We Could Be Getting Far More from Our Students

Education|Evolving’s impulse being always to look for unstated premises, we’re struck by the way the ‘improvement’ discussion assumes the framework of ‘service delivery’. Unless we’re much mistaken the prevailing notion is that material is organized into courses, courses are organized as classes, the teacher is the worker, instruction is the technology. This is true, isn’t it?—that the discussion is filled with talk about ‘delivering education’? It’s almost as if ‘to learn’ were a transitive verb.

What if, instead, the effort at improvement stepped outside that framework, saw the student along with the teacher as the worker on the job of learning, and in organizing and running school set out to maximize motivation?

Deborah Wadsworth when heading Public Agenda once cited Daniel Yankelovich’s notion of ‘discretionary effort’. There’s a basic level of effort people will always give you. There’s an additional level they can give you if they want. The job is running organizations and in designing organizations is to maximize that discretionary effort.

At a dinner last year I suggested to a person prominent in the policy discussion the importance of motivation. (I wish I could show you the text, but it was a private occasion, unrecorded.) I do recall him saying: This is a slippery slope, to start with what interests students. It can lead down to Constructivism.

Yet motivation matters. Excellence is hard, so effort matters. And if effort matters then surely school should make motivation central, no? This was Jack Frymier’s conclusion from his life with teachers and students. If kids want to learn, they will. If they don’t, you probably can’t make ’em. Her conclusion irritates more than a few in education policy, but Mary Haywood Metz at the University of Wisconsin might be right that students do hold veto power over all education reforms. (See her work, “Real School: a universal drama amid disparate experience,” on pp. 75-91 of Politics of Education Association Yearbook 1989).

How would school be different if motivation were central?

Well, students could individualize, customize, their learning. Mel Riddile argues in Diplomas Count (Education Week June 11, 2009) that customization is inescapably implied if the goal is for every student to learn.

Customization means pace would change. Students needing more time would get more time; students able to go faster could go faster. Learning should then improve for both. And more students would move into college or into work by age 16, with not-insignificant implications for the economics of K-12.

Finally: Keying on motivation would change teaching. We’ll write tomorrow about how school might be arranged to maximize motivation for teachers. Or look at The Other Half of the Strategy: Following Up on System Reform by Innovating with School and Learning.

—Guestblogger Education|Evolving
Visit the Student Voices section of Education|Evolving’s Web site


9 Replies to “We Could Be Getting Far More from Our Students”

  1. Self-motivation is central to the ideas in the Ackoff/Greenberg book, which has problems, but has lots of interesting thoughts as well. It is high on the Sudbury Valley School model, of which Mr. Greenberg is a founder. One has to wonder if REALLY providing choice to students wouldn’t help get better teaching as well — if you class is uninteresting and nobody shows up, you hardly need another metric to know that you need improvement in your teaching.

    I grew up attending a summer camp where there were lots of activities. You could do whatever you wanted pretty-much whenever you wanted, but you had to be doing something – no sleeping the day away. Its amazing how much breadth and depth people had in their experience. This kind of thing seems beyond the pale for school reform. Why?

  2. Ted,

    This is the best post of the week for my money. Great ideas all around.

    What if motivation were central to schooling? Well, we’ve believed for years that it is. And we’ve created an entire model of teaching and learning, based on a lot of other people’s great ideas, that puts student motivation at the center of the game.

    First off, kids need choice in what they study. This is not free choice. There are parameters, several in fact. One of the most important is purpose. The choice of material, or strategy, or process must match the educational purpose or, as we’d rather call it, the learning goal. Sometimes the goal is the teacher’s goal for the learner, sometimes the goal is the learner’s goal for him or herself. Obviously, there’s more motivation when it’s the kid’s goal but often responsible adults have to supply important goals that kids wouldn’t naturally choose for themselves. My best case scenario is to always 2-3 goals for the entire class while each kid has 1-2 personal goals to work on as well.

    Second, we need an assessment system that recognizes motivation in the form of participation (or behavior if you prefer the term). This must be intrinsic motivation; we can’t manipulate kids or use reward/punishment systems. So we have a grading system, with a self-assessment component that does exactly this. Kids measure themselves against high standards for appropriate school behavior. Their final grade is based on a portfolio of work, over a reasonable period of time, with a discussion of how well they’ve performed and a teacher’s evaluation split 50/50. We grade on three elements: Participation, Progress (amount learned), and Performance (ability judged against an arbitrary standard).

