Are your students really motivated?
One way to tell is to step outside your room for a minute. If students are on task when you return, they are motivated. If chaos has erupted, they are not, says Larry Ferlazzo.
The Luther Burbank High School English and social studies teacher is the author of Self-Driven Learning: Teaching Strategies for Student Motivation, published in March, a sequel to Helping Students Motivate Themselves: Practical Answers to Classroom Challenges (Eye on Education Publishing).
As a new school year begins, this Sacramento City Teachers Association member shares some tips so that CTA members can help students discover their inner drive.
A conversation with Larry Ferlazzo
Can teachers motivate students?
Not really. We’ve all had passionate speakers get us energized to do something, and after they’re gone, we fall back into what we used to do. It’s the same in the classroom. Instead of motivating students, we can figure out strategies to help students motivate themselves. Some students have that inner spark already because they’ve had role models. Others need help.
What’s the key?
Learn their goals and dreams and hopes for the future. Where do they want to be eventually? When we connect what they’re doing in the classroom to what they want to achieve, students see school as the vehicle to achieve their goals. Let’s say I have a student whose goal is to be an ultimate fighter. We discuss how he will need self-control when he goes into the ring, and one way to develop self-control is to show it in the classroom. By steering students toward developing self-control and perseverance, higher academic performance follows.
How do relationships make a difference?
A perfect example is a ninth-grader who faced many challenges and did very little work in class. Because I knew he was a football fan, I asked him to write a persuasive essay about why the 49ers were the best team in the NFL. He followed appropriate forms, models and style, and after he was done, he asked if he could write another essay about basketball to make up work he hadn’t done before. His mother cried because he had never written an essay before. If I hadn’t known that he was a sports fan, I wouldn’t have known what he would like to write about. It’s important for teachers to help students feel they have some degree of power through choice. Teachers can do that by listening and working hard to develop relationships.
Is there pressure to succeed?
A challenge for teachers is helping students understand the difference between “learning goals” and “performance goals.” A learning goal may be to read a challenging book to learn something new; a performance goal is focusing on doing something to get an A. Students who focus on learning goals lean toward higher academic performance in the long term.
Intrinsic vs. extrinsic?
Research shows you might get people to do things in the short term through awards and consequences, but over the long term these things don’t encourage higher-order thinking skills or creativity. Obviously, we all use extrinsic motivation now and then, such as rewards, grades and consequences. The key is leaning more toward the intrinsic, or helping students motivate themselves. To do that, I give lots of life skill lessons about self-control and future rewards. I tell them about the famous “Marshmallow Experiment.”
The Marshmallow Experiment?
Years ago, a researcher put young people in a room with one marshmallow and told them if they didn’t eat the marshmallow within 15 minutes, they would receive two. A third of the children showed self-control and got two marshmallows. Researchers followed these children and found, over 40 years, they had higher SAT scores, higher income and more positive outcomes across the board. It’s important to give short lessons about why it is important to have goals and self-control and not eat the marshmallow. Perseverance, grit and the ability to stick with something you don’t like are much more accurate indicators of success than getting good grades. I help my students see that. We look at successful role models like Michael Jordan and Barack Obama. It’s more effective than threatening students with negative consequences, such as, “If you don’t do this work I’m going to fail you.”
What else can teachers do?
Teachers need to ask themselves an important question: Would they want to be a student in their own classroom? Students want a teacher who cares about them and works hard. It’s not easy. Do I use extrinsic motivation sometimes? Of course I do. Do I lose my temper sometimes? Of course I do. I’m human; we are all human. But if we really want students to motivate themselves, there are many things we can do differently to help them succeed.