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Premium Member Book (May 2004)

Classroom of Choice

by Jonathan C. Erwin

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Laying the Foundation for a Classroom of Choice

By definition, people are in a teacher-student relationship when two conditions are met: (1) the teacher has the knowledge and desire to impart information and skills to his students, and (2) the students are interested in learning the knowledge and skills that are being offered. These conditions are most consistently met with preschoolers and graduate students. Between those school years, the second condition is less consistently present. In order to increase the frequency of those teachable moments, management must occur.

Teachers as Managers

Whether you are a teacher, a coach, or in any position in which you work with young people, you are first and foremost a manager. Managing is first creating the conditions for students to be interested in learning or performing, and then providing the structures, strategies, and activities that will encourage quality learning and quality performance. Teachers manage the learning space, time, materials, and the mental, physical, and emotional states of individuals, partners, small groups, and large groups. Effective teachers must be effective managers.

Two Types of Motivation

One of a manager's most important concerns is the motivation of workers, or for our purposes, students. Unmotivated students do poor work or no work, learn very little, and often behave in irresponsible or disruptive ways. Motivated students do quality work, learn well, and behave responsibly. There are two approaches to motivating students. One appeals to external motivation, which relies heavily on incentives or rewards (positive reinforcement) and consequences or punishment (negative reinforcement). The other approach appeals to internal motivation, which depends on motivation to come from needs or drives within students.

The Problems with External Motivation

External motivation is the most prevalent type of motivation used not only in classrooms, but also in the world at large. Think of the ways people try to make other people do what they want them to do. Whether it is a teacher trying to persuade a student to work, a parent trying to get a child to get ready for school, a wife trying to talk her spouse into doing a household chore, a boss trying to get his employees to work harder, or one nation trying to force another nation to change a policy or ideology, you will see one or more of the following strategies being used:

  • Asking: Would you please do this?
  • Reasoning: You should do this because ...
  • Telling: Just do it!
  • Rewarding (bribing): If you do this, then you'll get that.
  • Appealing to the relationship: Do it for me.
  • Negotiating: If you do this, I'll do that.
  • Tricking: I'll bet you can't do it in the next five minutes.
  • Reverse psychology: Whatever you do, don't do it.
  • Shaming: I'm so disappointed in you. I thought you could do better than that.
  • Nagging: Have you done it yet? How about now? Now? Did you, huh, huh?
  • Yelling: I said DO IT!
  • Threatening: Do it or else ...
  • Criticizing: If you weren't so lazy, you'd do it.
  • Imposing consequences: Because you didn't do it, you will lose this privilege.
  • Punishing: Because you didn't choose to do it, you will have to . . .
  • Verbally attacking: You are such a loser.
  • Humiliating: Everyone, look at the blank expression on Leon's face.
  • Physically intimidating: Invading personal space or pounding fist on table.
  • Physically forcing: Shoving, spanking.

One of the problems with these strategies is that none is guaranteed to work. If a student or anyone else has the mindset to not comply, there is nothing you can do to make him, except possibly using physical force. Unless safety is the issue, that strategy is illegal in most schools. Besides, the behavior we are most interested in is learning, and you can't physically force anyone to learn.

Another problem with these external motivators is that they actually prevent learning from taking place. In Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen (1998) explains the effects of threats on the brain. Perceived threats, which could include many of the external motivation strategies previously listed from yelling to physical force create conditions that many students regard as highly stressful. When students are feeling highly stressed, “thinking and memory are affected ... the brain's short-term memory and ability to form long-term memories are inhibited” (p. 53). Feeling highly stressed, students' brains tend to go into the fight-or-flight response, which may manifest in school through all kinds of acting out or withdrawing behavior. Clearly, “the stick” approach to motivation is counterproductive.

