Conference Countdown
Atlanta, Ga.
April 2-4, 2016
  • membership
  • my account
  • help

    We are here to help!

    1703 North Beauregard Street
    Alexandria, VA 22311-1714
    Tel: 1-800-933-ASCD (2723)
    Fax: 703-575-5400

    8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. eastern time, Monday through Friday

    Local to the D.C. area: 1-703-578-9600, press 2

    Toll-free from U.S. and Canada: 1-800-933-ASCD (2723), press 2

    All other countries: (International Access Code) + 1-703-578-9600, press 2


  • Log In
  • Forgot Password?


ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show

Learn. Teach. Lead.
Get the tools to put it all together at this can't-miss education conference—with more than 200 sessions and five inspirational keynote speakers.

Learn more and register.



ASCD respects intellectual property rights and adheres to the laws governing them. Learn more about our permissions policy and submit your request online.

Policies and Requests

Translations Rights

Books in Translation

Sale Book (Jul 2006)
Related Topics

Inspiring Active Learning

by Merrill Harmin and Melanie Toth

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Clarity About What Makes a Classroom Inspiring to Students

In a fantasy world, all students would march in on the first day of school, quietly seat themselves, and promptly look up, bright eyed, ready and willing to get to work. But this is the real world. In this world, students show up with a variety of motivations, such as

  1. The fully active learners. Some students will be ready and willing to dive into schoolwork. When we assign four problems for homework, such students will not only do all four but do them with style. They might even recopy their work before handing it in, so it's very neat, or attach a cover sheet to make it look professional. Students in this category may not be the brightest in the classroom, and they may not get the highest exam scores. But they are our go-getters, self-motivated, ready to do the best work they possibly can. These students are a joy to teach.
  2. The responsible students. Other students will enter the classroom ready to do whatever we ask, but not much more than that. When we assign these students four problems for homework, they will do all four carefully, but rarely will we get the sense they did their very best. These are dutiful, respectful students, more motivated to please us than to put themselves fully into their work. These students are easy enough to teach.
  3. The halfhearted workers. Our class is also likely to contain students who are, at best, halfhearted workers. Give them four problems and they complete only two. Or, if they do all four, their work will be sloppy, full of careless errors. These students are often slow to start work and quick to give up, and they can be quite frustrating to teach.
  4. The work avoiders. Finally, we might have students who will do little or no work. Indeed, some will do their best to avoid work altogether. Give these students four problems for homework and they are likely to groan and then lose the assignment. They are the students most likely to become discipline problems, the ones most likely to drive us batty.

This is the array of motivations that we are likely to find when our students first arrive. Unfortunately, it is also the array of motivations we are likely to see in the last days of the school year. Despite all the books that have been written about motivation and all the teacher meetings devoted to the issue, most of us still have a hard time turning work avoiders and halfhearted workers into responsible students and fully active learners.

But this is not so for all teachers.

Learning from Great Teachers

Some teachers, those we might call our great teachers, have a knack for moving students up those motivation levels. If we visited their classrooms, we would see, week by week, fewer and fewer students working at levels three and four, more and more at levels one and two. Somehow these teachers are able to inspire students to work harder than they were initially inclined to work. As a result, the students tend to climb what we call the Active Learning Ladder (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Active Learning Ladder

You probably remember having such teachers yourself. Most schools have at least a few. They are the ones who elicit such comments from students as

  • I liked coming to class. I hated being absent.
  • She turned us on to history and made it come alive.
  • I never worked so hard in my life.
  • I didn't expect to like that class, but I really did.

We might reasonably conclude, therefore, that it is possible to inspire students to become more fully active learners. Clearly, some teachers manage to do it. Might we do it, too? If so, how?

