Motivated Students

In education we often hear the question being asked, “How can I  motivate my students?” And though I am sure that question always comes from a genuine place of desire to help students learn and grow… I’m not sure it’s the question we need to be asking.

Recently I have begun a professional inquiry into motivation. I started by watching the very famous Ted Talk by the very famous Dan Pink about motivation:

Although his Ted Talk is specifically focused on motivation in the business world, there is much to learned – and much that has already been learned – about how this translates in the education world.

Many people are familiar with the new paradigm Pink offers regarding human motivation:

Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose. 

Autonomy – The desire to direct our own lives

Mastery – The desire to be better and develop ourselves

Purpose – The desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves

And many people can see how this paradigm fits into a system of education that supports agency and life long learners… but then comes the ever-present question on educators’ minds:

“But what does it look like in the classroom?”

So I have begun to brainstorm ways to turn this theory into practice. I’ve started to a list of  ideas – linked to resources where possible – that I believe can help teachers build learning communities that support students’ autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy – The desire to direct our own lives

Mastery – The desire to be better and develop ourselves

Purpose – The desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves

I think it’s time we switch the question away from “How can I motivate my students?” and more towards “What are we doing – or not doing – as educators that is getting in the way of students’ motivation?” and “What changes need to be made in both our classrooms and the education system that allow students more autonomy, mastery and purpose during their hours spent at school?”

What does autonomy, mastery and purpose look like in your classroom?

How you do translate Dan Pink’s theory of motivation into practice with your students?

How do you protect and foster your students’ intrinsic motivation?

Supporting Students’ Agency

My students and I were recently asked to Skype into a PYP workshop to share examples of how student agency works in our classroom.

In preparation, we brainstormed everything this year that contributed to students experiencing a sense of ownership over their own learning. In addition to sharing our story with the participants of the workshop, I thought I’d also share the list with you!

So here it goes… a list of ways to support student agency:

What they think…

Setting up the classroom

Student shared that being invited to help set-up the classroom at the beginning of the year helped them to have a voice in decisions about their learning and how the classroom could be set-up to support their learning.

Making decisions together

Students reflected that being able to participate in decisions usually made by the teacher helped them feel like they had a voice. The specifically pointed out our classroom board where they could identify problems, ideas, and questions. The explained how the routine we had each morning going through the board and collectively solving problems, agreeing on ideas and answering questions helped them experience more control over in their lives as students.


Students identified the pre-assessments (or time capsules) we do at the beginning of each unit as playing a role in helping them to own their own learning. They explained that the pre-assessments help them know themselves and what they already know and can do before a unit starts. This helps them know where they are and where they need to go.

Choice and Trust

Students shared the importance of choice and trust in feeling agentic. Choice in where to learn, how to learn and who to learn with were identified as factors that helped them have agency in their learning. They also shared the importance of having trust from their teacher to test out different options and space to make mistakes and wrong choices along the way.  It was often experiencing choices that blocked or hindered their learning that had the biggest impact on getting to know themselves as learners.


Three-way conferences

Students reflected that our approach to three-way conferences also helped support their sense of student agency. Being able to share their thoughts and perspectives about their own learning first – before hearing from their parent or teacher – helped them feel the sense that the learning is theirs.

Planning their own day

Far and beyond, the one thing that students identified as helping them experience the most agency as learners was the opportunity to plan their own day. This has been a ongoing experiment and has taken many forms along the way – but the main idea is having students write their own day plans.

(I plan on writing a full post about this experience soon!)

Creativity Thursday

One specific version of students planning their own day is Creativity Thursday. Students explained that this provided them with the most ownership over their own learning – because unlike other days when they are planning their days around teacher planned units or school-chosen curricula – on Thursdays they have ultimate choice over not only when, how and where to learn, but also what to learn. On Thursday they are able to truly pursue passions, interests and curiosity of their own choosing.

What I think…

Learning about learning

I believe that investing the first month of school to learn about learning and learn about ourselves as learners set the stage well for students to feel empowered and capable of exercising ownership over their learning for the rest of the year.


In addition to pre-assessments, our approach to assessment in general this year has helped students to feel more agency in their learning. Approaching assessment as something you do with students – not to students – has helped them experience more ownership and voice in the process of assessing and evaluating their learning.

Learning Plans

Taking the time to purposefully plan out their learning, based on personal learning goals has also helped students be in charge of their own learning. Taking data from pre-assessments and planning what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn, how they were going to get feedback and how they will know if they achieved their learning goal really put them in the driver’s seat of their own learning.

