Consider the typical tools of motivation: honor roll, certificates of achievement, and recognition at school assemblies. These are the traditional tools used by teachers and schools to recognize and motivate students to achieve more, and students tend to love these awards. But for those who embrace the growth mindset (the core belief that abilities are malleable and not fixed), these awards don’t always make sense. Some students achieve good grades easily and make the honor roll all the time, while others feel challenged every step of the way and have to learn a great deal just to achieve a C. For the latter, these tools of recognition and motivation are out of reach.
The truth is that underachieving students aren’t motivated by things that seem unreachable. None of us really is. The honor roll may not even seem like an option to them. If I were to offer you one million dollars to make a hole in one, could you do it? If you didn’t make it, would it be an issue of motivation or a lack of skill and capacity? If I increase the motivation to 10 million dollars, would that change the result?
Many people would be HIGHLY motivated for that kind of money. But think about the time it would take to develop the skill to that kind of level. It would take a LOT of practice...but we’ll discuss that in a minute.
Motivating All Learners
So if the traditional tools of motivation don’t work for all students, how can we create a highly motivated classroom for everyone?
First, we should look at the research. In his book Drive, Daniel Pink outlined three main areas for human motivation when it comes to non-menial, repetitive tasks: mastery, purpose, and autonomy.
As educators, we should recognize that Pink’s three areas make a lot of sense. In our own lives, when are we most motivated? It isn’t when we are doing things that we have no control over. And it’s not when we get frustrated because we lack the skills and knowledge to be successful.
For example, I have tried a few times to remodel parts of our house. I have no idea what I am doing and typically produce results that are worse than what I had prior to remodeling. I am not motivated to do these projects. It isn’t because I don’t like doing them. It’s because I lack the correct tools and the essential background knowledge, and I have no concept of mastery lurking on the horizon. In other words, I have no “remodeling common sense.” Similarly, some of our students struggle with “math common sense,” or what we typically call “number sense.”
This “common sense” issue is prevalent in public schools for a variety of reasons. Students may not know how language is supposed to sound, or may not have the prior knowledge about history to make the connections that we ask them for. No honor roll will motivate these students to feel that they can master the material. What they may do, if they are hard workers, is memorize and recall the material. But rote memorization doesn’t allow for mastery, and the motivation won’t be lasting.
The Cure for Lack of Student Mastery
What’s the cure for lack of student mastery? Practice, practice, practice! Ask yourself, “Have I given students enough opportunities to practice the skills they need to master?” Educational consultant Anita Archer calls this the “I do, we do, you do” model. She says that in the classroom the model should look more like, “I do, we do, we do, we do, we do, we do, you do.” Her point is that the practice opportunities need to be there and need to be supported by the teacher. Mastery won’t come with only one or two exposures and a homework assignment.
That’s where technology comes in. To allow multiple opportunities for practice, technology is a reliable and valuable tool. When combined with assessment tools, technology makes it easy to move back and forth between whole-class teaching and practice activities in group or individual setups. That’s how students can truly absorb and retain information. For an in-depth discussion of the research behind why technology helps students retain information better, see this on-demand webinar.
Purpose and Autonomy
We must not forget purpose when thinking about motivating all students. There must be some meaning behind the work. Teachers usually use the term “relevance” when trying to make these connections for students, but purpose goes beyond that. Some subject matter is relevant when it connects to something I know about or have experience with; subject matter has purpose when it connects to something I care about. We must first know our students well enough to know what they care about. But assuming that knowledge is in place, the next step is giving them the freedom to make decisions about learning that they are passionate about.
This freedom leads to the final point from Pink’s book, which is autonomy. Students must have choice and the ability to control what they are learning about. Just providing options is motivating. If my wife said to me, “We have to do some remodeling. Do you want to do the bathroom, the kitchen, or the basement?” I could pick an area based on my preference: “No one ever goes in the basement, so let me have a stab at that.” Give your students autonomy in content, and see their motivation blossom.
Reaching All Students
By providing chances for true mastery, purpose in learning, and autonomy in content, teachers can reach all students and help them to grow...not just to the level of the honor roll, but far beyond in their learning and life.
Want more information on how technology can enable true learning in the classroom? Check out this webinar.>>