Tag Archives: Student Engagement

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.
 
 

What’s an Engaging Task

Are you looking for a teaching strategy that can hook and engage your students? One that can work with almost any content area? Then you're looking to use an Engaging Task.

Engaging Tasks are an easy-to-implement real world learning strategy.

Engaging Tasks are the part of a WebQuest that make them so engaging to students. But they are such a strong pedagogical strategy that they can be applied to nearly any subject or topic, don't need to be part of a WebQuest, and don't even have to be used for an activity that requires technology (although technology can be it's own motivator!)

WebQuest.org – THE place for everything about WebQuests – defines a WebQuest as an inquiry-oriented lesson format in wich most or all of the information that learners work with comes from the web. Some educators mis-identify a WebQuest as a series of low-level questions that students use the web to track down answers to, but this is far from a WebQuest. WebQuests require that students apply higher order thinking strategies.

The idea of WebQuests was developed by Bernie Dodge and Tom March.

WebQuests follow a specific format and include these 6 components (although sometimes one or two of them might be combined):

  • Introduction
  • Task
  • Procedure
  • Resources
  • Evaluation
  • Conclusion

In my opinion, the part of a (good) WebQuest that makes it so engaging is the task. What makes a task so engaging?

Instead of simply charging students with an assignment, an Engaging Task tells a little story (only a paragraph or so!) that gives the students a reason for doing the work. The engaging task is made up of three parts:

  • The compelling scenario
  • A role for the student
  • The thing for the students to do

 

Engaging Task Resources:

 

iPads in Primary Grades: What Veteran Teachers Think – Sheila

We’re all used to some teachers being enthusiastic about a relatively new initiative. It’s no different with Advantage 2014, Auburn’s iPads in primary grades initiative. But the “enthusiastic teacher” view might not sell decision makers, since it’s probably not a representative perspective (and keeping in mind that not necessarily all decision makers are fans of any initiative). “What do veteran teachers think?” is the question whose answer is more likely to sway decision makers.

So last March, I interviewed some of our veteran teachers to get their perspective. This is the second in my series of three such interviews (the first is here).

Sheila Ray teaches first grade, and was admittedly skeptical of using iPads with students, when the program was introduced. She shares her perspective after her first year of teaching with iPads, especially for reading and math. She notes that not only did using the iPads contribute to greatly improved test scores, but parents also noted student enthusiasm.

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)

 

We Must Do More Than Fill Students’ Vessels

I was especially dissatisfied with my own teaching when I started.

Early in my teaching career, I was presented with a paradox that continues to shape my interests in education. When I was teaching high school computer application courses, my students would learn to use a word processor (in the day when stuents were likely to only have access to computers at school). I was very thorough and made sure they learned how to use nearly every feature (although word processors then had many fewer features than they do today!). We spent a lot of time on it, and together we worked hard so that nearly everyone would be successful on the challenging word processing test.

What surprised me, however, was that a few weeks later, students would return to me, announce that they had a paper to write, and ask me to show them how to use “that word processor thing” again!

I couldn't understand why these students didn't remember how to use the program. These were bright students who had had no problems during class, and who had done well on the test. Very little time had gone by since we had last used the word processor. There was no reason that they should not know how to use it.

There was obviously something I didn't understand about learning. It was the first time I started to question how learning took place, and prompted my inquiry into how people learn.

I fear that during my first few years of my teaching, all I had really taught most of my students was that I was knowledgeable within my field. I tried to convey my knowledge to my students but I was simply trying to “fill their vessels.”

The way I organized the curriculum wasn't even oriented toward learning; it was organized for teaching. I was mostly concerned with questions like when were the standardized tests and what would be on them, when would other teachers be teaching related ideas, what would kids need to know for the next course? All my content was organized the way an expert might look at it. It was neatly categorized and sequenced like it might be done by someone who was already familiar with the information.

I never asked myself how people might learn the same information. I never asked how experts had acquired their vast knowledge; was it through a logical sequence or some other order?

Some of my kids seemed to do okay, but not enough of my students to make me feel like I had done a satisfactory job. I knew I was teaching the way all my teachers had taught me, so I knew I was teaching correctly. But somehow contradictions, like with the word processor, kept happening, and I started to doubt if it really were the right way to teach…

Those contradictions and doubts led me to question my assumptions about teaching and learning. Eventually, I found tidbits that helped shape my work, such as the quote from the classical Greek philosopher, Plutarch, “A mind is a fire to kindled, not a vessel to be filled.

My job wasn't to give students information but to inspire and nurture them. And like Ian Jukes says, “Teachers don't need to be fire kindlers, they need to become arsonists!”

 

Kindling Fires of Curiosity

“A mind is a fire to kindled, not a vessel to be filled.” (Plutarch)

I am a Mainer who has lived in several homes heated by wood stoves, and have done living history, and have gone camping, so I am no stranger to trying to build fires.

