In our district, secondary literacy intervention teachers are asked to focus on three elements of development for a productive literacy learning community: skill, motivation, and self-perception/self-efficacy. Secondary struggling/striving readers are a complicated lot. Many factors have contributed to their general lack of success with reading and writing. Lack of skill and the reasons for that are important. However, students must feel motivated to give the effort required for growth, and they must believe their effort matters. That needed motivation is significantly fueled or hindered by a student’s perceptions of who he is as a learner, more specifically, as readers and writers. Students must find what intrinsically motivates them, or we need to help students determine what intrinsically motivates. According to Daniel Pink in his book Drive, “humans are built to be intrinsically motivated, but have been taught to be extrinsically motivated through years of overt control applied to ‘encourage’ us to work,” or in this case learn. Do offers of rewards or threats of consequences ever do more than get kids to comply? The evidence suggests that learning is rarely the outcome of extrinsic motivators.
Motivating a middle or high school student is no easy process. Their journey has already been long and arduous. Along the way students lose track of why reading is matters to anyone, and more personally, why it matters to them. We have to presume that many other capable teachers have attempted to build literacy skills in our students and many have tried to convince students that the extra effort will be beneficial. More often than not, the students have decided that their ability level is a pre-determined, innate part of them. They are not readers. They aren’t built to be good writers. Their future will be built on something that requires some skill they innately possess, and reading or writing isn’t it. Now, after multiple years without proof to the contrary, a secondary literacy teacher is telling them that being a proficient reader is a life skill and that they must possess it to be successful. Worst of all, it is going to take many challenging hours of practice with skills built around the very things our students have learned to despise: reading and writing and thinking about reading and writing.
Relationship building is the first step, no matter what the next steps are. The next steps may be more influenced by the motivation philosophy you accept, but relationships are first. I’ve yet to see a student authentically motivated without the foundation of a positive relationship. We’ve all heard that students need to “know that you care, before they care what you know.” That is never more true than with adolescent students-in-the-gap. A great deal of what we do and say to convince students that the effort matters to them, must be built on acceptance from the student that the message comes from a credible, fair and consistent source holding high attainable expectations. They must believe the message is built on sincere love and respect for students. That’s heavy stuff. Nothing life-changing really happens before that exchange of positive beliefs occurs. Often, when an adult reflects on the place in their journey when they found focus and direction for life, it was through the relationship with an excellent teacher. (No pressure, right?)
Resources for building relationships with resistant, challenging students:
Classroom Management Strategies for Difficult Students
The Teacher as Warm Demander
So I am on a rabbit hole journey through the concepts of motivation, habit development, and growth mindset. My hope, over the next few months and through this blog, is to make practical connections between effective classroom instruction and the research on how motivation and growth mindset happen for humans in general. There is a great deal being published about these topics. Theories and research can seem overwhelming and difficult to apply. However, above all else, teachers seem to want to understand how to motivate students and help them build the skills needed for an information-rich society. Frequently, teachers feel forced to desperately offer extrinsic rewards for short-term gains, but their sincere efforts rarely lead to good habit development, stronger motivation to engage or a change in the students self-efficacy.
Personally, I don’t believe that the universal struggle to motivate our readers-in-need is simple or easily assigned as a characteristic of a generation. I am driven to help teachers address the causes and effects for our students. I would appreciate hearing from you about your questions and concerns for your under-motivated students. I will use the questions you offer up, along with the ones from my colleagues, to guide my posts about this topic over the next few months.