Category Archives: Motivation

Motivation

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?

 

What If Sitting In Class Were As Much Fun As Days Off!

I participate in conversations on the Association for Middle Level Education’s MiddleTalk listserve. Recently, we’ve had a series of interesting conversations around each of the 9 points in the Forbes article, “Nine Dangerous Things You Were Taught In School.”

Number 8 is “Days off are more fun than sitting in class.”

I caught myself thinking this one might be true…

Most of you reading this know, my own professional work has focused, for a long time, on motivating students. I constantly wonder how many of our problems would we solved if we just put more energy into how to engage students and how to make learning meaningful to them: attendance; behavior; being on task; distractions like technology and social media; achievement; and on and on.

Now in all fairness, I don’t blame teachers for this lack of focus on engagement and student motivation. I think few of us grew up in schools focused on motivation and engagement, and few of us went through teacher preparation programs that emphasized (let alone modeled!) a focus on engagement and motivation. And you can’t do what you don’t know.

Young children engaged with an iPad

That said, I do think now is the time to start building that focus. It seems clear, when I think about the the challenges schools face, like the day-to-day issues listed above. And it seems clear as competition for students is increasing (public schools, private schools, charter schools, online schools, political pressure for school choice, etc.). And it seems clear as I think about the shift from Industrial Age education, with its focus on developing the talents of the few and the compliance of the many, to Information Age education, with its need to develop the talents in all.

But, if we’re going to ask teachers to do what they have not experienced, then we need to support the heck out of them. And not with information. Information doesn’t change practice, teachers need experiences! Send them to schools and classrooms that are doing a great job of motivating students. And share stories and videos of such classrooms. Structure workshops and courses and committee meetings (any school function focused on the adults needing to learn) so that they model the conditions that motivate learners.

And then, maybe, if we do focus on engagement and motivation, being in class would be more fun than a day off…

 

Mexican Food Schools

I remember being in high school, and frustrated with school, and thinking, “I can do this better than it’s being done to me!”

I think that thought alone is the main reason I became a teacher.

But it is also the reason I worked on what I called “the Making Algebra Meaningful Project” (Surprisingly not an oxymoron! But it took me a long time to come to that conclusion…). And it was why I started looking at teaching and learning with technology, became a technology integrator, and later a partner in the first statewide learning with laptop initiative. And it was why I did my graduate research on motivating underachievers.

Keep in mind that when I started teaching, I didn’t really know how to teach any way other than “how it was done to me,” but it was my motivation to explore how to reach more learners.

An innovative educational program

For about five years, I had the opportunity to work with a great group that focused on creating schools designed to motivate students (well, still focuses, I just work in Auburn now). Among other projects, we helped the School District of Philadelphia write and support a Magnet School grant, and we created a successful nontraditional school that combines online curriculum with project-based learning and graduated students at a high rate. And they helped me create Projects4ME, the statewide virtual project-based program for at-risk and dropout youth in Maine, that got me connected to Auburn in the first place.

We were/are big believers in multiple pathways to graduation, and that educators will only be successful raising graduation rates and decreasing dropout rates when districts offer students several different approaches to learning, so they can choose the one that works for them.

When we would talk to a superintendent about creating a school for them, we liked to say, “No one really cares if you like Chinese food and I like Mexican food and we go to different restaurants. But we tend to only have Chinese food schools and say there is something wrong with me for being a Mexican food learner.”

We were trying to make those Mexican food schools.

Now I’m in Auburn, where we’re working hard not just to make Mexican food schools for students, but Mexican food programs inside of schools, and lots of other “flavors,” as well.

What are you doing to make sure your students’ diverse tastes in how they learn well are being addressed?

 

It’s a Matter of Using the Right Prompt: The Words of Gary Stager

This week, both Gary Stager and I were featured speakers at the Association for Independent Maryland and DC Schools’ (AIMS) technology conference.

Gary is an old friend and colleague, who has a long history of working with 1to1 learning with laptop schools (including the very first, in Australia) and with other schools interested in leveraging technology for learning and in constructivist learning. He clearly loves children and everything he advocates for schools is based on creating better experiences (especially learning experiences) for children. He is provocative and takes on a lot of populist education ideas with a very common sense approach. He always leaves his audience thinking.