Learning from each other

Building a culture where students see one another as valuable sources of learning, assistance and feedback has also helped students to be able to take ownership of pursuing learning through multiple avenues – not only depending on the teacher in the room.

Shifting from mandatory to optional 

This year, as much as possible, I have tried to move away from things that are mandatory for students (often decided, organized and arranged by their teacher). I tried to take things that students are usually obliged to participate in, and reimagine a way to make them optional. Our approach to reading buddies is one example of this.

Supporting student initiatives

I think it has been important to try and create a culture of initiative. Whether it is an idea to label to garbage cans, the desire for a height poster or a proposal for a field trip, I believe that honouring and supporting students’ initiatives this year, both inside and outside of the classroom, have help students notice and be aware of their own agency. It often comes at the cost of a “pinterest-perfect” classroom, but it is worth it!


Teacher transparency

I think it has also been important that I share my goals to develop student agency with my class. I think there should be no “secret teacher business” and that my students, their parents, my colleagues and administrators can all have a part to play in helping me work towards my goal. Being open and honest about my goals was a great first step, but then taking the initiative to ask for feedback about my goals was really what helped me reflect and grow along the way.

I am by no means an expert on the matter. Just a curious and interested learner who has tried to take risks and reflect in the pursuit of building a classroom that honours student agency. I’d love to continue my journey as a learner and hear from you as well!

How do you respect and support student agency in your classroom?

Student Agency vs. Reading Instruction

It is no secret that this year I have been trying to create a classroom culture that respects and supports’ my students’ agency in their journey as learners. One of my biggest challenges this year has been figuring out how traditional approaches to reading instruction can fit within a model designed to help students take back ownership of their own learning.

I’m currently completing my MEd capstone on student agency and in my research I came across a very provocative quote from Mary Chapman (an early learning expert at UBC) and I can’t seem to get it out of my mind:

“At the end of the day, if they don’t like reading and writing and they don’t do it unless they are forced to… what’s the point?” 

If my students only read and write when they are forced to read and write… what is the point, indeed.

So naturally one of my fundamental goals this year has been to create a culture of passionate readers and writers – with the help of much advice from Pernille Ripp. But moving from helping students learn to love reading… to helping students become better readers, is where I feel the waters start to get a little murky.

When I think about the commonly accepted approaches to helping students become better readers through the lens of student agency I begin to question some of our approaches. There are currenlty many common approaches to reading instruction under the microscope by many teachers – reading longs, mandated home reading programs, etc. – all of which I agree with. However, in addition to critically questioning these approaches, my learning tension tends to extend to other strategies for reading instruction – namely traditional approaches to guided reading.

When I think about guided reading through the lens of making students better readers I can see  benefits. But when I think about guided reading through the lens of student agency I can see red flags. In traditional approaches to guided reading the teacher chooses what, when, where, why and how the student reads. So I wonder, where is their voice and ownership in this activity? And how does this impact their love of reading?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not under the misconception that children magically learn to read and we as teachers don’t have a role in helping that to happen. But if I think back to the quote about students only reading when being forced to read, and how a lack of agency in the process likely contributes to this, then I begin to wonder…

How can we get the benefits of guided reading without sacrificing students’ agency in the process?

I have no magic answers, but I do have a few ideas about some possibilities….

I think a first step is shifting the culture of forced feedback to found feedback. Currently, we are giving students feedback about how to become better readers – whether they want that feedback or not. Which begs the question, how effective is unsolicited feedback. If we are telling students how to become better readers, and they don’t care – how much action is being taken based on that feedback? Again, don’t get me wrong I respect and recognize the neccessity and power of feedback in the learning process, I just wonder if there is a way to help students want to gather feedback, instead of just giving it to them.

I think order to create that culture of “gathering feedback” we need to start by asking the question “who owns the learning?” In a traditional approach to guided reading the teacher is doing the learning to the student. The locus of control rests with us as the teacher. We are making all the choices about why, what, how, when and where. The students merely shows up when we tell them to, reads what we tell them to, does what we tell them to and thinks about what we tell them to. They may be “active” in the sense that they are reading, speaking, thinking, and sharing, but they are not “agentic” in the sense of experiencing ownership over their own improvement as a reader. I think until this transfer of ownership occurs we can’t expect students to seek out feedback about how to improve.