What then of “the carrot”? Surely rewards provide an incentive for students to behave appropriately and perform well? Actually, contrary to conventional wisdom, rewards are no more effective in motivating students than threats and punishment. In his book Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn (1993) examines the research on external incentives and concludes that the “do this and you'll get that” approach to motivation fails. Citing hundreds of studies, Kohn discusses the reasons that incentives such as stickers, pizza parties, free time, trips to the toy barrel, and even As do not work. The most important reason for teachers may be that “rewards change the way people feel about what they do” (p. 68). He explains that when a student hears “If you do this, then you'll get that,” the message to the learner is “There must be something wrong with this if you have to give me that to get me to do it.” Thus, what we are doing when we offer a reward for learning or following classroom rules, whether we realize it or not, is “killing off the interest in the very thing we are bribing them to do” (p. 72). Jensen echoes Kohn's concerns regarding rewards, warning that “students will want [rewards] each time the behavior is required; they'll want an increasingly valuable reward ... [and that] the use of rewards actually damages intrinsic motivation” (1998, pp. 66–67).

Another problem with external motivators is that they tend to rupture relationships. Think of when you were last on the receiving end of any of the listed strategies, with the exception of asking. When we are feeling manipulated, either blatantly or subtly, the level of trust in the relationship is damaged. Subsequently, we are even less inclined to comply the next time that person tries to get us to do something. Therefore, the person trying to motivate us will most likely intensify the external motivation by either increasing the reward or moving down the strategy list from bribing to threatening or worse, further eroding the relationship.

The Importance of Trustful Relationships in School

Back in the traditional “Don't-Smile-Until-Thanksgiving” days of classroom management, the relationship between students and teachers was simple. The belief was that it was not important if students liked or trusted their teachers as long as they respected or even feared them. More recently, the importance of the student-teacher relationship in developing an optimal learning environment has been better understood. For example, this relationship is an integral part of Dimension One of Robert Marzano's and Debra Pickering's Dimensions of Learning (1997) model and Alfie Kohn's The Schools Our Children Deserve (1999) approach to systemic school improvement. In their recent book Trust in Schools, authors Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider (2002) study the importance of social relationships to student learning and achievement. “Schools,” state the authors, “are networks of sustained relationships. The social exchanges that occur and how participants infuse them with meaning are essential to a school's functioning” (p. xiv). In nationwide efforts to raise standards and improve student learning and achievement, trust is the key ingredient: “[A] broad base of trust across a school community lubricates much of a school's day-to-day functioning and is a critical resource as local leaders embark on ambitious improvement plans” (p. 5).

Although Trust in Schools examines the importance of trust at all levels in a school system (teacher-teacher, teacher-principal, school-parents, and so on), the authors emphasize the importance of strong teacher-student trust: “Trusting student-teacher relationships are essential for learning” (Bryk & Schneider, 2002, p. 31) The authors also say that a school can have abundant resources and effective teaching programs in place, but student learning will suffer if trusting relationships are not part of the formula. Furthermore, according to the authors, “Given [the] power asymmetry in the student-teacher role set, the growth of trust depends primarily on teachers' initiatives” (pp. 31–32). This responsibility is greatest at the primary level and gradually decreases as students mature and become more responsible for their own learning. This doesn't mean, however, that at the secondary level students are on their own and that trusting relationships in the classroom are no longer important. Older students simply have a little more responsibility for the classroom environment than they did as kindergartners or 1st graders. The teacher still makes the difference in the classroom.

Let us now examine the legacy of external motivating strategies listed previously in this chapter. Although coercive strategies, even “positive” ones such as rewarding, sometimes work for us in the short term, we must question the use of external control strategies considering the research on the importance of relationships in the classroom. I don't suggest that teachers immediately and unconditionally abandon the use of all external motivators. That could lead to chaos, especially in classrooms of students who have come up through a system that embraced external control. My recommendation is to gradually reduce external control and to do it with discussion about what you are doing and why. If students have learned to love stickers, for example, you might move from giving stickers to them for appropriate behavior or excellent work to having them award themselves stickers as they think they have earned them. With discussion, these students will begin to see that it is not the sticker, but their learning, that is important.