What follows are some of the ideas and quotes Gary shared in his sessions at the AIMS conference.

  • The secret to engaging students is using the right prompts. A good prompt is worth a 1000 words – a good prompt, challenge, problem, or motivation; appropriate materials; sufficient time; supportive culture (including expertise) – kids can do works that is beyond them. Good prompts require a really different educational environment, one that values the kinds of things that Reggio Amelia values.
  • Gary has several articles on effective PBL on his “virtual handout.” (among other great resources)
  • We have to think less about teaching how to do computers, or about working at someone else’s pace. We need to stop teaching secretarial skills. We need good prompts. We need to teach students to use the computer to create what they want to create.
  • Alan Kay – the computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.
  • Gary’s only rule when he is working with students – you have to be doing something.
  • Teacher as “Ringmaster”
  • “Students will do it for themselves, when it matters to them, but not when it is arbitrary or coercive” – Gary Stager
  • Less us, more them
  • Gary likes it when schools/classrooms focus their work with children by asking the question, “What are the 5 big ideas of your grade level or course?”
  • Some of Gary’s recipe for being successful with students: Being sensitive to the passions, talents, and styles of kids. Being receptive to the learning differences of kids. If you are doing active learning activities, then you can get to know kids.
  • The best decisions about education are made closest to the child.
  • What if we simply reduced it all to waking up every morning and asking, “How do we make this the best 7 hours possible for these children?”
  • The biggest problem we have in school is we don’t get to know the kids and everything is taught disconnected from everything else. That’s followed by not trying to make things interesting for students, not finding out what is of interest or a passion to the students, not having resources, not letting students do things.
  • Gary on why teachers need lots of PD that puts them in different learning environments as learners: People can’t choose from what they haven’t experienced

Are Parents Leaving Their Good Kids at Home? Easy to Teach and Hard to Teach

I’ve worked with teachers, who refer to their students as “quick learners” and “slow learners,” or “bright students” and “dumb students.” Other teachers approach me sounding as if they believe that kids either have motivation or they don’t, and that teachers can’t do anything about that. And some teachers act as if parents are keeping their good kids at home!

But this isn’t the right way to think about our underachieving students. It certainly isn’t borne out by research. In Insult to Intelligence, Frank Smith (1986, p. 18) explains:

We underrate our brains and our intelligence. Formal education has become such a complicated, self-conscious and over-regulated activity that learning is widely regarded as something difficult that the brain would rather not do…. But reluctance to learn cannot be attributed to the brain. Learning is the brain’s primary function, its constant concern, and we become restless and frustrated if there is no learning to be done. We’re all capable of huge and unsuspected learning accomplishments without effort.

And these students are certainly intelligent (in fact, sometimes you wish they weren’t so darned clever!).

It is important to remember that when we say a student won’t learn, what we really mean is that he won’t learn what we want him to!

All students learn well when they are learning what they are interested in or see as valuable – even if that only seems to happen outside of school. The challenge, of course, is motivating students to learn the content that we see as important and valuable to them – or perhaps it is more accurate to say the challenge is to create the conditions so students will be self motivated to learn what we want them to…

So, I’ve moved away from thinking of students as quick or slow, or bright or dumb, but rather as “easy to teach” and “hard to teach.” Not only do I feel that these terms are more accurate, but they aren’t disrespectful to our underachievers, who bristle at being called slow or dumb. Students I’ve spoken with don’t mind the labels easy to teach and hard to teach. They know how they are in the classroom.

But there is no doubt that some students learn almost regardless of what we do (of course! – by definition, they are easy to teach!), and other students challenge us, no matter what we try. But maybe we’ll get current with helping all students achieve if we have more productive terminology for referring to our students.

 

References

Smith, F. (1986). Insult to Intelligence: The Bureaucratic Invasion of Our Classrooms. Heinemann.

Harassment & Engagement – Social Media Study Group

Note: This is one in a series of blog posts to be used by Auburn’s Social Media Design Team to conduct a study group before making recommendations for social media policy. If unfamiliar with this series, you might find reading this post helpful.

Core Issues Study Questions (Bullying & Boredom)

  • What are Auburn schools current doing related to bullying and school climate?
  • What are Auburn schools current doing related to fostering student engagement in academics?
  • What is considered best practice around bullying?
  • What is considered best practice around engaging students?

