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?

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?

Are we providing “space” for virtual making?

Maker Space is the current hotness. No debate there. I cannot scroll through Twitter without seeing a school’s new Maker Lab, a classroom’s new Maker drawer or an article about the benefits of “Making”. Yet I can’t help but wonder…

Are all “making” experiences being treated equally?

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students cutting cardboard, rummaging through tools, using a hot glue gun, and twisting wires together . They would probably be pleased. They would probably say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”

Let’s say someone walked into my classroom and saw my Grade 4 students all on their iPads. But, on their iPads they were playing the game MineCraft. Would they be pleased then? Would they say “Wow! Great Maker Space!”?

A few weeks ago I know I wouldn’t have. A few weeks ago, my understanding of Maker Space was something that existed in actual reality. Then one day last week, when my students were taking a ten minute break to “recharge their batteries”, I made the great decision to ask my students a simple question:

What are you doing on Minecraft?

I was actually blown away! One of my students showed me a three story mansion with over 10 rooms – stables, secret panic rooms, appliances, fireplaces, staircases, furniture – that she had built by herself… brick by brick! She told me about the different materials she needed, and the different combinations that made certain structures. She spent three weeks building it – of her own time. 

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My thinking was instantly challenged and my perspective began to shift. Wasn’t the Maker Movement about the essence of designing, creating and building – not hammers, boxes and ductape. Were those goals not still being accomplished, virtually, through Minecraft?

I began to wonder if virtual making is being held in the same regard as physical making in today’s schools. And if it’s not, why? Is it because as adults we are unfamiliar with virtual maker programs like Minecraft? Is it because as adults we have biases against virtual experiences? Is it because as adults if we don’t understand it, it must not be worthwhile? I know for me, most of the answers -sadly – are yes.

So I will strive to learn. I will strive to become familiar with what my students love and are using. I will strive to become literate in new literacies. I will strive to become more aware of my own biases and my prejudices against things that I don’t understand. I will strive to not value learning in the physical realm over learning in the virtual realm.

And when visitors come into the room, see my students on their iPads and ask “What are your students doing?” I will confidently answer “they are doing Maker Space”.

You lost me at levels and incentives…

A few weeks ago I attended a training session for an online reading product. I arrived open-minded and ready to learn about a new tool to help my students develop their love of reading.

Then words and phrases from the presentation started to buzz around me like pesky bees.

“stars earned for books read”… swat!

“limit their levels”… swat!

“comprehension quiz”… swat!

“pre-made”… swat!

“worksheets”… swat!

“generic lessons”… swat!

Then it started to become worse than buzzing. I was shown how to control what students read, how to restrict how they read and how to send them messages to which they could not reply. Cringe.

Where is the student ownership, voice, agency?

So I began to do a little research on their website:

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Ranking. Control. Practice, practice and more practice. 

Nothing about love, joy or passion. 

The whole time I was listening to the presentation and browsing the website I could not get this poem written by John Locke our of my head:

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I don’t want to do anything that gives my students an aversion to reading or learning. I do not want to make reading a business for them. I want to help them grow their passion as readers.

5 years ago I probably would have jumped on board and signed my students up. I’ve become more discerning since then. I become more informed since then. I’ve become more critical since then. I’ve become more emboldened since then.

Amazing provocateurs like Pernille Ripp, Mark Barnes and Alfie Kohn have challenged my thinking about reading practices like reading logs, levelling, and incentives. They have prompted me to reflect on how the choices I make as a teacher can kill my students’ love of reading. They have forced me to think of myself as a reader when thinking about what I should be asking of students. They have provided me with guidance about how to create a passionate reading environment. They have inspired me to become a reading warrior where I critically think about and advocate against literacy practices and products that negatively impact children. They have inspired me to break the rules.

Yet time remained in this presentation, so I tried to see the potential uses. Here was a website offering thousands of online books. Books… hmmm. I began to wonder about these “books”. So I dug a little deeper.