Minimizing Fear and Coercion

In 1992, William Glasser—whose ideas provide the foundation for the practices and strategies explained in this book—published one of his best-known books, The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion. In the first chapter, Glasser explains that many of his ideas are school-based adaptations of the work of management guru W. Edwards Deming. Deming's place in management history is secured by his success in teaching a noncoercive management style to managers in the Japanese automobile and electronics industry after World War II (Glasser, 1992, p. 2–3). The result of Deming's work with the Japanese was dramatic. When Deming began working in Japan, the phrase “Made in Japan” was synonymous with cheap goods. Now, Japanese automobiles and electronics equipment are ubiquitous, and “Made in Japan” means high-quality products. Known as the American who taught the Japanese about quality, Deming is still well known in the Japanese industrial community; in his honor, the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers established the prestigious Deming Prizes for outstanding achievement in quality control (Aguayo, 1990). Glasser explains how Deming's ideas “can be brought into our schools so that the present ... system, in which just a few students are involved in quality work, will be replaced by a system in which almost all students have this experience” (Glasser, 1992, p. 3).

The first condition necessary to encourage quality work and behavior, according to both Deming and Glasser, is to “eliminate fear and coercion.” I respectfully modify that; instead of using the word eliminate, I prefer to say minimize fear and coercion. I make this modification for two reasons:

  1. Schools are systems that have rules and consequences that teachers have no control over. For example, in many states, students are required by law to attend school until a certain age. Therefore, some coercion is built into the system.
  2. Students may fear school or teachers because they previously had frightening experiences. Their current teacher may never threaten or coerce these students, but these students may feel a certain amount of trepidation around any teacher because of their personal history. Again, this is not something we can control.
Consequently, we cannot eliminate fear and coercion from our learning environments, but we can do our best to minimize them.

The essential question, then, is: How do we manage students' learning and behavior while minimizing coercion? Does that mean we adopt a laissez-faire, anything-goes teaching style? Not at all. The ideas in this book come from direct experience, not just from theory or clinical research. I know firsthand how students respond to a lack of structure, and it isn't pretty. What I am suggesting is that first we do all we can to appeal to what intrinsically motivates students. If that doesn't work, we can always return to the strategies we've used in the past. However, I am convinced that once you have experienced a class full of intrinsically motivated students, you will not want to go back. Choice Theory has worked for thousands of teachers throughout the world.

After a brief explanation of the model of intrinsic, or internal, motivation that is based on Choice Theory, the rest of this book offers concrete, proven strategies you can use to appeal to students' internal motivation.

Choice Theory

Choice Theory, developed by William Glasser, is a psychological model that explains how and why human beings behave. According to Choice Theory, throughout our lives, the aim of all our behavior is to meet one or more of our innate basic human needs. One of the main tenets of Choice Theory, therefore, is that all behavior is purposeful. Now, observe a group of children in a relatively unstructured environment for a while and say to yourself, “All behavior is purposeful.” The statement may seem ludicrous! Some of their behavior seems silly, some inappropriate, some antisocial, some even nonsensical, but the word purposeful doesn't come to mind. Some explanation is necessary. When I say all behavior is purposeful, I don't mean all behavior is effective or that all behavior is responsible. Choice Theory simply says that a purpose underlies all behavior. We are doing the best we can to meet our basic human needs given the knowledge, the skills, and the resources in our repertoire of behaviors. If we could think of a better way of achieving this purpose at any given time, we would choose it.

What are these basic needs that drive all of our behavior? There are five in all, one physiological need and four psychological. They are the need to survive, to love and belong, to gain power, to be free, and to have fun. Before you can effectively appeal to these needs in students, a clear understanding of each one is essential. In this chapter, I will provide a general explanation of each need. I would invite you, as you read about these needs, to think about their significance in your life. Later chapters will focus on the significance of each need in planning classroom activities and instruction.


The physiological need to survive is often the first thing that comes to mind when we discuss basic needs. Survival includes the obvious needs for food, shelter, physical comfort, and safety. To meet this need, we sleep, wear clothing, seek shelter, and so on. However, because human beings have the ability to imagine the future, we do much more than attend to our immediate physical needs. We also think about our future security and physical health. We keep savings accounts, buy insurance, and invest in the stock market, bonds, and real estate. We exercise and diet with an eye on our waistlines. We plan for a comfortable retirement. Some of us invest in home security systems. So, the need to survive, though primarily physical, has a psychological component, our need for a sense of security in the future. In classrooms, students need to feel physically and emotionally safe and secure. Chapter 2 addresses specific ways teachers can help their students see the classroom as a safe, orderly learning community.