Interestingly, those great teachers don't achieve their results in any standard way. Look at a group of great teachers and you will notice that some do a lot of lecturing, others very little. Some are strict and demanding, others lenient and accepting. Some appear to be warm, others to be distant. Apparently, there is no one way to motivate students to do the best work they are capable of doing. This is good news for those who would like to inspire active learning. It suggests that we need not change our teaching personality or follow any standard model. Rather, we can create our own brand of great teaching, motivating higher levels of active learning in our own way. That is assuming, of course, we have a clear, realistic sense of how to go about doing so.

The most powerful factors in the world are clear ideas in the minds of energetic men of good will.

J. Arthur Thomson

One of the unrealistic suggestions bantered about would have us start with students' interests and base all instruction on topics students are already motivated to learn more about: space travel, baseball, popular music. Another suggestion would have us build units around real-life issues that naturally motivate students: making friends, staying healthy, encouraging world peace, or the like. A third suggestion recommends that we convince students of the importance of grammar, history, or whatever else we want to teach them, so that the students will want to learn it.

These suggestions can help some of the time with some topics and some students, but rarely are they sufficient to move a classroom of students steadily up the Active Learning Ladder. Students need to be touched more deeply if they are to be inspired to do the best work they are capable of doing.

An Inspiring Approach

After years of experimentation, we have crafted a practical approach that does stir the deep positive abilities of students. Our approach resembles those that recommend a focus on the natural needs of students (deCharms, 1976; Havighurst, 1952; Maslow, 1999; Raths, 1972; Thelen, 1960; White, 1959).

Yet our approach is distinct in several ways. First, our focus is squarely on the highest needs of students, such as the need for students to become fully functioning or to be the best persons they can be. It does not ignore other needs, including what Maslow (1999) calls students' deficiency needs, such as the need for food and safety. But we place those needs in the background. We want to concentrate on the heart of the matter, on bringing out the very best students have in them, which often includes positive qualities the students themselves do not yet know they possess. In this regard, we agree with Erich Fromm when he says that the heart of education is “helping the child realize his potentialities.” By aiming high we also take advantage of Goethe's wisdom: “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”

A second key difference in our approach is that our target is not to bring out students' best potentials in a general way. We are teachers. We have jobs to do. Our approach is grounded in classroom realities. Our target, then, is very practical: to see students apply their best potentials to daily schoolwork.

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time.

Mark Twain

A final difference is that our target is made more concrete and manageable by focusing on five student potentials that teachers have the power to influence and that directly contribute to school success. These five student abilities are dignity, energy, self-management, community, and awareness. We refer to them collectively as DESCA.

Five Key Student Abilities

All students have an inherent ability to live with dignity, to engage tasks with energy, to be appropriately self-managing, to work in community with at least some others, and to be aware of what is going on around them. Collectively, these DESCA abilities point to the heart of students' best, most productive selves.

D Is for Dignity

Students have an innate ability to live and work with dignity, as do we all. Moreover, deep down, students want to live and work with dignity. They do not want to feel belittled, demeaned, diminished, unimportant, unworthy. Yet traditional school practices can fail to take advantage of this ability to work with dignity. Some practices, in fact, frustrate students' impulses to do so. Our task, if we want to inspire students to be fully active learners, is to run our classrooms in a way that is comfortable to us, nourishing, never depressing, students' ability to work with dignity. We might, for example, take care to

  • Avoid embarrassing students, as by temporarily backing off when some feel blocked or are otherwise unable to learn what we are asking them to learn.
  • Use only those discipline procedures that communicate care and high respect for students.
  • Find practical ways to give students credit whenever they do the best they can, even when that falls far short of mastery.
  • Announce high expectations without raising unproductive anxieties in low-ability students.

Practically speaking, can we do those things? Is it, for instance, realistic to expect us to avoid embarrassments and to discipline in ways that always communicate care? Yes, it is, as the strategies presented later in this book should make abundantly clear.