“professional illustrators who have years of experience illustrating educational material

excerpts and adaptations from literature”

Was this a place where students could access real books or materials for reading instruction?Because those aren’t the same things.

I think my students deserve exposure to good quality literature. I think my students deserve to be free from levelling and ranking. I think my students deserve voice and choice in what they read and how they read. I think my students deserve to develop their love for reading away from prizes, rewards and incentives.

Is there not an app or website where students have access to literature with no levels, no incentives, no restrictions or limitations?

Is so, please tell me about that.

Teacher Spaces vs Student Spaces

Who is most important in the classroom? Who is the classroom designed for?

Obvious answer… the students!

But if you take a second look at a typical classroom, does the physical space and set-up point to the same answer?

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Teachers typically have a large spacious desk with multiple drawers, many of which that lock. 

Do students?

Teachers typically have a large, comfy, adjustable chair with wheels, 

Do students?

Teachers often have a private, locked cabinet for their personal possessions (bags, wallets, phones etc.).

Do students?

Teachers typically have a personalized corner of the classroom where they post pictures of their families, friends, old classes etc. 

Do students?

Arguably you could say that teachers spend more time in the classroom than students – that it is their home away from home and therefore they need more comfortable furniture. Arguably you could say that teachers have more to do than students and therefore need more space. Arguably you could say that teacher’s possessions are more valuable than students and therefore need to be locked up. I’m not sure I agree.

Students spend a large part of their day in their classroom and I’m sure if you asked them they would say it is also their home away from home. Students have SO much to do and organize in a day – multiple subject, assignments, binders, notebooks, projects – and I’m sure if you ask them they would say they would like more space. Students come to school with many valuable things, not only wallets, lunch money and phones, but also precious and sentimental toys, books and artifacts and I’m sure if you asked them they would like to be able to safely lock up their treasure.

So if we return to the original question – who is most important in the classroom – the large desk, comfy chair, extra space, personal photos, locked storage… it would seem like many teachers have a lot more comforts and luxuries than their students. Why is this the way it is? What does this reveal about how teachers and students are viewed in the school system? Does it have to be this way?

As a teacher, I wonder what it would be like to spend a year with a simple desk, a basic chair, an open cubby in the hallway and no personal pictures on the wall.

Maybe I will give it a try and find out… 

Re-thinking “morning work”

How many adults wake up and start their day with a worksheet?

None that I know of.

Whether it is called “bell work” “morning work” or a “a daily warm up” lots of students begin their day by completing a worksheet, answering questions or a doing a pre-planned activity – all of which have been decided for them by the teacher.

Just check out Google or Pinterest to see all the different varieties:

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But how do people start their day in their ‘real world’?

I start my day by scrolling through my Twitter.

My husband starts his day by meditating.

My mother starts her day by doing a crossword puzzle.

My father starts his day by playing chess.

My best friend starts her day by working out.

My mother-in-law starts her day by reading.

My father-in-law starts his day checking sports scores.

All different. All valuable. All self-chosen.

Why can’t students start their school days like this? Why can’t students choose how they start their own school days? Perhaps if we allowed students to choose how to begin their school day we would not have to stand in the halls and count down from 10 and compel our students to enter the classroom. Perhaps they would want to enter because they are excited and happy to be at school and start their day. I know teachers have many administrative responsibilities at the beginning of the day like attendance and collecting field trip forms, so a 10 – 15 minute window of time is needed to ensure these responsibilities are met. But why are we dictating how students spend those first 10-15 minutes warming up to their day?

Next year I plan to have a discussion with my students about how humans start their days. I plan to share how my friends and family begin their days, and I hope my students will share how their friends and family begin their day. I hope we can use this to create a list of possibilities about how students might start their day and post it somewhere in our room. Then I plan to respect their freedom and choice over how they start their school day while I am competing my administrative responsibilities.

Imagine the learning that might happen….

Imagine the connections that might happen….

Imagine the skills that might be developed….

Imagine no longer needing to find, photocopy and mark “bell work”…