When we think of basic needs, physical needs may be the first that come to mind, but human beings require more than just physical well-being in order to lead happy, fulfilling lives. We have psychological needs as well. As you read about each of the following psychological needs, I invite you to think of the people, activities, things, and places in your life that help you satisfy these needs.

Love and Belonging

Humans, like many other species, are social creatures. We live in family units, work on teams, form social and civic organizations, attend social gatherings, and engage in hundreds of other behaviors that help us connect and interrelate with others. Almost all human endeavors have some social dimension to them. Having a strong need for love and belonging is one of the reasons the human species has been so successful. In our primitive past, humans' urge to belong to a group manifested itself in cooperative hunting, gathering, child care, and defense of the group, behaviors that were essential to the other need we just discussed, survival. Therefore, though the need for love and belonging is primarily a psychological and emotional need, it is linked with the physical domain.

It is well known that newborns require a certain amount of physical affection in order to thrive. In his book Love & Survival, author and cardiologist Dean Ornish (1998), known for his success with the recovery of cardiac patients through changes in diet and exercise combined with meditation, concludes that there is a lifelong connection between the quality of our relationships and our physical and mental well-being. Citing hundreds of studies, Ornish says about the power of love and belonging: “I am not aware of any other factor in medicine—not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery—that has a greater impact on the quality of life, incidence of illness, and premature death from all causes” (pp. 2–3). Studies such as those cited by Ornish support the Choice Theory principle that the deep-seated urge to love and belong—to connect with others, to cooperate, and to give and receive affection—is truly a basic need with a profound influence on our overall physical and mental wellness.

The need for love and belonging helps explain the importance of relationships in schools regarding student learning and achievement. Chapter 3 discusses the role this need plays in learning and describes more than 50 specific strategies that teachers can use to help them build those essential relationships with and among their students.


Power is the most frequently misunderstood need. For many people the word power is synonymous with dominance, authority, or control. For that reason, many do not want to admit they have an intrinsic need for power. When thoroughly understood in Choice Theory terms, the concept of power takes on a much broader, more positive meaning. People behave in three general ways when they attempt to meet their need for power:

  1. Power Over: exercising one's influence over something or someone. This usage is the closest to the common perception of the word “power.” A sculptor exercises power over her medium. The guitarist demonstrates power over his instrument. A mechanic exhibits power over an engine. These are examples of using power over inanimate objects, all positive. It is when people use or abuse power over other people that we see power in a negative light: The military junta hurried to exert its power over the nation; the chief executive officer enjoyed the benefits of money and power; the principal used his positional power to intimidate the staff. In each of these cases, someone is using power in an irresponsible way. Many use their influence with others for the greater good: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Theresa, to name a few. Power over is not, by definition, bad. Power over only becomes destructive if one is using power irresponsibly, depriving others of meeting their basic needs.
  2. Power Within: obtained when developing the knowledge and skills that increase the quality of our lives. Gaining power within includes learning, achieving success, and enjoying the feeling of self-worth that comes with personal growth. Without the need for the power within, human beings would never have developed the culturally and technologically sophisticated world we live in today. Something innate in human beings drives us to set goals, to achieve them, to improve upon what others have done before us, and creatively adapt to new situations—the need for power within. Think of yourself and fill in the following blank: “I want to be good at _______.” All the behaviors you fill in the blank are ways that you use to meet your power need. For example, you might have listed teaching, parenting, being a friend, listening, coaching soccer, gardening, or playing piano. Helping students gain power is what school is really all about. I discuss this topic in greater depth in Chapters 4 and 5.
  3. Power With: achieved when working cooperatively with others. It is the place where the need for power and the need for love and belonging intersect. If you think of the great achievements of the human race, they all resulted from humans working together or building on the achievements of those who came before them. The international space station is an example of what can result from achieving power with. It challenges the capacity of the mind to imagine the number of centuries and all the individual human beings it took to develop the technology, to plan, and to implement the building of a laboratory in space. The drive to achieve power with is something a classroom teacher can tap to help every student learn and achieve more. Chapters 4 and 5 provide insight into the need for power in a structured learning environment and lists dozens of ways that teachers can manage students so that both the students and the teacher can meet their power needs effectively and responsibly.