    Third, we need authentic tasks. Kids are motivated by tasks they choose that are meaningful to them in their own lives. The parameter we set on these tasks is that they must have a real-world analog. So, for example, we don’t write book reports, we write book reviews. We don’t write persuasive essays, we write Op-Eds. In other subjects, we discuss the real “forms” of work that real professionals produce like business plans, for example, or policy papers, or information briefs, etc. And then we figure out how to produce them ourselves.

    Finally, the last key to getting more from our students is simply to ask for more. Kids who would normally read a few books a year, read 20-30 instead (they complain at first until they discover they can do it). At the same time, they write 20-30 essays. In math, they cruise through a year’s worth of curriculum with time left over for special investigations. The point is this: we KNOW kids can do more so we actually require them to do more. Will they spend 2-3 hours per night on homework? We don’t know until we ask. And they won’t do it until we help them make it meaningful. So there’s some motivation work to be done here, too. Some kids make it happen, some don’t. But most eventually come around — and transform themselves into a different kind of student in the process.

    In general, we follow a very simple algorithm for increasing intrinsic motivation: CHOICE –> OWNERSHIP –> ACCOUNTABILITY –> EFFORT –> RESULTS. Choice increases ownership which increases accountability with increases effort which improves results.

    It works like a charm.

    Can we get more from our kids? Dramatically more. So much more that the current standards and expectations don’t even apply. When I can have first graders writing multiparagraph essays and reading chapter books by mid-year, we’re off the developmental charts. When ESL 9th graders who start the year reading Nate the Great can finish the year reading Hatchet and Holes, we’re off the charts.

    And the best part is that teaching this way is so much fun you hardly stop to think about the work you’re putting in to make it happen.

    For a cool set of cross-curricular literacy strategies that help this process along, feel free to download this:


    For a quick look at how we handle reading, particularly the choosing of books and conferencing with young readers, check out this:


    For an overview of our self-assessment and grading method, try this:


  3. You follow this logical sequence that gets you correctly to the job of a school is to “maximize student effort.”

    But then you keep making a leap to this the notion that the best way to maximize effort is…

    …to let kids pick what they want to do.

    The schools which generate the most student effort over baseline, like KIPP, only use “choice” at the margins

    Their main way to maximize effort is to

    a) create systems of accountability (for how kids sit in class, homework completion, etc…both rewards and punishments)


    b) a positive but “urgent” culture where those systems can work/be enforced.

    Would you agree that the field seems to recognize the No Excuses model as a more efficient way than “students choose” to maximize student effort, at least in high-poverty schools?

  4. GGW,

    Why is it important to maximize student effort? Do you have to always expend effort to learn? Don’t you find that there is value in having time for your mind to wander – to think about things you may have heard earlier — to ponder a problem? Does one always have to be writing papers, solving scripted problems or doing experiments in order to learn and make progress?

    “How kids sit in class”? Really? Gag me with a spoon.

  5. GCW,

    You suggest that I am wrong simply because you believe I am wrong. Yet I’m not promoting this as as “idea” per se. Rather, I’m describing years of actual practice. The kids who show the most intrinsic motivation are not highly regimented (with choice only at the margins). That’s just part of the KIPP philosophy and it may be appropriate with the kids they serve. More likely it works for the adults who teach there. Which is fine, too.

    I am describing 15 years of my own practice, my group’s, and hundreds of teachers we’ve trained. I’m also referencing, obliquely at least, the huge use by thousands of teachers of the workshop model of instruction which is easily 30 years old by now and well documented.

    I would wager that you have never tried “guided choice” or any such model of improving student intrinsic motivation. If you have, by all means, share your results. But if you haven’t, don’t tell me my results, and those of the teachers I’ve observed, are wrong.



  6. Your post was a wonderful blend of obvious common sense with an inspired comination of insights and profound ways of articulating your position.

    Of course, “motivation matters. Excellence is hard, so effort matters. And if effort matters then surely school should make motivation central …”

    Equally obvious, is the statement that “students do hold veto power over all education reforms.” To deny that statement is to deny respect to your students.

    Only educators with real world experience will recognize the levels of wisdom embedded in the statement that “How would school be different if motivation were central? … Well, students could individualize, customize, their learning.”