Therefore, it won’t surprise you that my connection to this metaphor is deep.

Most folks know you can’t start a fire just by simply piling up logs and holding a match to them. What a lot of people don’t know is that that method doesn’t even work all that well when lighter fluid is applied (there is usually a short-lived flame that goes out without creating a sustainable fire – and you never want to use accelerant in an enclosed wood stove!)

Fire starters know that building fires is a two stage process: first you have to get the fire going, then you can feed the fire. Both have their own set of strategies. I think when most folks think of having a fire, they think mostly of the second phase and a lot less of the first. Further, I think most folks can feed a fire; it’s just a matter of not adding too much wood too soon (or things get too hot), not letting the coals burn too low (or there arent enough coals to keep the fire going), and adding wood in a way that allows a little air to circulate (or, again, the fresh logs won’t ignite). Even with these caveats, the strategies are fairly forgiving and it isn’t too hard to keep the fire going.

On the other hand, starting a fire isn’t particularly difficult, but it does take a little more strategy. And if you aren’t experienced with fire, these strategies may not be as obvious as those for keeping the fire going.

A good fire starts with some kindling (a variety of small sticks and pieces of dry wood that catch relatively quickly, but will burn long enough to catch the larger sticks and logs that will be added soon) and some tinder (such as newspaper, shavings, twigs, or dry grass) that will catch easily with a match and burn long enough to ignite the kindling.

Even with these components, you aren’t guaranteed a fire; they need to be used properly. The kindling should be stacked in one of a couple of ways: often with smaller kindling and newspaper organized in the center of larger kindling in a “log cabin” or “teepee” configuration. When you light the newspaper, it catches the small kindling, which in turn helps the larger pieces catch. Then, once those get going, you can (carefully) put on the first logs.

You don’t have to use much more strategy than that if the fire catches quickly and cleanly. But what if it doesn’t? Have you ever been camping and tried to light a campfire with damp wood? Or maybe you got the small kindling going, but the larger sticks weren’t catching well? What do you do? How do you get that fire going?

Do you take another match and hold it under the part of the log that isn’t burning?

Of course not! (And, yet, how often do we try that!?)

Instead, you blow where the wood is already burning. Or you add a little more kindling where it is burning. You can’t get your fire lit by attending to the part that isn’t burning. You get it burning by nurturing the fire that is already started and let it spread to the rest. In fact, paying attention to the part not burning will often let what little fire there is go out, leaving you with no fire at all…

Ok. Ok. I feel some of you getting noodgy, wanting to talk about the “logs.” (and yes, at this point, we’re starting to mix metaphors…) Are the logs seasoned (dry?) or are they still moist with sap or wet from a drenching? Sure, most folks can make a fire with well seasoned logs without really trying, but talking about unseasoned logs sounds a little like an argument about why you shouldn’t have to make a fire because some of the wood isn’t dry. I’ll even concede that there are probably some logs that can’t burn, no matter what. But those are few and far between, and should never be used as an excuse to avoid making a fire with less than perfect logs.

In truth, experienced fire builders can start a fire with the wood they have.

The fire building strategies above work well with both dry and damp logs. Whether you get a good fire raging or not probably has more to do with your kindling and tender, or how you nurture the fire, than it does with the logs themselves.

So perhaps, we just need to understand how fires ignite, catch, and burn :

  • Have we thought about what kindling and tinder we will use?
  • Which technique will we apply to the kindling and tinder?
  • How will we nurture the fire as we add the first logs?
  • How will we attend to damp and unseasoned wood to get it burning well?
  • How will we blow on the flames that are already burning, rather than hold a match under the unlit portion?
  • How will we monitor the fire and know just the right time to add to it so it doesn’t burn too hot or burn down and go out?

If teachers are fire builders, perhaps their primary job isn’t to give students information, but rather to inspire and nurture them as they work on their own learning. Sometimes when we are teaching hard to teach students we forget about their interests (don’t blow on the flames) or about making it interesting (adding a little more kindling to the flames) and instead keep plowing along through the curriculum (holding a match to an unlit log). Perhaps, we need to focus on how to use kindling and care to make them burn brightly.

In fact, Ian Jukes says, “Teachers don’t need to be fire kindlers, they need to become arsonists!”

Personal aside: This saying has spoken to me since early in my teaching career, and has certainly shaped my growth as an educator and my work with schools to reach all children. It probably even played some direct role in focusing my dissertation research on motivating underachieving students and in starting the Maine Center for Meaningful Engaged Learning.

At the very least, it has said something to me about changing my assumptions about what it was to teach. And when I think about schools serving all the children of all the people, and about easy-to-teach students and hard-to-teach students, and about students at various levels of engagement, I think we probably need to challenge our assumptions.

How might the fire building metaphor help you think about reaching your students or having conversations with your colleagues about reaching students?