Heart over Head: Motivating Reluctant Learners

By: Charles Beaman


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 meaningful basis.

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 random basis.

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: bea71352@aol.com


Previously published in Middle School Journal, April 2011


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