    I’ll skip the “inside baseball” discussion of the ideological disputes that your insight would resolve. I’ll try to remember to give you credit when I steal your words.

    But then your anecdote reveals the depth of the problems made worse by the “reformers'” ideological blinders, ” in the policy discussion the importance of motivation. (I wish I could show you the text, but it was a private occasion, unrecorded.) I do recall him saying: This is a slippery slope, to start with what interests students. It can lead down to Constructivism.”

    That’s why I pick on GGW. I worry that too many dedicated young educators are being socialized into a reductionistic vision of education.

    On the other hand, I’m reading a great book that reinforces your ideas, Reading Allowed, by Steve Peha.

  7. John,

    Thanks for having my back here. But more for your wise words: “I worry that too many dedicated young educators are being socialized into a reductionistic vision of education.” Well put and manifestly true on several levels.

    At the state level, my wife just pointed out (after I explained the truth about our state’s testing system) that high stakes testing only serves the needs of high-level bureaucrats because for a single student the margin of error is too large and our state offers up to the three retakes of any test in most years.

    At the district level, I happen to meet with our local superintendent yesterday about a very simple matter: Why he had not taken me up on my offer to give — pro bono — 300-400 hours per year of my company’s consulting services to the district each year for the past five years. This would be an extraordinary resource, one as large as that given to our largest paying clients, but he and his team have not figured out how to “retain” us despite asking us to help them every year. As the Asst. Super put it: “Well, obviously, coming to the district and saying ‘How can we help?’ doesn’t work!” Clearly, this view of education is exceedingly narrow if a district can’t even take free help that it admits publicly it desperately needs.

    At the building level, principals are weighted down these days with test data they simply don’t know how to deal with. Mainly this has to do with the fact that the data doesn’t inform instruction so, other than knowing that your kids can’t read, which you probably already know, you don’t get much information about what to do to help them. At the same time, they’re all supposed to be running their schools with data-driven decision-making. And, of course, they’re trying, but simply don’t have data you can make good decisions with.

    And finally, in the classroom, we see the ultimate reductionist view in the teach-to-the-test culture that has swamped most educator’s attempts to observe and assess their kids in authentic activities using actual human judgment — and then decide what to teach based on what one observers rather than on a standards guide, a curriculum map, a textbook, a script, or a program.

    So, yes, education is getting smaller by the day. Fortunately, adult brains are shrinking much faster than kid brains — which have youth and increasing numbers of neurons on their side.

    And so we fight on!


  8. The reason most students aren’t motivated is because they have been given poor instruction. Imagine sitting through hours and hours of classes on super advanced particle physics… we wouldn’t be motivated either.

    This is what it’s like for students who find themselves in Jr. HS and HS, and only read on a 2nd or 3rd grade level.

    It is backwards to say that motivation will improve learning, when actually its learning (through proper instruction) that will create motivation.

  9. Hello everyone! I have been teaching fifth grade at a Pennsylvania state school for a few years, and could not agree more with the idea that we need to maximize motivation for our students. I too feel that we could and should be getting far more from our students than what we currently are. Making motivation central to teaching would truly improve learning at an exponential rate. I believe the problem is learning how to bring about that motivation.
    Rory, you stated that students are not motivated due to poor instruction. This relates to the importance of real-world contexts within our classrooms. If students do not see the simple value or need for the information being presented, they will always ask the question “Why do I need to know this?” The question is rightfully asked. Some of the earliest educational theorists would agree with our ideas. Bandura and Vygotsky to name a couple.
    I really appreciated the comment that Steve made earlier in the blog. “Students can do more, so we should require them to do more.” This is undoubtedly true. However, we must solve the problem of motivation first. Each student has a locked box with the secrets of their own motivation within it. As educators, we hold a number of keys to a number of boxes. The challenge is finding which key opens each student’s box. This is not an impossible task, and we do have the methods and tools we need. For some students we must use the guided choice model, for others perhaps an engaging anticipatory set will unlock the box. Once the box is opened, then and only then will we be able to require the students to do more than what is normally expected of them.
    There is a quote from a true-life movie that I will never forget. The move is called “Stand and Deliver.” It is an inspirational film about a very motivational instructor who turned around a poverty stricken school faced with losing accreditation. The quote went something like this, “Students will rise to the expectations given to them.” As teachers, we need to remember that quote.

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