E Is for Energy

Students also have a natural ability to engage life energetically. They, in fact, want to engage life energetically. They suffer when they must sit still or stand around for too long with nothing much to do. We do well to nurture that ability to live energetically. It's after all what we, too, want. We certainly do not want students handling schoolwork apathetically or slumping in class listlessly. Nor do we want them running wildly out of control. Rather, we want students to engage schoolwork with a comfortable, steady flow of energy. To build on and draw out students' ability to do that, we might, for example

  • Use very small groups, preferably pairs, to reduce chances that some students will be left uninvolved in group work.
  • Adopt instructional procedures that allow students to occasionally move about so they can vent any built-up restlessness.
  • Use whole-class choral work for information we want students to memorize.

S Is for Self-Management

All humans also have the ability to self-manage, and we would do well to develop this in our students. We do not want students asking us every little question that comes to mind. Rather, we want them to think for themselves, managing themselves as intelligently as they can. This is what they, too, want. They do not want to be bossed. Nor do they want to fly about out of control. To nurture students' self-managing ability, we might

  • Include choices in each homework assignment; for example, give options on how many questions to answer or on how to handle a topic.
  • Allow students to select their own work partners, chairs in the room, or focus for a small-group discussion.
  • Ask each student to make a personal plan to tutor a younger student.

C Is for Community

Students, as do we all, have an ability to get along and relate comfortably with at least some others. And they want to do so. They do not want to be rejected or isolated. Rather, they want to be in community with at least some others. If, then, we want to elicit students' more cooperative and generous abilities, we might

  • Structure lessons so students can often help one another.
  • Encourage talkative students to create enough space for all students to be able to speak out.
  • Set up support groups in which students learn to support one another over an extended time period.

A Is for Awareness

Finally, all students are aware beings. They have the ability to be alert, wakeful, observant, attentive. And they have an innate longing to be aware. They are not meant to be bored. Indeed, it is their very nature to avoid boredom. And we, of course, want students to stay alert and aware. That recommends we do not repress but rather develop this awareness ability. To do so, we might

  • Find a way to help slower learners without boring faster learners.
  • Change whatever we are doing whenever we notice student attention sliding, as by changing topics or procedures.
  • Avoid having quick thinkers answering all our questions, as by having all students jot an answer on scrap paper or share answers in pairs before we discuss correct answers.
  • Include activities students are highly interested in completing, as by asking students to construct a toothpick model of an idea, teach a concept to a younger student, or solve a real problem showing up in school.

Measuring Active Learning

Teachers have a great deal of control over the degree to which students will express those DESCA potentials and apply them to daily schoolwork. And we can measure how successfully we do that.

Several instruments can provide such measurements. One, the DESCA Scale for Rating a Class (Figure 2 on p. 10), is useful when we want to assess our own classes. We might also give the scale to observers so they can rate our students' current ability to engage in active and constructive learning.

Figure 2. DESCA Scale for Rating a Class

Teachers who want to know the perceptions of their students often prefer to use something closer to the second form, the DESCA Questionnaire (Figure 3 on p. 11).

Figure 3. DESCA Questionnaire

Dear Student:

How was class for you today? Please check one item in each category.


____ I had strong, good feelings about myself.

____ I felt fairly positive and secure.

____ I am unsure how I felt.

____ I didn't feel very good about myself.

____ I thought I was inadequate, hopeless, bad, or stupid.


____ I was comfortably active and energetic all the time.

____ I was comfortably active and energetic most of the time.

____ I am unsure how I felt.

____ I did not put much energy into my work.

____ I felt inactive and low, or anxious and stressed.


____ I made many choices, managed myself, always felt self-responsible.

____ I was rather self-managing, somewhat self-responsible.

____ I am unsure how I felt.

____ I drifted along, not using much of my own willpower.

____ I was controlled or bossed, not at all self-responsible.


____ I felt that I was a part of the group and wanted to help others.

____ I had generally positive feelings about others.

____ I am unsure how I felt.

____ I did not feel fully accepted by others and didn't much want to help them.

____ I felt only selfishness and rejection from others.


____ I was aware and alert all the time.

____ I was aware and alert most of the time.

____ I am unsure how I felt.

____ I often was unresponsive or bored.

____ I paid little attention. I was very unresponsive or bored.

Also useful is a simple Active Learning Scale (Figure 4 on p. 12). Some options for using this scale:

  • Each student completes the form every day, anonymously. Slips are put in an envelope. The teacher (or a mature student, volunteer parent, or office staff member) sorts slips and makes a chart to show progress over time. The teacher aims to gradually eliminate 1's and 2's and increase 3's and 4's.
  • The above procedure is done on three random days each month. The three-day scores are averaged to give one monthly score. Scores are then charted for September, October, and so on, with the aim, as before, to show progress toward eliminating 1's and 2's and increasing 3's and 4's.
  • To simplify scoring, ratings 1 and 2 could be collapsed and charted as “low involvement.” Similarly, ratings 3 and 4 could be collapsed and charted as “high involvement.” The aim, then, is to eliminate low-involvement scores.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

Henry Adams

Figure 4. Active Learning Scale

How were you in class today?

(Circle one number.)





Very inactive or bored

Sometimes active and alert

Usually active and alert

Very active and alert

Moving Education Forward

The strategies you will find in this book illustrate practical ways we can increase the scores on such measures. They show in some detail how each one of us, in our own ways, can run a classroom that keeps eliciting those DESCA abilities. Our field tests, by now involving hundreds of teachers in all kinds of schools and at all grade levels, show that when we do that, good things tend to happen. Students tend to climb up that Active Learning Ladder, so we see fewer and fewer working halfheartedly or not at all. As a result, students' time on task increases. Test scores rise. Discipline problems fade. Attendance improves. And, not insignificantly, we enjoy teaching far more.

Indeed, the benefits seem to stretch far beyond current classrooms. Consider the life-changing influence of a former 1st grade teacher, identified in the research only as “Miss A” (Pedersen, Faucher, & Eaton, 1978). The school in which Miss A taught was in the middle of a run-down neighborhood near the bus station in downtown Montreal. It was a neighborhood dotted with many taverns, few grocery stores. Some years ago researchers wondered if that school made much of a difference in the lives of its students, almost all of whom were living in poverty.

When a person praises punishment, 9 times out of 10 this means he is prepared to administer it rather than submit to it.


To answer their question, the researchers looked up adults who had attended the school 25 years earlier. What they learned was not encouraging. Even after 25 years of adulthood and a general increase in society's economic welfare over that period, only 29 percent of the former students that the researchers located lived in reasonably decent housing or had more than menial jobs. Thirty-eight percent of those former students were still suffering at the lowest levels of survival, typically homeless and unemployed.

Schoolteachers are not fully appreciated by parents until it rains all day Saturday.

E. C. McKenzie

Yet that did not include all the students. It did not include the students who had been in classrooms taught by Miss A. The researchers noticed something curious about Miss A's former students. Whereas only 29 percent of the students of the other teachers lived in decent housing and held more than menial jobs, a full 64 percent of the students who had Miss A were that well off. Furthermore, although 38 percent of the students from other classrooms were found to be living at the lowest economic levels, none of the students who had Miss A was living at that level. (See Figure 5.)

Figure 5. Long-Term Impact of One Great Teacher on Students in Poverty

Clearly, one 1st grade teacher had a dramatic, long-term influence on students. She was doing much more than teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Perhaps she was doing what Marva Collins (1992) terms Hot Teaching. “When we make lessons come alive,” Collins observes, “ with what I call Hot Teaching, every child becomes a winner.” (For more research on the long-term impact of excellent teachers, see Schweinhart, Montie, Xiang, Barnett, Belfield, and Nores, 2005.)