Although intended as a tool for Auburn’s Social Media Design Team, everyone is invited to use these posts as a resource. And if you are not a member of Auburn’s Social Media Design Team, you are welcome to post comments, too. But please limit/be thoughtful of the sharing of opinion and stay focused on the focus questions – we a trying to use these posts for fact-finding, identifying resources, identifying best practice, etc. Thanks!

 

18 Reasons We Need More Psychology (And Less Logic) In Our Education Thinking

Few systems are as complex as education.

I’ve been thinking a lot about education lately, I’m in the school change business, especially as it relates to creating schools that work for all children. Over the last years, my work has focused on designing schools that work for all students, programs for hard to teach students, and on technology-rich learning environments, especially 1to1 learning with laptop and ipad initiatives (these all usually overlap considerably when each is done well). And I especially wonder how it is that competent educators (good people) make decisions and policies that seem to not work very well.

From my perspective, a decision or policy works if it supports the working of the system. You can tell if it doesn’t work if the system is still upset or in some level of tourmoil.

I’m not sure I can explain this like I want to, but I guess I should say here that when I say “system,” I don’t mean the “education system” or “school system” (the policies that govern a district, school, classroom or other jurisdiction), but rather the system of learning. By my definition, if kids generally do their work, follow the rules, learn, and are engaged, then the system “works.” If kids are breaking rules, not learning, refusing to do their work, then the system doesn’t work. If a school has a high breakage rate on devices or they go missing, the the system isn’t working. When breakage and missing rates are negligible, then the system works.

So why do seemingly good policies not work?

I’ve come to the conclusion that problem lies with logic.

Good people use logic to make decisions. But education is a complex system based on people, not things. Therefore, we need to use psychology, not logic. By definition, logic makes sense in systems that focus on things or stuff. But it is psychology that makes sense in people systems.

So, from two decades of working with schools, including my own, around customized learning, or student motivation, or technology-rich learning environments, or leadership for school change (or, more often, all of these combined!), I’ve started to discern some of the “Logic vs. Psychology” problems schools have. In each case, the “logical” solution is certainly logical, but seems to have perpetuated (or even exasperated) the kinds of disruption or disequilibrium that the solution was trying to solve (it “didn’t work”), whereas the “psychological” solution seems to have had the desired effect.

So here are 18 reasons we should use more psychology and less logic:

  1. Logic says 1to1 is a technology initiative. Psychology says it is a learning initiative.
  2. Logic says students should learn (it is for their own good). Psychology says we must ask ourselves why students would want to learn.
  3. Logic says do workshops on how to use the various software on the laptops. Psychology says do workshops on how the software can be used to help students learn academic content.
  4. Logic says that a teacher must cover content. Psychology says that a teacher must connect with students personally.
  5. Logic says schools should ban disruptive technology (cell phones, mp3 players, blogs, chat, social networks, etc.). Psychology says if a tool is part of the child’s culture, then we should find academic uses for it.
  6. Logic says filter the Internet heavily. Psychology says filter some, but mostly educate students.
  7. Logic says use technology to do what teachers have always done, but more effectively. Psychology says use technology in new ways to engage students and help them learn.
  8. Logic says supplying the tools is enough. Psychology says apply some positive pressure and support to get teachers to use the technology effectively for academic purposes.
  9. Logic says breakage and theft is about the technology and the kids. Psychology says breakage and theft is about how the technology is being used for academics and the leadership around the technology initiative.
  10. Logic says tech folks need to protect the stuff. Psychology says tech folks need to enable engagement and the learning.
  11. Logic says a school is doing well if the easy to teach students are doing well. Psychology says that a school is doing well if the hard to teach students are doing well.
  12. Logic says give students information. Psychology says help students make meaning of information.
  13. Logic asks, did the teacher cover the material? Psychology asks, did the students learn it?
  14. Logic says that technology is a separate line item. Psychology says that all the expenses related to technology are integrated throughout the budget (infrastructure, instruction, staff, etc.).
  15. Logic asks, how smart are you? Psychology asks, how are you smart?
  16. Logic says teachers should speak to students with authority. Psychology says teachers should speak to students as people.
  17. Logic says a teacher can select which teaching styles they choose to employ. Psychology says that there are high-impact and low-impact pedagogies, and teachers should choose wisely.
  18. Logic says pass out laptops to teachers as soon as the school gets them. Psychology says pass out the laptops at an inservice where school leaders can set the tone on how they will be used in the classroom.

