimes, it may seem like this one has little to do with academics or engaging students in learning, but positive relationships and a warm, inviting school climate are perhaps the single most important element to implement if you are working to reach hard to teach students. I have heard over and over again from the students I have worked with that they won’t learn from a teacher who doesn’t like them (and it doesn’t take much for a student to think the teacher doesn’t like her!). It’s important for everyone in the school to think about how to connect with students and how to create a positive climate and an emotionally and physically safe environment. Adult enthusiasm and humor go a long way, and teachers are well served to remember that one “ah-shucks!” often wipes out a thousand “at-a-boys!”

Learning by Doing: When you realize that people learn naturally from the life they experience every day, it won’t surprise you that the brain is set up to learn better through real experiences, in other words, active, hands-on endeavors. Many students request less bookwork and more hands-on activities. The students I studied were more willing to do bookwork if there was a project or activity as part of the lesson. Building models and displays, field trips and fieldwork, hands-on experiments, and craft activities are all strategies that help students learn.

Higher Order Thinking: It may seem counterintuitive, but focusing on memorizing facts actually makes it hard for students to recall the information later. That’s because the brain isn’t accustomed to learning facts out of context. Higher order thinking (e.g. applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating, within the New Bloom’s Taxonomy) requires that learners make connections between new concepts, skills, and knowledge and previous concepts, skills, and knowledge. These connections are critical for building deep understanding and for facilitating recall and transfer, especially to new contexts. Remembering things is important and a significant goal of education, but remembering is the product of higher order thinking, not the other way around. Involving students in comparing and contrasting, drama, and using metaphors and examples are strategies to move quickly into higher order thinking.

Student Voice & Choice: Few people like being told what to do, but in reality, we all have things we have to do that may not be interesting to us or that we would not choose to do on our own. Nowhere is this truer than for children in school. So, how can we entice people to do these things? We often resort to rewards or punishments when we don’t know what else to do, but other blog posts discuss just how counterproductive and highly ineffective they are. Instead, provide students voice and choice. Let them decide how they will do those things. This doesn’t mean allowing students to do whatever they want, but it means giving them choices Let students design learning activities, select resources, plan approaches to units, provide feedback about how the course is going, and make decisions about their learning.

Continuous Improvement: Continuous Improvement takes skilled guidance, direction, and coaching from thoughtful teachers, who will place emphasis on assessing frequently, providing timely formative feedback, coaching, motivating and nudging, and monitoring of progress. Learners need to know what they are aiming at (clear picture of the learning target), and to see fairly immediately how they did with meeting the target. They can gather the feedback themselves, or a guide or coach can provide the feedback (or both). But that feedback needs to be as immediate as possible, and needs to be detailed enough to lead to improved performance. Learners need the opportunity to make corrections on their next turn (and, therefore, need opportunities for next turns!), and the next turn needs to be soon after the current turn. This isn’t about letting students just try and try and try until they get it. To focus on “re-do’s” is to focus on the wrong part. It is about strategically leveraging the clear target and the detailed feedback to improve performance.

Real World Connections: This focus area is often a missing motivator for students. Schools have long had the bad habit of teaching content out of context. Unfortunately, this approach produces isolated islands of learning, and often makes it easy to recall information learned only when they are in that particular classroom, at that time of day; they are not as able to apply the information in day-to-day life. When learning is done in context, people can much more easily recall and apply knowledge in new situations (transfer). Making real world connections isn’t telling students how the content they are studying is used in the “outside world.” It’s about students using the knowledge in the authentic ways people use the knowledge outside of school. Effective strategies include finding community connections, giving students real work to do, and finding authentic audiences for work (think project-based, problem-based, and challenge-based learning).

These six focus areas aren’t new material; they are a synthesis of what we’ve known about good learning for a long time. The model is comprehensive, developed from education research, learning theories, teaching craft, and the voices of underachieving students.

But it is important to keep in mind that students need some critical mass of these strategies to be motivated. Teachers sometimes get discouraged when they introduce a single strategy and it doesn’t seem to impact their students’ motivation. The trick then isn’t to give up, but rather to introduce more of the strategies.

 

Working With A Diverse Staff: The Complete Series

This series is for school leaders working on implementing large-scale, learning-focused school change.

Your success depends not just on your technical knowledge about the initiative, but also how well you understand the three kinds of staff in your school (Yahoos, Yes Buts, and NFWs) and how their support needs differ.

The Yahoos are those folks who are always excited about new and interesting practices, programs and resources and were anxious to try them out in their own classroom.