The need for freedom does not require much explanation. Throughout history, millions have died in the name of freedom. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson referred to freedom as one of humankind's “inalienable rights.” We human beings need independence—autonomy—to control, as much as possible, the direction of our lives. The need for freedom can be divided into two major types:

  1. Freedom to: involves having choices. Freedom to go where you want, say what you want, associate with whom you want, pursue an interest or a career, and so on. We are most aware of the need for freedom when we perceive it as being threatened. Think of a time when you were pressured into doing something or going somewhere you didn't particularly want to. A good deal of the frustration you feel in a situation like that is your freedom to need tugging at you. Like all of us, students need to be able to make choices. In the interests of maintaining an orderly learning environment, providing choices does not mean students have license to do or say anything they want. In Chapter 6, we'll explore specific strategies that you can implement that provide students with dozens of ways of meeting their freedom to need in responsible ways.
  2. Freedom from: refers to freedom from things that cause us physical or emotional discomfort, such as fear, stress, disrespect, or monotony. In classrooms, much of the freedom from need is provided for if there is a safe, structured environment developed using management strategies such as those described in Chapter 2. Because this need includes freedom from boredom and monotony, Chapter 6 describes how to integrate novelty and spontaneity into your classroom procedures and routines. Doing so will enliven the classroom for everyone and boost your students' interest in learning.


I do not write about the need for fun last because it is the least important. Try to imagine life without enjoyment, laughter, or pleasure. Don't dwell on it; it is too depressing. People who find themselves in such circumstances often choose not to live any longer. Humans need to have fun, to play! The need for fun has particular significance to us as teachers. Glasser relates fun to learning: “Fun is the genetic reward for learning. We are descended from people who learned more or better than others. The learning gave these people a survival advantage, and the need for fun became built into our genes” (1998, p. 41).

As we play, we learn. Think of little children at play. What are they learning? They learn how to cooperate, negotiate, and get along with others. They learn how the world works: what dirt tastes like, how gravity works when you let go of a tree limb, how to use simple tools like a stick for digging to see where worms live. The old adage “Play is a child's work” is true. But play is not the domain of children only. Play is also the work of adults. Think of the creativity play inspires. Think of how play reduces stress. When was the last time you had a great, uncontrollable laugh? Didn't that feel wonderful? Didn't you feel relaxed afterward?

Play is essential for learning and for our physical and emotional well-being, but it also is a wonderful tool for building relationships. “It takes a lot of effort to get along well with each other, and the best way to begin to do so is to have some fun learning together. Laughing and learning are the foundation of all successful long-term relationships” (Glasser, 1998, p. 41). While many of the strategies in this book are fun, Chapter 7 specifies dozens of ways of rejuvenating the classroom with productive play.

Important Characteristics of the Five Basic Human Needs

An understanding of the basic needs has the potential to transform a classroom. It is important to understand not only what the needs are, but also certain characteristics of the needs that have significant implications for classroom instruction and management. After an explanation of these characteristics, we will discuss their significance to the classroom.

First, the needs are innate. Another term for basic human needs would be genetic instructions. Just as other species have behavioral instructions as part of their genetic makeup, so do humans. Many species have specific genetic instructions: Canada geese are genetically instructed to migrate to the Chesapeake Bay; bears, to hibernate; and newly hatched sea turtles are instructed to dig out of the sand, get to the water, and start swimming. Other species are given genetic instructions also, but because of their more highly developed brains, the instructions are more general. The individual can use his intelligence to choose from a number of behaviors that will meet the instructions (or needs). Because of our well-developed cerebral cortex, humans' genes are not shouting instructions like “Fly south!” or “Go to sleep!” or “Swim!” Our genes are whispering things such as “Be physically comfortable and safe,” “Connect with others,” “Gain personal power,” “Be free,” and “Be playful!” We have free will in how we choose to behave or not behave in following these genetic instructions. One thing is not a choice, however. Just as it is not a choice for a Canada goose to feel the urge to fly south in November, it is not a choice for human beings to feel the urge to survive, love and belong, gain power, be free, or have fun. These needs are in our genes.

