In the early 1970s, Charles Silberman’s book Crisis in the
Classroom rocked the education landscape with its verdict
that schools were sterile, dry places of learning.
Although the claims of the book should have revolutionized
learning with a quantum leap toward more scintillating
ways to motivate students, some 40 years later in the midst
of a digital awakening, we still approach learning in similarly
sterile ways. We can do better. Here’s how:
Ask the Right Questions. Educators often ask the wrong
questions about student motivation. Why don’t these
students want to sit down and learn? What’s wrong with
these children? Why aren’t they interested in learning? The
list may go on and on.
Here are a couple of ways to ask the same questions
differently: What interests do my students have? What can I
do today to cause my students to want to learn? What can I
do right now to meet my students’ needs?
What a difference perspective makes. When teachers
focus on things they can control, the possibilities are
endless. Several caveats about motivation may be helpful.
It’s more about the heart than the head. Emotions
drive learning. The way you make students feel takes
precedence over the knowledge you impart.
It’s not the strategy; it’s how we use it.
It’s more about you than it is the student. Teachers have the
ability to affect a huge percentage of students’ motivation.
It’s not magic. Like baking a cake, the ingredients must be
thoroughly and appropriately mixed.
It’s the gap between what we know and do not do. Most
middle grades teachers know that greeting students at
the door, for example, strengthens the teacher-student
relationship bond but neglect to do it on a regular and
Listen to Students. Simply wishing students were
motivated will never help solve the motivation puzzle.
Several years ago, a young lady approached our table in a
local restaurant where my wife, our two teenage daughters,
and I were having lunch, and boldly asked, “Aren’t you Mr. Beaman?” She informed us that she had been a student
in my seventh grade language class and was now the
president of the PTA where her children were in school.
“I’m Cathy,” she beamed, “and I just want to tell you what a
difference you made in my life.”
Can you imagine how my ego began to swell? My wife
who sat to my left would now learn firsthand what a great
language arts teacher I had been, and my daughters would
now know that I am qualified to give them wonderful
advice on their essays and other assignments.
The young lady went on to tell us that she had been
going through a traumatic time in her life in seventh grade
and she did not know whether she would make it from one
day to the next. She said, “But when I came to your class, I
found hope, joy, and peace.” Wow! Not a single thing about
my ability to inspire students with my great teaching skills!
Cathy, in her own way, was telling me that coming to my
class motivated her to live another day, and that motivated
her to learn and achieve.
Read Children’s Books. Dot, a fascinating little children’s
book by Peter Reynolds, gives an amazing account of Vashti,
who is unmotivated to do art. Vashti adamantly refuses
to complete an art activity, but her teacher’s approach to
dealing with Vashti’s reluctance opens the door to creating
a very successful and highly motivated artist.
Rather than berate, humiliate, or badger Vashti, her
teacher does the unexpected by coaxing her to “make a
mark and see where it takes you.” The student angrily jabs
the paper, making a dot, and gives it to the teacher. What
her teacher does next is a phenomenal feat that rocks
Vashti’s world, changing her forever. The teacher frames the
dot in a gold frame and hangs it behind her desk. Motivated
to make better dots, Vashti later becomes the star of the
school art fair after churning out multiple creative dots.
In addition to hanging the picture, what did the teacher
do that motivated Vashti to become such a successful artist?
She validated her, encouraged her, and caused her to take
ownership. She also engineered success, didn’t give up
on her, and expressed confidence in her. And, the teacher
connected with her and showed acceptance through
humor and a smile.
Dot is a wonderful reminder of the awesome power a
teacher has to motivate a student to sail beyond even the
teacher’s or student’s expectations.
Listen to Students and Seek Their Input. Be open, affable,
and approachable. Middle grades students like to be
engaged. My students taught me a lot about motivation in
my first urban school experience as a teacher.
I replaced a teacher who had gone on leave. Because I
was new and had been assigned to teach social studies to
eighth graders (although I fully expected to teach language
arts), I did nothing to venture outside the cumbersome text,
often lecturing and having students write answers to the
questions at the end of the chapter.
