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Building a Community of Self-Motivated Learners

Did you really need to write a third book in five years on student motivation?

I don’t think any teacher—myself included—can know too many strategies to help students develop intrinsic motivation to learn what we’re teaching in our schools. Research might be able to identify the most effective ways for students to learn, and Standards might prioritize what skills and content they should learn. However, none of that matters if students are uninterested in implementing those learning strategies and/or don’t want to acquire those skills and content.

Fortunately, there is growing recognition of the value in helping students develop their own motivation and other related Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills like perseverance, self-control, and personal responsibility. Public surveys also clearly show that parents support schools reinforcing these “character” traits in the classroom (Brenneman, 2013). Unfortunately, at the same time, there is an increasing danger to SEL of being “co-opted” by well-fnanced and well-known groups and individuals, ranging from some “school reformers” (Educators 4 Excellence, n.d.) to columnists like The New York Times’ David Brooks (2014), and converted into a “Let Them Eat Character” strategy.

I fear those “Blame the Victim” efforts may be used to distract from the importance of supplying much needed fnancial resources to schools, providing increased support to families by dealing with growing income and wealth inequality, and developing a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy. Recent research (Ferlazzo, 2013) reveals the toll that poverty takes on one’s ability to execute SEL skills. People aren’t poor because they don’t have self-control or grit—poverty itself helps create a lack of those qualities.

The cognitive “bandwidth” required to deal with fnancial problems, stress and constant “trade-offs” (healthy food for the family tonight or new school clothes; doing the homework or taking care of younger siblings so that parents can work) makes it more diffcult to maintain the mental reserve needed for those SEL skills.

None of these concerns, however, mean that we shouldn’t help our students develop these SEL skills in ways that are healthy for them, for their families, for us and for our schools. The strategies and lessons in this book, and in the two previous volumes in this series—Helping Students Motivate Themselves (Ferlazzo, 2011) and Self-Driven Learning (Ferlazzo, 2013)—are efforts to do just that. The frst volume, Helping Students Motivate Themselves, discusses motivation with particular attention to class time and structure, such as getting the year off to a good start, using leftover class time, managing the class, incorporating games and technology, and keeping kids focused at the end of the year. 

The second volume, Self-Driven Learning, looks at intrinsic motivation with respect to what students are learning and being asked to do—how teachers can encourage them to feel positive about learning, to enjoy reading and writing, to want to think critically, and to not be burned out by tests. Now, this third volume looks at the classroom conditions that are needed for motivation to grow in the frst place. Each chapter provides specifc research-based suggestions on what teachers can do today to help students want to develop qualities such as physical health, grit, flow, and a desire to transfer what they’re learning to life outside of school. 

At the end of each chapter are lesson plans (correlated with Common Core Standards that include literacy development) that can “set the stage” for long-term positive impacts. Time and time again research shows that simple actions and lessons like these that teachers can easily integrate into their regular classroom routines are more effective than extensive and complicated “character” programs (Kamenetz, 2014; Sparks, 2012). Easy ways to supplement these lessons with technology “extension” activities are included, and all fgures are available as eResources for free download (see page ix for details).
A note of caution, however, should be applied to anything in this book—and, in fact, to anything in education—that says it is “research-based.” As a major study found, only 0.13 percent—less than half of 1 percent—of studies published in the top 100 education journals had been replicated (Strauss, 2014). This shocking and depressing statistic raises questions about how much credence should be placed on education policy or classroom strategies that purport to be based on research. I recommend that educators follow a guide of being “data-informed” instead of being “data-driven” (Ferlazzo, 2011, January 28) 

in all things, and take research as just one of many pieces of evidence to consider as they take action. Fortunately, in addition to being research-based, all the strategies and lesson plans in this book and in the previous volumes in this series have been used successfully  in countless classrooms, including my own. That’s no guarantee that everything suggested here will be effective for everybody all the time, but I do believe that real-world experience tends to provide the most reliable evidence that a classroom practice will be successful.

As I mentioned earlier, concerns about research and how SEL is being promoted in some circles as the cure-all for challenges facing many of our students (particularly ones in low-income communities) should not dissuade us from effectively teaching SEL in schools. Nevertheless, we should remain vigilant about who is doing what and why they are doing it in the name of Social Emotional Learning. A recently published chart (Ferlazzo, 2014) showed the results of using Google’s Ngram Viewer to search all indexed books and identify how often the phrase “teaching character” was used since 1840.

The two peak years that phrase was used most often were in the depths of the Great Depression and our more recent Great Recession. It goes without saying that “teaching character” is a less monetarily expensive strategy to responding (or, to pretend to be responding) to economic crises than other potential solutions. We need to remember that Social Emotional Learning has an important place in teaching and in learning. It is also critical to remember that it has to be kept in its appropriate place, and is not a substitute for appropriate public policy responses to the challenges our students may face in the 80 percent (Ferlazzo, 2010) of their lives (economic, geographic, family, etc.)

that we teachers cannot affect in the classroom. Even with that major caveat, though, I am unable to think of another teaching strategy that can have a more dramatically positive impact on our classes than one that helps students to motivate themselves. George Eliot wrote, “What makes life dreary is the want of motive” (Daniel Deronda, Book VIII, Chapter LXV). All of our students have motivations inside of them. The strategies in this book are one way to help create a setting where those motivations can come out, and where they can also fnd new ones to inspire them to even greater dreams.

I Still Want To Know How Do You Motivate Students?

Motivation ideas from your frst two books have been very helpful. I can always use more, though, and I suspect many other educators out there are thinking the same thing. Do you have any more suggestions?

