I believe that a tell-tale sign of a change initiative that has merit is one that quickly takes teacher conversation to the student motivation question. As in, “What do we do about the students who aren’t motivated to read, write, or otherwise delve deeply into our content?”
For me, such a question indicates that teachers are approaching the idea of doing things a little differently than before, and naturally, they do not want to fail. I often ask teachers if they have taken any coursework or professional development in the area of human motivation and the answer is usually that they have not. It is only natural, then, that they would not automatically see the connection between their instructional approaches and how motivated students are in engaging in them.
A teacher’s role in motivating students is a largely missing piece of the school change dialogue, but the good news is that if the Common Core State Standards, particularly the College and Career Readiness (CCR) Anchor Standards for Literacy, are implemented with fidelity; the motivation gap will begin to close.
The CCR Anchor Standards emphasize confidence-building literacy experiences embedded in purposeful, student-driven investigation and research. Strong literacy skills and understanding of the learning process are not attained in a vacuum. Imagine how student confidence will change in future years if more content teachers take the approach that students will learn to think about what they are learning and how they are learning it.
Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck, discusses ways in which a student’s perception of intelligence affects learning. Some students believe their intelligence is “fixed” or set while others seem to understand that struggle is sometimes a necessary part of the learning process. In other words, some students persist while others give up. Teachers who embrace literacy as learning in their content areas can make the learning process, always messy, more visible, which can increase motivation as students realize that their cognitive abilities are not static.
In his book titled, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates us, Daniel Pink addresses compelling evidence that the educational system, as with the business world, continues to apply outdated theories of motivation in its policies and approaches. Rather than continue with methods that cater to extrinsic rewards for completing tasks, he argues for instructional decisions that will move students “toward autonomy, mastery, and purpose.”
Although the word “relevance” has been an education vocabulary staple for many years, many teachers still do not place much investment in helping students answer the ever-present question on their minds: “Why do I have to learn this? When will I ever use this information?” Pink implies that the question will take care of itself when we understand Motivation 3.0 and tap into the human desire to find purpose in what we do.
The CCR Anchor Standards’ call for content learning through reading, writing, speaking, and listening mirrors the way real work and real life are conducted every day. If learning tasks are crafted appropriately and well-facilitated, students themselves are capable of finding the purpose behind their assignments while beginning the process of connecting their school experiences with life beyond institutional walls.
Imagine students frequently engaging in purposeful tasks and projects related to in-depth content comprehension, analysis and synthesis. Imagine students engaging in such tasks which also give them choice in what they do with the information. Imagine these components taking place in an environment where scaffolding allows all learners access to content.
You have just imagined an approach that not only aligns with the Common Core State Standards for literacy, but also with the most current research about what motivates students in schools. As Pink succinctly states, “We’re designed to be active and engaged.” He continues by quoting Dweck: “Effort is one of the things that gives meaning to life….it would be an impoverished existence if you were not willing to value things and commit yourself to working toward them.”
Effective teachers understand that their students have an inherent desire to learn rather than simply comply, even if that desire seems hidden by societal norms and pressures which build through middle and high school. Change affects students, too, and many will at first resist the higher expectations. But they will eventually engage if teachers persist. That point will lead me into a future blog about what high expectations truly look like.