We believe that every teacher can now aim to make every child such a winner. The teaching profession has amassed enough practical wisdom to make that a real possibility. As a result, it is no longer necessary to struggle so fruitlessly with unmotivated and undisciplined students. It is no longer necessary to push and pull so doggedly, trying to force reluctant and resistant learners to change. The profession now knows how such students can be inspired to become more actively, responsibly involved. That is, the profession knows how teachers can do all they must do each day—from taking attendance to assigning homework, from collaring the troublemakers to smiling at the achievers—in a way that steadily draws out the best that students have in them.

This inspiring approach may be the most efficient way to move education ahead. Indeed, it may be the only way. It is difficult to see how schooling can become much more effective if more of the constructive, positive abilities of students are not drawn into schoolwork.

Compare this approach to motivation with one based mainly on extrinsic rewards and punishments. How might a reward-punishment school treat students who have not been putting much effort into their schoolwork? It would likely threaten them in some way, perhaps threaten to send those who do not shape up to summer school or, ultimately, to make them repeat the grade. How effective are those threats? Do they spark the kind of constructive, self-responsible learning teachers really want to see in their classrooms? Not in our experience. Threats are more likely to add to classroom negativity, resentment, and depression, among both students and teachers.

Not that the inspiring approach excludes rewards and punishments. Rewards, smiles, and token prizes, we find, can well be inspiring to students. And a suitable punishment can be the best way to inspire someone to pay attention and consider a change in attitude. But to have a positive effect, the punishment must rest in a context of genuine care. Students must be certain—at some level of awareness—that punishment is not retaliation or the result of frustration or anger. They must understand that punishment is, instead, the result of the teacher's sincere concern that students learn more actively and self-responsibly, and of the teacher's belief that punishment can spark a new willingness to do so. Punishment in that context is healing, not hurting. And, as such, it is a tool that fits comfortably into our inspiring approach, as will be clear from the examples of effective discipline strategies included in this book.

So the issue is not whether to use rewards and punishments as motivators. The issue is about our motivations. Are we motivated more by our care for our students' education and their long-term well-being? Or are we motivated more by our own short-term needs, especially our need to control? And if we want to be motivated more by our genuine care, how can we move toward that target? More pointedly, given the many demands we face, can we realistically move toward it? Indeed, we can.

The secret of success is the constancy of purpose.

Benjamin Disraeli

This inspiring approach to motivation is something to test for yourself. A three-week trial is usually enough for you to begin enjoying at least some benefits. Psychologists tell us that 21 days is the length of time needed to create a new habit. The next chapter details an effective procedure for conducting such a test and, just maybe, for moving closer to your own brand of great teaching.

DESCA as an Integrating Theme

Before turning to the next chapter, consider the possibility that DESCA might serve us as an integrating theme. So many new ideas come our way—constructivism, computer learning, brain research, accountability testing, cooperative learning. It's easy to see those as a series of disconnected developments, even fads that come and go, each replacing the one before. They are not so easily seen as developments that might complement one another and contribute to one whole thrust for our professional development.

Yet teaching is one of the helping professions. Regardless of our grade level or subject specialty, our job, in essence, is to help students. Like physicians, we certainly want to do no harm. Putting it more specifically, common to our mission is the goal of helping students learn in a way that develops what's positive and constructive in them—such as their abilities to live and work with personal dignity, steady energy, intelligent self-management, feelings of community, and open awareness. We certainly don't want to suppress those DESCA abilities or, worse, tempt students to conclude they cannot ever be developed.

Might it be useful, then, for us to take each improvement idea that comes along and ask, How might it help us teach whatever it is we teach in a way that serves students' DESCA growth? Might that question aid us in making innovations more cumulatively helpful? By giving each idea a role in our ongoing task of doing the best we can, might it not help us avoid forgetting the older ideas and, instead, keep all ideas alive and functional for us?


Log in to submit a comment.

To post a comment, please log in above. (You must be an ASCD EDge community member.) Free registration