I’m not saying scrap all approaches to reading instruction or stop guided reading altogether. I’m just saying that I think it’s time we reinvision these approaches. I think we need to be careful that our best intentions to create strong readers – aren’t creating strong readers… who only read when forced to. I think we as educators need to be asking questions like:

How can we empower students to know themselves as readers so they make informed choices about how they can improve?

How can we give ownership back to the students so that they are signing up to be part of a guided reading session?

How can we get the benefits of reading instruction without compromising student agency? 

How can we create better readers and writers without creating readers and writers who only read and write when forced to?

What if?

I started this year with a dream to build a fair, free, democratic classroom where students have agency over their own learning… and to be completely honest, it has been quite difficult. Most days I feel like I am trying to jam a round peg into a square hole. There are so many constraints and structures that run deep within the current system of school, that it has been difficult to circumvent them.

This year I have tried to change my practice to fit within the system, but I’m beginning to wonder if those goals are fully achievable without changing the system itself.

So I have begun to wonder…

What if curriculum, instead of being multiple pages with hundreds of bullets, was simply “find out where students are and help them move along”?

What if assessment, instead of being focused on achievement, measured and celebrated the amount of progress made by a student?

What if school goals, instead of being focused on an percentage increase of reading scores, focused on a percentage increase of love of reading?

What if reports, instead of being written solely by the teacher, were written collaboratively by the student, their family and the teacher?

What if timelines, instead of being based on pre-determined start and finish dates, were driven by students’ learning needs and interests?

What if grades, instead of ranking and labelling with letters, numbers and words, changed exclusively into feedback that advised students about how to improve and where to go next?

What if day plans, instead of being written by the teacher, were written by each student?

What if standardized tests, instead of measuring skills and knowledge, measured how much students enjoy school and find it beneficial to their life?

Sir Ken Robinson urges us that reform of the current system is not enough – it’s a complete learning revolution that is needed. Based on my experience this year I would have to agree. I think that making small shifts within the system is not enough, we as educators need to continue (or for some of us begin)  critically looking at and discussing what parts of the school system are harmful to or a hindrance of student learning. It’s time to stop talking about how best to jam a round peg in a square hole, and time to start talking about how to change the whole itself.

What revolutionary, systemic “what ifs” would you add to the list?

My hopeful vision for the future of literacy instruction…

I am currently working on my MEd at Nipissing University and loving my current course “New Literacies: Making Multiple Meanings“. We have spent 10 weeks inquiring into traditional literacies, new literacies, multiliteracies, digital literacies, multi-modalities and beyond!

And now, for our penultimate assignment, we have been asked to share our vision for the future of literacy. I have chosen to focus my vision on the future of literacy instruction in schools.  I have chosen to share my vision here, publicly with all of you, in hopes of stimulating a conversation about the future of literacy instruction beyond the four (virtual) walls of my online classroom. I have chosen to share my vision through words, images, screenshots, inforgraphics, memes and videos.

So here it goes….

I hope, in the future, students are encouraged to express their ideas and communicate through multi-modalities, using words, images, movement, sounds, videos, emojis, gifs, symbols, memes, hashtags and more…


(Screenshot from course participant)

I hope, in the future, that educators realize the very meaning of the word “literacy” is deictic.


(Screenshot from this published article)

I hope, in the future, educators realize that literacies are situated in time and place – not a frozen constant that have always existed and will always exist.

I hope, in the future, educators are discerning and fair in their criticism of new literacies and the technologies that make them possible.


(Labelled for non-commercial reuse here)

I hope, in the future, educators realize the volume of information being created and consumed without the use of pencils and paper.


(Image: Erik Fitzpatrick licensed CC BY 2.0)

I hope, in the future, the power of youth literacies are understood and harnessed in the classroom.


(Original image created by compilation of screenshots of classmates posts)

I hope, in the future, students are not confined by limitations of past literacies, but encouraged and supported to be readers, writers and communicators in the time period they were born in.


(Original image photographed by me)

I hope, in the future, narrative inquiries move beyond books to include the exploration of films and video games.


(Image source)

I hope, in the future, students are not only allowed, but also supported in learning how to share their ideas through blogs, tweets, snaps, instagram posts, podcasts, videos, vlogs, thinglinks, powtoons and more.


(Screenshot of classmate’s post)

I hope, in the future, the school system sees creativity and literacy as inextricably linked… unable to survive without each other.


(Image source)

I hope, in the future, that vernacular, situated, authentic and artifactual literacies play more of a central role.


(Original image compiled from screenshots)

I hope, in the future, a hyperlink is perceived no differently than a MLA citation.


