In today’s episode of The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast, you’re going to hear from Dave Stuart Jr., a teacher, speaker, and author who has put a lot of time, thought, research, and consideration into the idea of student motivation. What helps make students more motivated? What can we do about the frustrating apathy that can creep into classrooms and make teachers feel powerless?
You’ve got two priorities I admire that I’ve noticed a lot in your writing, human flourishing and teacher sustainability. Let’s set the scene for our interview a bit by talking about these things.
We all see that when we are experiencing life and our work as something that’s engaging, with supportive relationships in our life and a sense of meaning and fulfillment, we tend to do better at promoting that in our work with students. Schools exist to promote the long-term flourishing of young people – that’s why we want to teach them to write, to think scientifically, to play an instrument, etc., because that’s going to help them to go on and flourish. So everything that I do in class needs to go through this filter – is this something I can really do for the one hundred twenty students in class, or is it going to be unsustainable?
So we’re going to be focusing in on one of your major areas of expertise, combating student apathy and helping students become more motivated in the classroom. You write about this on your blog and in your book, These Six Things, and you’ve even developed a whole online course on this for teachers. Why have you chosen to make this such a big focus of your work?
The simple answer is that no matter how good our strategies, no matter how amazing the unit, if kids don’t do the work that you need them to do, and they don’t do it with care, then the best lesson in the world is going to be minimally effective. Every teacher today experiences the varying shades of apathy in the classroom now – students aren’t always eager to do the levels of work.
We can come up with different ways to coerce them – through carrots or sticks or whatever – but the problem is, those things won’t make them do it with care, or curiosity, or attention.
You really can’t coerce care out of kids.
So my logic was just, let’s figure out what’s underneath the hood of that. What is it that makes kids do work and do it with care? So I began to research this and search for a simple, big bang for your buck way to do this.
You write about five key beliefs when it comes to helping students be motivated. Can you walk us through those?
#1 Credibility: When a kid thinks a teacher is good at their job. If the child believes this, it changes the degree to which they do the work and do it with care. This may sounds a bit hokey (like “use the force”) but this is from John Hattie’s research on Visible Learning. There’s a lot of science behind the credibility belief.
#2 Value: The belief in a student’s heart that this work matters to me, this is going to be useful to me, this is interesting to me, this is cool. There’s all different kinds of ways that students arrive at the value belief, and obviously it’s really important because no matter how hard we work on the other beliefs, if a student thinks that the work is pointless, these other beliefs aren’t going to be that impactful.
#3 Belonging: This has to do with identity and the degree to which students feel like they fit with us in the classroom. Seth Godin often uses the phrase, “People like us, do work like this.” This is a phrase to unite people and bring community. When someone is constantly wondering, “Do I fit in here? Is this a place where people like me belong?,” that uses up so much cognitive potential on that problem. The brain just doesn’t stop focusing on that problem.
This belief is especially important for students who are underrepresented in our classrooms.
#5 Efficacy: The belief that I will succeed at this. This is based on experiences of past success.
These beliefs fluctuate based on all kinds of different factors throughout the day – they’re hugely malleable and context-based.
These are big areas to dive into. What are some concrete steps you’d recommend for those looking to create a culture of motivation in their classrooms and schools?
All of us are working on these, intuitively. If you’re trying to help your students think of themselves as writers, you’re working on the belonging belief. You can use these beliefs as a grid for analyzing what you already do. This will help make the problem of apathy feel more solvable.
One high leverage step you can take is called moments of genuine connection. Have a clipboard with a list of the names of every kid that you teach, and try to create one of these moments with every kid on the list, as soon as you can.
A moment of genuine connection is just thirty seconds to three minutes long. You’re just indicating to a student implicit messages like I see you, I know you, I value you, I think that you’re fun. It’s these small little moments that make teaching the amazing thing that it is. What you’re trying to do with this list is to systematically create these more and more and more.
When we do this, we’re affecting our credibility with each student, who will feel seen by us. Part of credibility, the research says, is the sense that students have that we care. The care component of credibility has two important prongs – that we care about them as a person AND as a student.
You’re also affecting the belonging belief with these moments, and also your own motivation as a teacher.
By tracking it, by putting it on a clipboard, you’re just making it so that you can’t forget about it and let it fall by the wayside. Remember, these are quick. We’re not giving up three hours after school to have a big conversation with students. You might feel like you’re saving the world if you’re the teacher who’s door is always open, but you have to have time to plan your next lesson, to grade the writing, etc. For the sake of your own flourishing, don’t make teaching that kind of heavy burden in your life.