The Yes Buts seem hesitant and skeptical of the initiatives with their questions of “but what about this and what about that?”

The NFWs are the folks who look a little like Yes Buts with their questions of “but what about this and what about that?” but who are really saying to themselves and their fellow NFWs, “No freaking way am I doing this!”

Another Adventure; Same Mission

I have a new job. Well, I have a new employer.

I recently joined GEAR UP Maine. GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) is that federal grant program  that increases the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.

The traditional approach to GEAR UP programs provide academic supports so students are both academically ready for college and can graduate on time. It provides opportunities to parents and students, such as tutoring, campus visits, and financial aid workshops, to help them view college and post-secondary education as a real possibility.

Maine is going further by leveraging several Multiple Pathway pilot programs of school-design, shared leadership training, and supports for proficiency-based education.

My position is Proficiency-based Education Specialist. I’m working to support our over-tasked, under-resourced schools with frameworks, tools, and supports right-sized for their context. In addition, we’ve identified a couple promising practices we’re helping some of our schools implementing: experiential math, and student micro-credentials to certify learning outside the classroom.

I have joked for a while now that for the last 20 years I’ve really only had one job: helping schools figure out how to reach disengaged learners, students in poverty, and youth from rural, isolated areas. I just keep changing who pays me!

Well, this change to GEAR UP Maine certainly fits the bill!

How to Best Support NFWs

This post is part of a series for school leaders working on implementing large-scale, learning-focused school change. The NFWs are the folks who look a little like Yes Buts with their questions of “but what about this and what about that?” but who are really saying to themselves and their fellow NFWs, “No freaking way am I doing this!”

This post focuses on how to best support NFWs.

The best way to support NFWs is to begin by acknowledging who they are and how they are likely to respond to the initiative. Ironically, acknowledging that you will likely have little control over the NFWs in relation to the initiative is very freeing. Frustration is when reality doesn’t match expectations. But when you know what to expect from NFWs, you can let go of the frustration, making it much easier to be patient with them. Simply let them be who they are, and take pride in the effort and energy you are putting into the Yes Buts.

Respond to NFWs inquiries (patiently) with the same legitimate answers that you’d give Yes Buts, and don’t react when they throw  up the next question. Offer them all the same resources and professional learning opportunities (that are within reason and are practical) that you would the Yes Buts.  But don’t get too hung up on responding to their every request and concern. Be polite, be patient, but don’t engage or get drawn into a debate.

Don’t put any more than 10% of your energy and effort into NFWs. They are not the ones who will help you move the needle. Sometimes NFWs will eventually come along, but generally only after they realize “the train has left the station.” That only happens when enough of the Yes Buts have changed their practice to have really moved the needle for the school.

What We Misunderstand about NFWs

This post is part of a series for school leaders working on implementing large-scale, learning-focused school change. The NFWs are the folks who look a little like Yes Buts with their questions of “but what about this and what about that?” but who are really saying to themselves and their fellow NFWs, “No freaking way am I doing this!”

This post focuses on how we misunderstand NFWs.

 

Sometimes, when we are new to school change work, or when we are new to working with a particular staff, we will misidentify an NFW as being a Yes But. That is because they raise the same kind of objections. But we must remember that NFWs have a different objective. The Yes Buts honestly want to know about the objection and can be appeased when they receive a response they view as legitimate.

On the other hand, with the NFWs, if you address their concern, they will quickly respond, “Well, maybe. But what about this?” and throw up another objection. Their motivation in asking is not the same as Yes Buts. The NFWs’ objective is to avoid doing something they don’t want to do. Generally, they are not really concerned about the question they asked, they just think maybe it will be the “legitimate” thing that will get you to say, “Well, I guess we shouldn’t do it then…”

Don’t worry. You will quickly start to tell the Yes But questioners from the NFW questioners.

The much larger problem than misidentifying NFWs is that we think we can or should change their minds about the work.

I have worked with wonderful, caring Learning Coaches and Technology Integrators who so believed in the work what they ended up putting most of their time and energy into trying to get the NFWs to do a better job with the initiative. The problem of course, is that they forgot that, by definition, these educators were going to do everything in their power NOT to implement the initiative in anything other than some superficial “check list” approach. The travesty, of course, is that all that high quality time and energy from the Coaches and Integrators went into a black hole, instead of working with the Yes Buts, where it would have made a difference.

 

Next in the series: How to best support NFWs.