Intrinsic Motivation: Why It’s Better and How It’s Nurtured

When students feel more motivated to learn, they perform better academically, show improved classroom behavior, and gain a higher sense of self-esteem (Hattie, 2011, p. 252; Usher et al., 2012, p. 1). Unfortunately, data—and the direct experience of many educators reading this book—shows that lack of motivation affects many of our students, and appears to increase each year from middle school through high school (Busteed, 2013; Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn, 2003).

Students can demonstrate this lack of engagement by withholding effort and by “voting with their feet” through rising chronic absenteeism as they get older (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012, p. 18), and chronic absenteeism is among the highest predictors of dropping-out of school (Balfanz & Byrnes, 2012, p. 25). To use terms frst used by Albert O. Hirschman (Gladwell, 2012), it appears that the lack of student motivation is a major contributing cause to many choosing this option of “exit” (withdrawal from active engagement) over “voice” ( active participation) in academic life.

How can we respond effectively to this “motivation crisis”?
One way to is to “double-down” on the common belief in the power of extrinsic motivation bonuses, points, stars, etc.—and its equivalents in the punishment arena. This chapter and book, as well as the previous books in this series, Helping Students Motivate Themselves (Ferlazzo, 2011a) and Self-Driven Learning (Ferlazzo, 2013), provide a different perspective, one best characterized by Sir Ken Robinson, author and speaker on education issues, who has said:

Farmers and gardeners know you cannot make a plant grow . . . the plant grows itself. What you can do is provide the conditions for growth. (Ferlazzo, 2012, June 4)

One of the key ways to “provide the conditions for growth” or, as the National Research Council put it, “create a set of circumstances” (National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, 2004, p. 14; National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, 2004; as cited in Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn, 2003) is by emphasizing intrinsic motivation (choosing to do an activity in order to gain pleasure from it or in order to help achieve an internalized goal) instead of extrinsic motivation (doing a specifc behavior in order to gain an outside reward).

Before reviewing what those “conditions for growth” might be, let’s quickly review some of the overwhelming research on “reward undermining” (Klass, 2012) that demonstrates why a reliance on extrinsic motivation should not be on that list:

  • Extrinsic motivation can be effective over the short term in encouraging mechanical tasks and compliance, but tends to be destructive in advancing creative and higher order thinking (Pink, 2009, p. 46)
  • Extrinsic motivators, though possibly effective in the short term to gain compliance to do a task, tend to diminish intrinsic motivation for that same activity over the long term (Deci et al., 1999, p. 659)
  • A recent study of 200,000 employees found that that those who were more intrinsically motivated were three times more engaged in their work than those who focused more on external rewards (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2013).
These critiques, however, do not mean that extrinsic motivation has no role in the home, classroom, or workplace. Even Dr. Edward Deci (perhaps the world’s foremost researcher on intrinsic motivation) recognizes that there are going to be times when carrots or sticks need to be used to encourage or stop a behavior because of the immediacy of a challenging situation. As he told The New York Times:


If you’re under a lot of stress or in a bad place, then having a conversation at that moment is not going to work. But, he emphasized, don’t let the situation end there. “You need to sit down the next afternoon when everyone’s calm, talk it through from both sides, then discuss ways so the behavior doesn’t happen again,” he said. “Always use the blow up as a learning moment the next day.” (Feiler, 2013, January 11)


In addition, author Daniel Pink discusses the need for “baseline rewards” (Pink, 2009, p. 35)—the basic and fair “compensation” that we must all receive in order to have any motivation at all. In school, that might mean a caring teacher, a clean classroom, and engaging lessons. In other words, extrinsic motivators have their place, but they must also be kept in their place.

So, if extrinsic motivation is not one of those “conditions for growth,” what is on the list? Self-Determination Theory, one of the most respected theories on human motivation, was originally developed by Professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (Ryan & Deci, 2000), and suggests that three elements combine to nurture intrinsic motivation—autonomy (having a degree of control over what needs to happen and how it can be done), competence (feeling that one has the ability to be successful in doing it), and relatedness (doing the activity helps them feel more connected to others, and that they feel cared about by people who they respect).

Many other reports and research related to education, including from the National Research Council, generally concur that these three elements are critical for the kind of environment that should be created for our students (Farrington et al., 2012, p. 32). In addition, most also explicitly add a fourth criteria—that the work must be seen by students as being interesting and valuable to them (Usher et al., 2012, p. 4). In other words, they should see it as relevant to their present lives and/or hopes and dreams for the future (Self-Determination theorists often include this quality of relevance within their “developing autonomy” category, Assor et al., 2002, p. 264). 

The ideas and lessons in this chapter, as well as those found in the entire book (and the frst two books in this series), are designed to help our students motivate themselves through cultivating these four qualities and to counter what the National Research Council suggests—that these four elements become less and less visible as students move into secondary schools (Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn, 2003).

Years ago, I lived in an elevated house that was at the bottom of a small hill. It had a storm drain on the street in front of it. During the summer, I would pour wood chips in the small dirt area between the sidewalk and the curb, and during heavy winter rainstorms the drain would get clogged up with debris floating downhill. Water would go over the curb, and all the wood chips would float away leaving a muddy area. 

Each year my wife would strongly suggest I plant grass or bushes in that area so that it could withstand the water, and each year I instead chose the short-term solution of wood chips—it appeared easier to me and seemed to work most of the time—until the bad weather hit. I chose this solution even though planting grass and bushes would have saved me time and money over the long term, made the neighborhood look better and, in fact, would have probably attacked the cause of the problem by reducing the amount of debris that was clogging the drain. 

I had other things on my “to do” list that I felt were more important and I was more comfortable with a problem I was familiar with than with a solution that was new to me—having a “green thumb” was not on my resume. Let’s see how we can get rid of the wood chips of extrinsic motivation. Instead, let’s plant some nice grass and bushes, and create the conditions in which they can grow well . . .






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