Tag Archives: Motivating Underachievers

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!

 

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.

 

 

Motivating Students: Focus on 5 Strategies

There are many children who are undermotivated, disengaged, and underachieving. One of the most persistent questions facing individual teachers is, “How do I motivate all children to learn?” And you are Probably one of the ones wondering how to reach them. You aren’t alone.

One approach to reaching all students is Meaningful Engaged Learning (MEL), based on my research. Schools working to improve student motivation, engagement, and achievement concentrate on balancing five focus areas

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

Here’s a brief overview of each strategy.

Inviting Schools
Sometimes, it may seem like this has nothing to do with academics or engaging students in learning, but positive relationships and a warm, inviting school climate are perhaps the most important element to implement if you are to reach hard to teach students. I heard over and over again from the students I studied 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 him or 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 with 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, fieldtrips 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 used to learning facts out of context. Higher order thinking (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 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 these have been repeatedly shown to be counterproductive and highly ineffective (Kohn, 1993). 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 (“which of these three novels about the Great Depression would you like to read during this unit?”). Let students design learning activities, select resources, plan approaches to units, and make decisions about their learning.

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 the way 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.

 

This model isn’t new material; it is 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.

 

It’s Your Turn:

What are your best strategies for motivating students?

 

Extrinsic Rewards – Productive or Counter-Productive – Part 1

A friend and colleague contacted me recently about his son’s school’s use of extrinsic motivators. He had been thinking about rewards and motivation and how they might impede learning, and wanted to know my thoughts on the subject. He wrote, “Rewards seem like an easy thing that so many teachers gravitate to… pizza parties, special days, treats, etc…”

Actually, the issue of extrinsic motivation is a pretty complex one, and I had no quick answer for my friend (of course, my stepson says I don’t have a short answer for anything!). So I promised him that I would blog about the topic. This will be the first of several posts over the next week or so.

Let’s start with a quick review of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation and a little about why this is an involved topic.

Teachers can do many things to try to make learning more intrinsically motivating for students. Tying into student interests and goals, as well as making learning interesting are all approaches to leveraging intrinsic motivation. As you can imagine, it is probably not practical to do this for every child all the time.

When the motivation comes from outside the student, when the student is required to do something, driven by the desire to receive some reward or avoid some sort of punishment (such as grades, stickers, or teacher approval), the student is extrinsically motivated.

The use of rewards, prizes, incentives, consequences, and punishments are certainly common practice in schools. And the work people do in the real world is often regulated by both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. People need to learn and do things that they may not find interesting or aligned with their goals. Some of the master painters have said that they do better work when they had a commission rather than when they were just working on there own.

Take educators as an example. At conferences, I often ask how many of the participants do better work when they have a deadline and many hands go up. Also, teachers confirm that they went into teaching partly because there is something about the profession they like and enjoy (perhaps they really love the content in their discipline, or maybe they really love working with young people and want to make a difference in their lives). But they took the job also because they have bills to pay, and that there are courses or parts of courses that they teach because their principal asked them to, or the state requires them to, not because teachers necessarily wanted to or find it interesting.

Extrinsic motivation has received a lot of bad press in both the popular educational literature and research journals. There is certainly evidence that a focus on punishments and rewards can be counterproductive to learning (Kohn, 1993, 1994).

How can this is true at the same time that people are guided daily by both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and incentives and consequences are in widespread use in schools? No wonder there is a lot of confusion over whether extrinsic motivation is productive or counter-productive.

The answer is actually both more complex and simpler than that. There are different kinds of extrinsic motivation and each can either improve learning or shut it down.

The concern over counter-productive extrinsic motivation is that although they may get a student to participate in classroom activities, certain types of extrinsic motivation can interfere with optimal learning. Essentially, when students perform for grades or other rewards, they no longer perceive that their learning has intrinsic value.

Coming next: the reasons to avoid rewards.

References

Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Kohn, A. (1994). The Risks of Rewards. ERIC digest. Urbana, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education.

Remembering Gordon Vars, One of the Grandfathers of Middle Level Education

I’ve been lucky enough to work with a couple of the people I consider to be the modern founders of middle level education. One of those is Gordon Vars, professor emeritus at Kent State University.

How I knew him was through his decades long work on “Core Curriculum.” This isn’t the way we mean “core curriculum” now. In fact, the irony is that the “new” meaning of core curriculum is the four “core” subjects. But the historic meaning of Core Curriculum is something more akin to curriculum integration, teaching students through activities that blend content from the various subjects. (One of my favorite analogies is when you order a pizza, they don’t put just sauce on 2 slices, just cheese on 2 slices, just pepperoni on 2 slices and just mushrooms on 2 slices. They put it all on every slice.)

Core Curriculum was used quite a bit in the first half of the 20th Century. In fact, Core Curriculum was studied pretty closely in the 30s and early 40s and was found to be significantly more effective than the separate subject approach, including for things that we have always assumed separate subject approach was better at, such as college preparation. These results were published as The Eight Year Study.