Second and third, the basic needs are universal, and people have the needs in varying degrees. In other words, though all human beings have all five needs, each of us does not experience the same amount of drive for each need. For example, one person might have a high need for love and belonging, with varying degrees for power, freedom, fun, and survival. That person's behavior would probably look different from the behavior of someone else who might have a high need for power and freedom, a moderate need for fun and survival, and a low need for love and belonging. The former might spend a great deal of time and energy on relationships, both in his personal life and at work. He (call him Dan) might attend social events, join clubs and civic associations, enjoy close relationships with friends and family, and enjoy his favorite activities most often in the company of others. The person with the higher need for power and freedom needs (call her Sheryl) might spend more time alone, working on projects, reading, attending courses, competing in athletics, constantly learning and achieving. Sheryl may have a few close friends but may not spend as much time with them as Dan spends with his. In Choice Theory terms, Dan and Sheryl have different needs profiles. A person's needs profile, the relative quantities of the five basic needs by which an individual is genetically motivated, does not dictate a person's behavior; but it is a powerful influence. The examples of Dan and Sheryl are not necessarily the way individuals with high love and belonging or power needs behave. They are simply ways these two individuals might manifest their particular needs profiles. Think about your own needs profile. If you were to list your needs in order from most important to least important according to their influence on your behavior, how would you order them?

Fourth, the basic needs often conflict with other people's needs. If, for example, a store manager has a high need for power and meets that need through frequently exerting what authority he has, he might easily come into conflict with an employee with a high freedom need. A classroom of students with a high need for fun and freedom might end up in trouble with a teacher who has a high survival need (order and security). I'd like to stress that in each of those cases, the individuals involved might come into conflict. It is not inevitable. People attempting to meet their different needs (or even the same need) in the same environment don't necessarily end up at odds. One of the main purposes of this book is to describe how to create the conditions in a classroom so that teachers and students can meet their needs effectively without coming into conflict.

Responsible and Effective Behavior

Although all behavior has a purpose to meet one or more of our basic human needs, all behavior is not necessarily effective or responsible. The term effective behavior refers to a behavior that works for us; it satisfies our needs. The term responsible behavior refers to behavior that satisfies our needs without depriving others of meeting theirs. Unfortunately, not everyone chooses effective and responsible behaviors all the time. A student who calls out answers out of turn may be effectively meeting his power need but is depriving other students and the teacher of meeting theirs. The class clown may find that disrupting the class helps her meet her power, freedom, and fun needs; but again her behavior is depriving others (particularly the teacher) of meeting their needs effectively. The good news is that people can, and most are more than willing to, choose new, responsible behaviors if they are at least as needs-satisfying as their former, irresponsible behaviors. Chapters 2–7 discuss how to manage a classroom so that students are more likely to make responsible choices.

Implications for the Classroom

This book explains only part of Choice Theory. However, an understanding of the basic human needs provides a solid foundation for creating and managing a high-quality learning environment.

An understanding of the five basic needs can help develop a rationale for management and instructional strategies that don't rely on time-consuming, ineffective extrinsic motivational practices. Students' genetic instructions are to seek a safe, orderly environment (survival), feel a sense of belonging, be successful and have a sense of importance (power), experience a sense of independence, and have fun. If we do not provide opportunities for students to meet these needs in our classrooms, the genetic instructions don't go away. Students will be frustrated. Some frustrated students will behave responsibly and just wait until they are home or at lunch to satisfy their unmet needs. Many others have not developed that much self-control and engage in irresponsible behaviors in their attempt to follow their genetic instructions. These irresponsible behaviors take on a million different faces. If you've been in any classroom, you've seen them, and I'm sure you'd agree that none of them add to the quality of the learning environment. These behaviors drive many teachers out of the profession and create the conditions for undue stress for the rest. Using effective teaching and managing strategies that provide students with opportunities to follow their genetic instructions responsibly prevents students from using disruptive behavior to meet their needs and turns the classroom into a joyful learning environment.

Just as each individual has a unique needs profile, so does each class, which may have an impact on the way you instruct and manage. One year when I was teaching high school English, I had a really difficult 11th grade class. The students in that class seemed to have no other purpose than to keep me from teaching them anything. And they were successful. A little more information about this class is necessary. It was a class of only 15. However, eight of the students were labeled “ED” (Emotional Disorders), and seven of them were labeled “LD” (Learning Disabled). These students had been experiencing difficulty with school since early elementary school; they knew they were labeled and, therefore, had low expectations of themselves. A couple of the boys wore their labels as a badge of honor. It was a challenging class, to say the least.

