Tag Archives: Meaningful Engaged Learning

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.

 

Classroom Management is the Opposite of Motivation and Engagement

Recently, I attended a conference where table talks were a part of the lunch program. There were 12 or 13 topics, and we chose which table/topic we wanted to sit in on. Who ever was at the table collaboratively guided the personalized conversation on that topic. Twenty minutes later, a timekeeper let us know it was time to go to the next table of our choice.

During one of the rounds, I floated over to the Motivating Students table. This is clearly one of my favorite topics.

But very quickly, the teachers and school leaders at the table started talking about which classroom management strategies they use when students are not motivated. The talk focused on punishments and rewards.

And I started to panic, because I really wanted to get the conversation back onto motivation and engagement (and I know how counterproductive punishments and rewards actually are to learning!). How could I do that without offending these educators who were clearly struggling with what to do to motivate disengaged learners…

And finally I found a diplomatic way to redirect the conversation: “I find that when I'm doing a class activity that the students are really into and engaged, I really don't have any classroom management issues.” Everyone nodded that they had the same experiences. “So what do those activities look like? What is it about those activities that seems to engage the students?” And “boom” the conversation was focused on what motivates students.

But it was also in that moment that I realized for the first time that classroom management wasn't a sister skill set to motivation and engagement. It was the direct opposite of motivation and engagement.

Classroom management is what we do when our kids aren't motivated and engaged.

And, for the most part, we don't need to worry about classroom management when they are engaged.

Yes, orderliness helps students learn. And let's see if we can encourage and support our teachers in focusing more on proactive motivation and engagement, so they can focus less on reactive classroom management.

 

Teaching with Engaging Tasks

Engaging Tasks are an easy-to-implement, real world learning strategy that, when implemented well, many students find very motivating.  An Engaging Task tells a little story (only a paragraph or so!) that gives the students a reason for doing the work.
 
 

Not All Motivators Are Created Equal

I continue to get questions from educators about motivating seemingly unmotivated students. The teachers are often frustrated because they are “trying hard” and “working hard,” but with little to no payoff.

When I talk more with those teachers, I find two common misperceptions that stand in the way of the teacher being more successful (they are hard to teach students, after all. We can't expect complete success motivating them!): (a) motivation resides entirely within the student (the teacher has no role in student motivation); or (b) all teacher efforts to motivate are created equal and should have the same impact on students.

The teachers who believe (a) have larger issues… (The research is pretty clear – as is common sense: teachers who don't believe they can influence student learning, don't.)

But we can work with teachers who believe (b)!

Most of these teachers who are struggling to motivate students, are simply trying to leverage the wrong motivators, often undermining their own efforts.

Many of the struggling teachers I have observed have the right instincts and do try to motivate students, but most of the motivators teachers say they use, or were observed using, tend to be “low payoff” motivators such as showing enthusiasm, being nice to students, or using manipulatives.

They also used “no payoff” motivators such as grades, 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.” These may be motivators for easy to teach students, or important to teachers, but they tend not to be motivators for hard to teach students. In many cases, this approach only succeeded in agitating the hard to teach students or exasperating undesirable behavior. It’s no wonder that if teachers are putting a lot of energy into these kinds of motivators that they are frustrated with the results, and the students.

But, trying to teach hard to teach students qualifies as extraordinary circumstances requiring extraordinary efforts.

Teachers need to not just “try” or “work hard”; they need to try the right things and work hard at effective practices.

Teachers who were more successful motivating the students used strategies such as making the material interesting, using real world examples, or leveraging their positive relationship with the students.

Teachers need to be using “high payoff” motivators, such as these:

  • Project-based learning
  • Connecting with students
  • Connecting learning to the community and the students’ lives
  • Focusing on higher order thinking activities
  • Learning by doing
  • Making learning interesting
  • Involving students in designing their learning

(It's not hard to see how these map onto the Meaningful Engaged Learning Focus 5)

Dewey reminds us just how important using effective motivators is:

Our whole policy of compulsory education rises or falls with our ability to make school life an interesting and absorbing experience to the child. In one sense there is no such thing as compulsory education. We can have compulsory physical attendance at school; but education comes only through willing attention to and participation in school activities. It follows that the teacher must select these activities with reference to the child’s interests, powers, and capacities. In no other way can she guarantee that the child will be present. (1913, p. ix)

 

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.”)