Let’s try to use a little less logic and a little more psychology.

 

What Students and Teachers Say About Voice and Choice

The students and teachers in my Underachievers Study (2001) all had things to say about student voice and choice.

All students in the Underachievers Study felt they learned better when they had choices about how they learned. The teachers interviewed agreed. Mrs. Libby and Mrs. Edwards both believe that choice is a way to spark student interest or to engage students. Students reported that they sometimes had free choice about what book to read or could select from several books. Occasionally students could choose between two class activities, such as when Mrs. Libby allowed her language arts class to decide to either watch a video or work on creating a paper quilt. The students also said they could sometimes choose who to work with or were involved in setting due dates and scheduling tests, and sometime even in deciding how to assess a unit or project. Mrs. Jacques summed student choice up this way:

Choices? A lot of times I let them choose where they can sit, who they want to work with, what kind of learning environment they want to have in here. You see some of the stuff around the room, the different ways that they can report out. Sometimes they use overheads, sometimes they use charts, sometimes they use different things. I let them choose the kind of projects that they do.

In our interview, Mrs. Edwards and I described these kinds of choices as “the teacher making a skeleton and the students putting the skin on it.”

Mr. Mack believes that getting student input is the key to reaching reluctant learners:

Ask them if we are doing a certain unit, why they don’t like it? What type of things do they like? If it’s notes and discussions and a paper and pencil test at the end, they might not like that unit. Is there another way we can take the same information for them, that might be that they still take the notes but they do a model or a demonstration at the end. If they need to do the hands-on piece. I think that if you make it fun, exciting, they get into it without realizing that they are getting into it. And they’re starting to learn and they’re with you. And then at the end you ask them, “What did we do?” and they say, “We did this, this, and this,” and they were with you all the way along. But the student input helps me make it that way.

Choices and input were important components of project work for Ben, Doris, and Cathy. Doris said she wanted to do class projects and assignments her own way. Cathy wanted input into the kinds of work she does; she doesn’t mind parameters, but doesn’t want to be told exactly what to do. Ben thinks he learns best when he is doing hands-on activities that students have more control over. Cathy notes, however, that most of the time, teachers lay out all the work to be done by students and students aren’t given many choices. Ben and Doris agreed. Doris finds it boring when all the work is laid out to be done. Ben doesn’t see how he is given many choices in school and points out that he would like to have at least one course where he could learn what he wanted to:

Okay. I’d like to have a class where you get to learn what you want to learn. And it would be pretty much divided up [by interest group]… We have something like that only it’s an activity at the end of the day, called [activity period], that we only have on some days. I think there should be a class that is just, you choose what you’re going to learn. You have a little list of choices and you just choose.

Mrs. Jacques was explicit that students don’t get to choose what to learn, “As far as choosing the curriculum, you know, what they want to learn, that’s kind of set. So, they don’t really have much choice in that.” Seventh graders who participated in the Aspirations survey agree. The data show that only about half the students felt that they got the chance to explore topics that they found interesting (51%) or had opportunities to decide what they wanted to learn (44%).

Reference

Muir, M. (2001). What engages underachieving middle school students in learning? Middle School Journal, 33(2), pp. 37-43.

An Extrinsic Motivator So Good It Should Be Your Secret Weapon

You’ve been reading through a series of my posts highlighting, mostly, counterproductive extrinsic motivators.

You must be wondering, though, are all extrinsic motivators bad? The kind of motivators Alfie Kohn describes (bribery rewards) do have a negative impact on learning, but are there other kinds of extrinsic rewards (besides random rewards) that will positively effect learning?

The answer is, Yes!

It is choice that can help make extrinsic rewards almost as powerful as intrinsic motivation, that force that drives us to do what we’re interested in. Choice makes the difference. The fancy term is “autonomous supportive strategies” and comes from self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991). Proponents of self-determination theory maintain that integrated regulation is as effective for achieving optimum learning as intrinsic motivation.