We all can also lead our students in a simple exercise developed by a researcher named Chris Hulleman from the University of Virginia. Have students brainstorm things that they care about in their life, then brainstorm the topics and assignments they’ve been studying in the last month in your class. Then have them draw lines between the two, and write about the connections. Have them share with a partner and then refine, make the connection even better if possible.
(Watch a video about this activity and find it here – the below screenshots are from the downloadable PDF developed by Hulleman’s Character Lab.)
If you do this exercise for ten, maybe fifteen minutes once a month, Hulleman has found in his research that the students who came into the class expecting to do really poorly, not valuing that course material, they tend to have significant jumps in their achievement in the class and their likelihood to take similar classes in the future.
Now let’s narrow in on how to intervene where specific kids are struggling with motivation. You write about three scenarios in your book – the kid who is incredibly grade-focused, the kid who comes across as not caring, and the kid who hates doing schoolwork. What are some options for teachers to start helping kids like these?
Your credibility in all three of these scenarios is an overpowering sword against these dragons of apathy. When the student perceives the teacher as good at their job and caring about the student, all of the following strategies are just going to be more effective and easier.
Before you continue, you might want to browse through some of Dave’s articles on teacher credibility:
- Teacher Credibility: If you Build it, They will Learn
- How to Become a more Credible Writing Teacher
- What to do when you need a Credibility Breakthrough: The Student-by-Student Ground Game
With the grade-focused students: Talk about long-term flourishing. Remind them that you care about how they do in the long run, about their flourishing in life. Tell them, our goal is to master the material. Apprentice yourself to the discipline. If you do what I tell you to do as a teacher, and aim at mastering this stuff as well as you can, then the grade will follow. The grade is going to come. That is how it works. This is a key message for grade-focused students.
When parents are grade-focused, approach them lovingly, with empathy, and just tell them that life for your child is not going to be made or broken by the grade, we just want to help them learn as effectively as possible. I just don’t die on the hill of grading, this is just not an area of critical importance to me. It’s OK to make adjustments to grades if parents are really concerned about something – we can look at it together and see what’s going on. Often, grade focus comes from home or comes from obsession. And it IS a motivation problem. Students are doing the work just for the grade, not really with the kind of care we’re hoping for.
With the kid who comes across from not caring, just totally apathetic: Try the 2 X 10 strategy. Take the most checked out kid in your class, the kid who refuses to do anything, and for two minutes a day for ten school days straight, talk to them about whatever they want to talk about but it can’t have anything to do with school. If you look at articles online about 2 X 10 and look in the comments, you’re going to see the most amazing gushing comments from teachers. What’s happening is, that student who appears to not care at all, typically has a full history of feeling like school is pointless, no one cares about me, I don’t belong here, and you’re breaking that up, breaking the pattern, breaking through the static with your interaction. Usually what you’re going to discover there is holy cow, this student is working at a great disadvantage. This can really change the equation, and you can connect the student with some resources to get other needs taken care of.
Read more about the 2 X 10 Strategy:
The 2 X 10 Strategy: A Miraculous Solution for Behavior Issues? (Angela Watson)
Two Times Ten Conversations (Educational Leadership)
With the kid who hates doing school work: There’s a million reasons to hate schoolwork. Moments of genuine connection can really help you identify what’s going on. Maybe the student is way more interested in video games, maybe they’ve had a big series of teachers who wrote them off, maybe they’ve got an overbearing dad putting pressure on them at home, etc. Once you figure out why they hate doing the work, you can identify which of the five beliefs you can target to help improve things for that student in your classroom.
For teachers struggling with student who are unmotivated, the task of making their classes work can seem Herculean. As teachers work to tackle this issue, what are some easy traps to fall into, that listeners should try to avoid?
The big trap to fall into is allowing this to be the next thing that you spend way too many hours on. The only way to avoid this in teaching, is to set some simple rules for yourself. You’ve got to set a quitting time every day, and when that time comes, you leave. And if that means that tomorrow you walk into a mess, well that means tomorrow you’re going to learn a lesson about time management. This rule has been my training ground for figuring out how to find efficient ways to impact student motivation. Because if you just google this, you can find the whole gamut from efficient ways to Hollywood teacher movies. In the movie Freedom Writers, the teacher is able to motivate her students, but she loses her marriage. When you have boundaries, you end up more efficient and also a better teacher.
Connect with Dave Stuart Jr.
- Husband and father who refuses to sacrifice family on the altar of professional success.
- Bestselling author of These 6 Things.
- Keynote speaker at conferences and events.
- Popular writer on teaching, literacy, and character with 35,000+ monthly readers.
- Award-winning educator who leads workshops for teachers around the country.