I think of Gordon Vars as the shepherd of Core Curriculum. As others reinvented it as Integrative Curriculum (including James Beane and Maine’s own Gert Nesin), Gordon reminded us of the historical foundations on which that work was based. He was a gentle man who was always willing to share his expertise and empower others to succeed.

Gordon Vars died Tuesday night (1/31/12) after being hit by a car while walking home from choir practice. He was 88. I feel honored to have known him and to have had the opportunity to have collaborated with him in a couple small ways. Core Curriculum and Integrative Curriculum have contributed greatly to my interest in motivation and contributed to the kind of educator I try to be today. Gordon will be greatly missed for his contributions to Core Curriculum, and to the Association for Middle Level Education.

(Cross posted at the Bright Futures blog and the Multiple Pathways blog.)


It’s Your Turn:

How will you remember Gordon Vars?

Apple’s “Textbooks” Potential: Product Creation Tools for Students

Recently, I reflected on Apple’s education announcement about textbooks and my opinion of textbooks in general and how they are often used in schools. Although I’m a fan of teachers who use textbooks as one educational resource, my concern is that in far too many places the textbook IS the curriculum, and that textbooks are inadequate at and insufficient for helping students create meaning from knowledge.

Despite my concerns about how textbooks are sometimes (mis)used, I stated that I saw tremendous potential in Apple’s announcement of the iBooks Author Mac app and the iTunes U iPad app.  One of those areas of potential is as a product creation tool for students.

As I have hinted here, I don’t think a person really learns until they get the opportunity to use knowledge (read: “upper level Blooms”).  So, for me, one of the exciting opportunities from yesterday’s announcement was not that there was now a tool so publishers could create interactive textbooks, but rather that there was now a tool that would allow ANYONE to create interactive BOOKS! (Someone has already used iBooks Author to publish their comics.)

Now, students and teachers have one more tool for project-based learning.  Students have another choice at their disposal when they stop to think about what kind of product would they like to create to show others what they have learned and give them a chance to learn it too!


Imagine a class where the teacher breaks down the class into teams, each team taking responsibility for one chapter of their book (animals in an ecosystem; countries in the European Union; time periods in your state’s history, themes in a novel, etc.).  And within those teams, not only would they be responsible for researching the topic of their chapter, but for deciding what was important for others to know about it, and thinking about how they could best help others learn about each aspect (text, videos, interviews, demonstrations, interactive models, illustrations).  Of course, all this under the coaching of their teacher.

Eventually, the students and teacher would compile all the components in an audience-friendly format, publish, and share.  It could even be published to the iBookstore for others to buy.  Students don’t only get a chance to use knowledge, but they would have a real audience for their product.


What might that do to the level of student engagement?

It’s Your Turn:

How might you use iBooks Author with your students?

Tammy Ranger Receives Middle Level Teaching Award

For more than 10 years, I’ve been married to one of the best teachers I know, Tammy Ranger (of course, that is purely a professional opinion!).

On October 21, I was honored to be with her attending the annual conference of the Maine Association for Middle Level Education (MAMLE), where she was awarded the Janet Nesin Reynolds Outstanding Middle Level Educator Award.

According to MAMLE’s website, the Board of Directors calls for nominations for the Janet Nesin Reynolds Outstanding Middle Level Educator Award recognizing the work of educators who exemplify the five core values of MAMLE:

  • Meets the developmental needs of young adolescents
  • Promotes local professional development
  • Promotes a healthy work environment for both students and teachers
  • Exemplifies high standards based on research
  • Invites active participation by students, parents, and/or community

The award is named for Janet Nesin Reynolds, who was the kind of middle grades teacher all our middle schools need more of.

Tammy was nominated by her principal at Skowhegan Area Middle School, where she has not only been a highly effective literacy teacher, but has taken lead on school and district literacy initiatives, and led numerous professional development opportunities for her colleagues. Numerous parents report that, after having Tammy as a teacher, their children now like to read. She and her teaching partner enjoy some of the highest lexile gains of any teachers involved in the Read 180 program in Maine. Tammy has also taught university education courses on literacy, where she earned high marks from her students and was often requested as a professor. Tammy both has her Masters Degree in Literacy and is National Board Certified in Middle Grades literacy.

Left to right: Tammy Ranger, Gert Nesin (Janet’s sister), Commissioner of Education Stephen Bowen, MAMLE President Sandy Nevins

It’s Your Turn:
Who are the educators in your life who have made a difference? How did they impact you?

What’s The Right Question About Motivating Students

For a long time, I’ve been working with educators on motivating underachievers.

But recently, I caught a piece of a presentation and the presenter said that “How do I motivate my students (or your team or your staff…)?” is the wrong question. She went on that this implies that you want to manipulate them to do something they don’t want to do.

That struck me, since it isn’t uncommon for an attendee at one of my trainings to act disappointed that I would not be providing directions on how to change the students or that I was suggesting that they (the educator) were the one who needed to do something different.

The presenter the other day went on to say that instead we should ask, “How do I create the conditions so that my students are self motivated?” And I have to admit that I do really like this question.

And even though I’ll continue to refer my my work as motivating underachievers, the Focus Five are exactly that: the conditions necessary for students to be self motivated.