Student Voice and Choice can be achieved through a variety of strategies. Teachers can allow students to share in the decision-making and authority within the classroom. They may negotiate the curriculum with the teacher, or help the teacher decide how they will learn the curriculum. Teachers might involve students in planning the entire unit or simply give students a choice of doing one of three assignments. Project-based learning, for example, allows students numerous choices around what form their finished product will take, while learning valuable content determined by the teacher, district, or state. The key is to make sure students have choices about their learning.

Keep in mind that giving students choices does not mean “let them do what they want.” We don’t ask toddlers, “What do you want for dinner?” But we might say, “Do you want peas or carrots with dinner?”

The same is true of students. We would never think to ask them “what do you want to learn?” But we might say, “We’re starting a unit on the Great Depression today and we’re all going to read a novel about the depression. But let me tell you about these three outstanding books so you can choose which one you want to read…” We might progressively structure more and more choice for students so that they can take on more and more of their own learning. But that would only come with careful scaffolding, just as we might give our own children more and more choices about what they eat, and as they develop the ability to make healthy choices, eventually get to the point where we do ask our teenager what she would like to eat for dinner.

This is why Student Voice and Choice is one of the Focus Five of Meaningful Engaged Learning and why it is one of the critical components of Customized Learning. It is so powerful that teachers should use it was their secret weapon in working to motivate students and help them be successful.

References:

Deci, E. L., and R. M. Ryan. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum.

Deci, E., Vallerand, R., Pelletier, L., & Ryan, R. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational psychologist, 26(3 & 4), 325-346.

Some Students Need More Than Direct Instruction

Direct instruction

An old friend provided me with a wonderful opportunity. She’s the Middle Level Director for a city in the South. I’ve been doing workshops for her schools and teachers for about 14 years. A couple summers ago, I worked with the teachers at two schools that have high populations of at-risk and hard to teach students. I introduced the teachers to several strategies for reaching these students. The following winter, I returned to the district and got to spend a day at each of the schools. I was able to conduct classroom observations and focus groups at the schools.

Surprisingly (at least it was an “aha” for me!), I didn’t see out of control classrooms or bad teaching. What I did see was order and a lot of competent (and in some cases outstanding) direct instruction.

Even so, I often only saw about half of each class “engaged” (showing signs of being on task) and, in conversations and focus groups, teachers indicated that many students don’t care, won’t do the work or study, and there isn’t much support from home.

One teacher called this “lazy disease.”

But maybe it wasn’t just laziness or home support. Maybe, for some kids, how we teach doesn’t work for them. Any parent with more than one child knows that they learn in different ways. Why do we expect our students to all learn the same way?

This helped me realize that some students need more than direct instruction.

The teachers also unknowingly provided me with the answer to the question, “When do you know that you need to do more than direct instruction?” The answer: “When the students don’t care, won’t do the work or study, and there isn’t much support from home. When they have hard to teach students.” Simple, right?

I think that maybe direct instruction isn’t enough for these students because it focuses more on the content than on how students might learn it. We are often quick to get frustrated with hard to teach students exactly because we covered the material and they didn’t learn it.

And yet shipping companies, such as UPS, would never think to say that they “delivered” a package if a customer did not receive it. It might be accurate to say they left the package on the porch, but it isn’t “delivered” until the resident actually gets the package. Dewey puts it a little differently:

Teaching may be compared to selling commodities. No one can sell unless someone buys. We should ridicule a merchant who said that he had sold a great many goods although no one had bought any. But perhaps there are teachers who think they have done a good day’s teaching irrespective of what people have learned. There is the same exact equation between teaching and learning that there is between selling and buying. (Dewey, 1933, p. 35-36)

Underserved populations, including underachieving students from all learning styles, career aspirations, cultures, and socioeconomic levels deserve a quality education.

It is not surprising that improved instruction, which involves students in meaningful, engaged learning, is viewed as a remedy to the growing concern over the high social and economic cost of large numbers of disengaged and at-risk youth. Identifying practices which help these diverse populations learn well is a step toward creating an educational system intent on serving all students. Finding out what motivates our underachieving and hard to teach students will help inform and equip teachers in the struggle to lead all students to academic achievement.

 

References

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Chicago: Henry Regnery.