As I sat at my desk at home one weekend, pounding my head with my fist trying to figure out what to do with this class, I had a sudden insight. I had just taught a workshop to my school staff on Choice Theory, and the concept of the needs profile popped into my head. I thought about the behaviors I'd been observing in this class: refusing to work in pairs or groups, getting up out of their seats for inappropriate reasons, looking out the window, skipping class, doing no homework and little class work, and frequently taking the class off task by asking questions that didn't relate to the learning. All the disruptive, irresponsible behaviors I was thinking about pointed in one direction: the freedom need, both freedom to and freedom from.

So what? I thought. What would a class that is designed to meet the freedom need and teach course content look like? I had the rest of the weekend to ponder that question.

On Monday, I went into class, finally got their attention, and dramatically tossed my planning book in the garbage. I went on to tell them that what I'd been trying to do with them all year wasn't working. I had their attention; they were all listening to me at the same time! I told them that I wanted to help them become successful adults and that the communication skills I had to teach them were essential. So, in order for all of us to be successful, I told them, we were going to do things differently. Instead of my teaching the class as a large group, each individual student would be responsible for his own learning. I said I would provide the required assignments for each five-week increment. I would provide models, specific criteria, and any resources necessary for every assignment. I would be available for one-on-one instruction as they worked through the assignments. They could do the assignments in any order they chose. They could do them in class or take them home. But, in order to get credit for the course and to move on to 12th grade, these assignments must be completed.

I waited for the explosion, but instead got silence and sober expressions. One student asked what they could do if they finished the assignments before the end of the five weeks. I said they could either begin work on the next unit or bring in some appropriate reading material and read. The next question was the one I'd been waiting for: “So, Mr. Erwin, what do I gotta do to get outta here?” “Yeah,” chimed in another student. It was music to my ears. We took the rest of the period to go through the syllabus until everyone had a clear understanding of the expectations. The next day, all of them showed up and all of them began their work, some more diligently than others. I can honestly say, though, that everyone did more work in that one period than they had all year up to that point. They didn't magically turn into eager learners, but the irresponsible behavior all but disappeared. Most important, all of the students improved as readers and writers that year, and all but one passed the class and went on to their senior year. Unfortunately, the one dropped out.

Sometimes the needs profile of a class can have profound implications for the best instructional and management strategies for that particular group of students. A class that has a high love and belonging need wants opportunities to work together, to share, to form and maintain relationships. One with a high power need may enjoy being listened to, being challenged, and gaining recognition for their successes. A group of students with high freedom needs, like the one above, craves choices, movement, and novelty. A class with a high fun need enjoys learning games, role-playing, and humor. One with a high survival need likes attention to safety, predictable procedures, and a sense of order. You can determine a class's needs profile the way I did, just by observation and making an educated guess, or you can teach the students about their needs and have them share with you an informal assessment of their own needs profile. Sometimes you may have a class that leans strongly toward one particular need, and you can adjust your managing and teaching accordingly.

More often, however, your classes will be composed of students with a wide assortment of needs profiles. Therefore, using a balance of needs-satisfying strategies will mean that everyone can get what they need at least part of the time. Remember that even in classes that lean strongly toward one need, the students in those classes have all five, so that you can't completely ignore them. Imagine a workplace where you enjoy strong relationships with your supervisor and colleagues, feel like you are a successful contributing member of the organization, enjoy a sense of autonomy, are encouraged to learn and play, and are provided with a salary that is sufficient and fair. Wouldn't that be a place where you'd be committed to doing quality work? It's the same for students. Providing students with a needs-satisfying learning environment not only prevents irresponsible behavior, it also encourages students to be engaged in quality learning by appealing to what intrinsically motivates human beings.

Another benefit of using needs-satisfying teaching and managing strategies is that they can simplify your planning. By using the strategies explained in this book, you will be simultaneously addressing a variety of learning styles, tapping into multiple intelligences, engaging both hemispheres of the brain, and practicing the teaching and managing strategies most strongly supported by educational research.


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