I hope, in the future, students have their own Personal Learning Networks where they can connect globally with like minded learners, not confined by geographic location or age groupings.


(Image by Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano- on image (CC) by Alec Couros- /

I hope, in the future, the use of screenshots, memes and mashups are not seen as infringements on copyright.

I hope, in the future, classrooms show just as much (if not more) evidence of the 6 Cs than the 3 Rs.


(Screenshot taken from course material in summary of this publication)

I hope, in the future, to witness the death of the 5 paragraph essay, the weekly spelling test, the hamburger paragraph, the reading log, the story plot chart, the reverence of the paper dictionary,  and the overinflated sense of importance placed on penmanship.

5p meme.jpg

(Original meme created by me at 

I hope, in the future, education will prepare students for the world that is and will be… not the world that once was.

Finally, I hope that this future I have envisioned is not a distant future, but a near future – mere years away… months away… days away…  or, perhaps hopefully, already happening.

Throw out the day plans and follow your students 

Many educators today are faced with students who want to discuss nothing other than the US election… even in countries outside of America. My class was no different. So when one of my students asked “Can we spend some time today talking about the election?” I had two options.

1. Say no and offer an explanation about our lack of time due to assessments, report deadlines, and being behind in our unit…


2. Throw out the day plans, clear the schedule and go for it.

I chose the latter. I told the students that if they were interested they could come participate in a class discussion about the US election. About 90% opted to be part of the discussion and the rest of the class followed along with their pre-planned schedule. I decided to take on the role of facilitator, to allow students to explore their own and each other’s perspectives and ideas, instead of listening to mine.

It was great on so many different levels:

From a social/emotional stand point…

My students had very strong emotions about the US election. This gave them a safe place to share that they were sad, worried, upset, nervous, and confused. There were moments of tears and moments of laughter – lots of big, genuine emotions… noticed, named and shared within the safe space of our classroom community.

From a learning stand point… 

We learned about democracy. We learned about the US electoral system. We learned about the US branches of government. We inquired into the composition of the house, the senate and the cabinet. We learned new words like “advisor”.  We learned about the different states in the US. We discussed concepts of power, influence, and prejudice.

From a critical thinking stand point…

We discussed the importance of reliable sources and recent information. We learned how to ask the very important question “how do you know that?”. We talked about facts, opinion,  bias, rumour and propaganda.  We compared sources of news (BBC, CNN, SnapChat, ,YouTube).

Students wondered if you could ever be sure about the reliability of a source. Students questioned whether the current electoral system was the most fair way to choose a president. Students challenged the notion of children not being able to vote. Students were curious as to why there can only be one president and why it can’t be a shared position.

From an international mindedness stand point…

Students compared the US electoral system to that of their home country – Canada, Portugal, Kuwait. Students explored the concept of open-mindedness. Students discussed the desire to learn more about their own country’s government. Students discussed international relations. Students explored the common humanity of all people, regardless of colour, culture of religion.

It was open. It was honest. It was amazing.

As educators, we often spend hours among hours trying to plan for learning that is significant, relevant, challenging and engaging… when often times the most significant, relevant, challenging and engaging learning is not something we plan for in advance, but instead something we need to listen for and notice.

And most importantly, when those moments of opportunity appear, we must be willing to throw out our day plans and follow our students.

Are our authentic assessments truly “authentic”?

Most educators around the world are currently committed to creating “authentic” assessments. A way to measure students’ learning in a “real life” way.

But here are some examples of authentic assessments I have seen or heard about:

“pretend you are a designer”

“imagine you write for a magazine”

I began to wonder… if we are asking students to pretend to be or do something in their “authentic” assessment, isn’t that by nature inauthentic?

So I looked up the definition of the word “authentic”…


and the word “inauthentic”…


It seems like if we are asking our students to do something that is not real, accurate, true or sincere then it’s not really authentic. We’re merely mimicking what happens in the real world, without allowing our students to participate in or contribute to the actual real world.

I’m not discounting that these types of assessment tasks are an improvement from traditional tests and quizzes, but calling them “authentic” might be a bit of a stretch. I think if we are asking students to pretend to be or do something, then that’s quasi-authentic or pseudo-authentic at best.

Should we settle for quasi or psuedo-authentic tasks? Or should we be aiming for truly authentic ways for students to demonstrate their learning and apply new skills?

I vote the latter.

In this day and age, with the help of technology, students don’t need to pretend to be bloggers, magazine writers, podcasters, advocates, speakers, inventors, creators, designers, teachers, publishers….

they can actually be and do those things. Authentically.