How to Best Support Yes Buts

This post is part of a series for school leaders working on implementing large-scale, learning-focused school change. Your success depends not just on your technical knowledge about the initiative, but also how well you understand the three kinds of staff in your school (Yahoos, Yes Buts, and NFWs) and how their support needs differ.

The Yes Buts seem hesitant and skeptical of the initiatives with their questions of “but what about this and what about that?”

This post focuses on how to best support the Yes Buts.

As described in the previous post, Yes Buts will work with you when they feel supported.

And that support is critical. We cannot assume that they know how to do the work of the initiative nor that they are willing to put a lot of their own time and energy into inventing new strategies. They need good examples.  They need good “how-to” instruction. And they need support trying it out in their classroom and getting to a practical and reasonable level of implementation.

Where Yahoos have little legitimacy with Yes Buts, other Yes Buts have a lot of legitimacy with their peers.  As much as possible, we must share Yes But strategies and Yes But examples of success. You can share Yahoo examples, but you better just share them as good examples/strategies, but mask the fact that it came from a Yahoo, or the idea will loose legitimacy.

When Yes Buts have their anxieties authentically addressed, and they feel supported, they sometimes get to the level of implementation in an initiative where they see positive results of the effort (e.g., better student results, better student attitude, the new way is easier than the old way, the new way gets better outcomes than the old way), and they become a Convert!

A Convert is a powerful tool for moving your school initiative forward. They have the enthusiasm that a Yahoo brings, but with all the legitimacy of being a Yes But. Treat your Converts well and use them liberally to help move the other Yes Buts deeper into the initiative.

You should be putting about 70-80% of your energy into supporting the Yes Buts.  This is the group where you will get real results and have a chance of actually seeing the needle move. But, conversely, not putting enough support, or the right kind of support, into your Yes Buts will stall your initiative.

 

Next in the series: How we misunderstand NFWs.

What We Misunderstand about Yes Buts

This post is part of a series for school leaders working on implementing large-scale, learning-focused school change. Your success depends not just on your technical knowledge about the initiative, but also how well you understand the three kinds of staff in your school (Yahoos, Yes Buts, and NFWs) and how their support needs differ.

The Yes Buts seem hesitant and skeptical of the initiatives with their questions of “but what about this and what about that?”

This post focuses on how we misunderstand Yes Buts.

The biggest thing we misunderstand about the Yes Buts on our staff is that we think they are trying to block the initiative with their “Yes, but…” questions. In truth, the Yes Buts’ objective is to get their concerns addressed.

Pay attention to what they are asking. They may be hesitant or skeptical, but their questions represent their real concerns and worries about aspects of the initiative.

When you offer a response they view as authentic and credible, Yes Buts will view it as a satisfactory response. And if you satisfactorily address their concerns, they will often say, “Oh. Ok,” and work with you.

There will often be additional yes-but questions, but you need to assume Yes Buts are legitimately anxious or troubled by the issue and will similarly move forward when they receive a credible response.

In fact, Yes Buts are used to either having their questions and concerns blown off or getting lame answers. Your providing responses that they view as legitimate, authentic, practical, and doable will gain you enormous credibility with them and their willingness to try. Having those kinds of answers to Yes But questions is a critical component to moving your initiative forward, and not paying enough attention to them or not taking the questions seriously can be a major reason an initiative doesn’t move forward.

Further, most of their questions are practical in nature, focused on how to make the initiative not just be a good idea, but something that actually works.  Be prepared to go find answers to Yes But questions from others who are having success implementing the same kind of initiative.

The other thing we misunderstand about Yes Buts is their attitude. Just because we respond to their concerns does not mean that they will become enthusiastic or even happy about the work. We cannot assume that their lack of enthusiasm means that they will be difficult to work with  or block the work. Remember – they are skeptical. They are probably worried about failing or the initiative not working as promised. And they are probably tired of the Educational Flavor of the Month, requiring them to put time and energy into learning new things only to have the Flavor replaced by another. No wonder they don’t seem happy about it!

Remember, the Yes Buts are the heart and soul of the school.  They may not be the innovators nor demonstrate the enthusiasm and open curiosity of the Yahoos, but the Yes Buts are largely solid, capable, competent educators who establish the culture of the school. The Yes Buts will make or break your initiative, and should be treated accordingly.

If we have addressed their concerns, and if they feel supported, Yes Buts will work with us. They will put in the time and effort, even if they aren’t convinced yet that it will work. And we should be happy with their willingness and not get hung up on how convinced, happy, or enthusiastic they are or are not.

 

Next in the series: How to best support Yes Buts.