I have heard this question often during my teaching career and have even asked it on occasion. My reaction to the question has varied over my career. Early when I heard it uttered, or asked it, I often heard the response, well you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. I sometimes asked it looking for assistance, but met with the horse analogy I didn't move forward or grow in my practice and was frustrated. Other times when asking or hearing teachers ask it I felt vindicated that I wasn't the only one who had students who weren't jumping for joy in their classes either. I really find this response troubling because it didn't help my students, but rather helped me feel better about my own failure.
Over the last number of years, I have continued to ask the question and found better answers. I have found better, more passionate educators to engage in these conversations. Conversations about homework and grading. Discussions about Genius Hour and building relationships with students TLAP. I have read numerous books and talked with the authors about how they are changing education. I have sought answers to the question - How do you reach the unmotivated student?
I recently had a conversation with a teacher and this question popped up again. So looking at my experience I had to take pause with responding. Where I am in my journey in education I have come to the following stance on the question.
1. Ask the question! I want teachers to ask that question. Ask it often and to as many people who will listen. Ask it to your students, parents, anyone who might assist you in finding an answer. Why would I encourage this question? Let's face it no matter what you do in your class you are going to find students who might not buy into that lesson, activity or subject. We will all face unmotivated students as some point in our career. The question is what will you do about it?
2. Find a real answer! Don't settle for the horse analogy. Teachers should continue to ask the question but seek an answer that will provide them growth and improvement. You may not reach all of your students tomorrow, but if you reach 1 it is 1 more than yesterday and our goal is to reach them all. Don't accept the well that is the way it is, kids just don't care. Our kids deserve better and if you truly went into teaching for the right reasons you can't accept that either.
3. Look at who has the power to make the change! Again the ever popular horse analogy puts the onus solely on the student for being motivated and engaging in the learning activity. Teachers are in control of what happens in their classroom. Yes even in student centered classrooms, teachers are the ones who make the decision about how the class will flow. They make decisions about the topics, assignments, homework and grading.
4. Be Understanding - They aren't there YET! I have already shared some of my learning journey. Navigating the waters of education to figure out how to reach students is daunting. When the question is asked, the most important part is what is the intent of broaching the subject? If a teacher wants to feel validated in their own failure to motivate students they need to be challenged and coached up. We can't accept a reality where teachers aren't looking to grow. If teachers are asking the question for real answers, then they are far from a failure. They have recognized an area of need for improvement and want to improve. They need help.
Some things that have helped me improve this situation in my class.
1. Do a reality check- what is your current reality? Would kids come to your class if they didn't have to? Are they excited about what you teach and how you teach? The answer may not be what you want to hear, but you can't move forward until you identify where you currently are.
2. Connect with other teachers - you can't do it alone and teaching is a daunting profession. I made my greatest gains when I connected on Twitter and read the books of awesome educators. it is vital to find others who share your passion for education who you can delve into the challenges of education.
3. Try something new! If the way you have always done it isn't working, change it up. The biggest changes I made were grading, Genius Hour and becoming a PIRATE. Genius Hour tapped into student passions. Teach Like A Pirate refocused my efforts as a teacher toward building relationships with students. Grading- I focused on formative assessment where I am able to give students feedback and not letter grades. I also reduced the total number of summative assessments and made the emphasis skills over content. My area for continued improvement is to make my assignments more authentic.
4. Build Relationships - I have written on several occasions about my struggles to become the educator that I want to be. In many of those I reveal the fact that I followed the path of content over relationships. Connecting with your students, getting to know them is vital. Why aren't students doing the work? Well it could be they don't see value in it, or that they have a multitude of responsibilities beyond your class that take precedent over doing the task.
I found out some of my students were basically homeless living in hotels and were stressing about my assignments. I had made the move to going paperless and using technology for all my assignments. This was great for me, but not for these students who didn't have computers or internet access on a regular basis. In a conversation with our technology department I found out we were removing the computers from a lab and would be recycling them. I posed the question could we give these students the old devices? We came up with a loaner program for students and were able to help them.
When I began doing Genius Hour with my students I learned more about them than through any other activity I had ever done. Did it cost content coverage, yes. Did it change the way I viewed my students and they way they viewed me and my class absolutely. Did students learn, without a doubt! They had to reflect on their learning journey which for some was the most powerful learning experience they ever had and it wasn't for a grade.
I do not have a magic answer for motivating students because each student is unique and has their own abilities and interests. What I do know is students are much more motivated to do the work when the work has meaning to them AND they are actively engaged in the task. Students want to learn and do, we need to get out of their way and let them explore their interests and showcase their talents.
Q1 How do you reach the unmotivated student?
Q2 How motivated are students to complete your homework? Share some examples/evidence.
Q3 Are grades motivating for students? Have they done tasks that weren't graded and how does that compare to the efforts of graded tasks?
Q4 What have you done to get to know your students? - To really get to know your students?
Q5 When you find a student(s) who are excited about the learning opportunity, how do you react, what do you do?
Q6 What has been your most successful methodology to motivate/engage students?
Q7 What advice do you have for teachers struggling with motivating students? This goes beyond Q6 to ideas, actions, and more to help other teachers.