Several of my students told me how much they liked me
as a person, but that their other teacher made the lesson in
the book more fun. Aware that I was dishing out only dry
morsels of fake learning prompted me to ask the students
what their previous teacher did to make learning enticing.
They readily obliged me by sharing the teacher’s dynamic
and engaging approach to learning.
This was my moment of awakening, the great motivational
epiphany. Books don’t motivate; teachers do. I began
asking students twice a year, before winter break and at
the end of the school year, to give me feedback on learning
activities and tell me which ones they enjoyed the most and
least. Their feedback shapes my teaching.
Provide Choice. Choice is liberating and exhilarating.
Build it into lesson plans and use it freely. It does not need
to be complex. For example, students may have a choice of
beginning a paragraph now or after lunch. From a list of 20
items or questions, students may choose to do the even or
the odd numbers.
If you have a student who is not turning in work,
approach the student with the offer of doing one of
three assignments to receive a grade. Of course, two of
the assignments are a little longer or more difficult while
one is simple and shorter. When the student returns the
assignment to you, make a big deal about it, indicating that
you always knew the student could do quality work. Get
emotional about it and then dismiss the student to run an
errand for you to allow the episode to marinate and sink in
with the student.
You have now strengthened the bond between behavior
and outcome. Upon returning to class, the student is likely
to be more cooperative. It is important to cultivate and
consistently reinforce this bond.
Get Physical. If your students need some incentive
to do homework, offer them a surprise. When assigning
homework to the class at the end of the day or a period,
announce that you will have a surprise for everyone who
turns in their homework the next day.
Find a set of concentration or memory cards to match the
number of students in your class. As students file into class
the next day, greet them at the door by asking if they have
their homework. Give each student who turns in homework a card. Students who do not have homework do not
receive a card.
At the end of the five-minute bell activity, ask students
who have cards to find their match then sit together to
compare homework. Students who do not have homework
must come to Australia (down under, away from the
classroom community) to begin working on homework
silently with you.
This is a great way to capitalize on students’ need
to socialize and collaborate, thus strengthening the
bond between homework and outcome. If you want to
strengthen the bond more, continue this activity on a
Three Pluses and a Wish. Many theories abound about
motivating students, and we tend to vacillate between two
extremes in the school setting: reward and punishment.
Elementary school teachers typically gravitate toward
rewards, while middle grades teachers lean toward heavy
doses of punishment and bribery or some combination of
both. Punishment (including threats) works momentarily,
and rewards seem to work for the short term, when, in fact,
they supplant intrinsic motivation.
Real learning is its own reward. Experience taught me
early that there are only two ways to motivate students’
performance and compliance: make it unpleasant when
students do not comply or make it pleasant when they
do. The first of these methods is easy logistically because
it’s convenient. But the long-term success is dismal and
disappointing. The second, although it requires some
upfront planning and thought, creates long-term success
and is sustainable.
The following scenario demonstrates the point. A math
student comes to math class each day and fails to complete
assigned work. Does the teacher have to make the student
feel bad by announcing a “0” for the grade book, telling the
student that failure is imminent, humiliating the student
(e.g., “I don’t know why I bother because you didn’t do
anything yesterday either.”), threatening to call a parent, or
sending the student to the office?
There is a better alternative. It begins with greeting the
student at the door and offering an invitation to learn.
Before the class begins, use PEP (privacy, eye contact, and proximity). Approach the student, and say, “Thanks for
coming in quietly, you look nice today, and I really like the
color of your shirt.” The student may be stunned. Before the
student can regain composure, touch the student on the
shoulder and politely say, “And, now I wish you’d get busy,”
and walk off.
Three pluses and a wish—what a powerful strategy to
motivate students in a positive, heartfelt way.
Charles A. Beaman, a former middle school teacher, assistant principal, and principal, and adjunct professor, lives in Hermitage, Tennessee. He is a frequent presenter at the NMSA annual conference. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Previously published in Middle School Journal, April 2011