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March 1, 2008
Vol. 65
No. 6

Sustaining the Fire

Motivating students isn't about dramatically passing on a torch. It's about tending a long-term flame.

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Although many teachers successfully spark student motivation, most fumble at maintaining it. This is partly because so many of us believe that creating motivation hinges on the Promethean act of one individual delivering the flame of inspiration to another. Although inspiration is a great place to begin to move students toward academic goals, it will not, in most cases, provide the fuel to power long-term learning.
Fire building is an apt metaphor for what we hope to accomplish with students—not igniting a Roman candle that quickly burns out, but creating a blaze that burns steadily on its own. Those who have tried to ignite learning under challenging conditions know that—like building a fire in damp woods—it is neither easy to spark a flame nor simple to sustain it.
Sustaining an interest in learning involves complex personal skills. It requires finding out what others value and empowering them to explore and build upon their dreams. It may mean helping students find the courage to take a risk or overcome habits that undermine progress. It can also involve treading on deeply personal terrain that may house pockets of emotional pain. Few teachers have been trained in the skills of motivation (Bartholomew, 2007).
Perhaps because motivating others is so tricky, we often resort unthinkingly to treating students as we ourselves were treated—using rewards to stack learning outcomes in our favor or even using guilt or fear. All of us have probably, at one time or other, assumed the role of reluctant responder to someone who was trying to influence our actions. Being on the receiving end of another's well-intentioned but unwanted campaign to change our behavior should set a powerful example of tactics to avoid in influencing learners. How then can we set up the conditions for a lasting fire?

Of Inspiration and Preparation

There are two common paradigms for instilling motivation. Although both are powerful, neither works by itself. The most common paradigm is the inspiration model. This is the means of motivation most of us probably know best from reading life-coaching books or from coming in contact with a charismatic speaker, teacher, colleague, or boss. In this model, one person offers emotionally powerful and inspiring direction to another. The successful implementation of this model requires that the motivator maintain a positive and in-charge attitude, display enthusiasm, offer encouragement and praise, and deliver rewards tied to performance.
Although the inspiration model remains a time-honored means of spurring motivation, it comes with a built-in liability: Any time the motivating leader slacks off in charisma or enthusiasm, the follower's motivation also tends to recede. And if it is used as the only technique, the inspiration model should bear the warning that, like the Hindenburg, it comes with high combustibility potential. When inspiration follows a direct pathway from motivator to motivated, the situation is rife with opportunity for a soaring flight—or a sudden crash.
Good instruction begins when interest and excitement are sparked. Lasting learning, by contrast, comes about when instructional challenges are carefully designed to kindle success.
The second motivational paradigm involves choosing effective behavioral and cognitive interventions to use with students so that they motivate themselves. For example, building lessons around students' interests, talents, and personal goals can yield rapt attention. Leading students in simulations, demonstrations, or case studies related to content being studied will bring their minds directly to the big issues and allow students to participate rather than just observe. And offering students choices about their work will create a sense of ownership. I call this the preparation model.
To successfully motivate learners through the preparation model, practitioners must study both learning theory and their students, and they must commit themselves for the long haul. They must also accept two principles: that no single modus operandi will work for all students, and that progress in human relations is rarely linear. Subscribers to this model acknowledge that, rather than pulling others toward our view of success, as good motivators we should help others develop—and perhaps repeatedly adjust—their own criteria for success and failure. This approach anticipates how students are likely to interpret our actions toward them and encourages forethought in both lesson construction and personal behavior.
If there is a unifying concept in the preparation model, it is that a motivating teacher is in continual communication, feedback, and reevaluation mode with students. The liability to this model is that educators can become so lost in planning and constructing supports that they ignore the important component of excitement in learning. Successful fire building requires a balanced use of both models.

Establishing Trust Funds

Support Is Motivating

Not long ago, I asked a special education teacher who had also worked as a school aide for many years what teacher practices she thought most motivate students. She replied without hesitating, "Students need to know that no matter what, you will never give up on them." A day later, I asked a struggling 4th grade reader what he liked best about his teacher. "She always helps me," he stated simply.
As these comments reveal, students' sense that they can trust their teacher to help them in all situations is a key element in fire building (Cottrell, Neuberg, & Li, 2007). Our first step in kindling motivation is to establish between teacher and student a foundation of respectful verbal exchanges, shared understandings, positive routines, and proof of support—what I call a "trust fund."
Children arrive at our schools with histories that sometimes defy our best efforts to make instructional progress with them—at least at that moment. They may resist overtures of kindness or assistance. Older children and adolescents can especially challenge us with their lack of desire to connect. This resistance can translate into the familiar classroom-management issues of defiance, mocking, or indifference. Establishing trust is our main antidote to watching such defenses harden and extinguish the spark of motivation.
Open lines of communication are instrumental to working with all students, but they are particularly vital when pacing instruction for a student who displays personal, cognitive, or other issues that hamper learning. Although the school counselor will be an important ally, in most instances the classroom teacher will be the first responder, confidante, comforter, and life coach.
The teacher's expectations for each student's success are a crucial factor in its realization (Wigfield & Eccles, 2002), and so is the teacher's approachability. In a recent study of 765 elementary and middle school students, researchers found a powerful link between a student's ability to ask his or her teacher for help and that student's level of motivation. Students who sought teacher assistance were not only more likely to be good at self-regulation, but also more likely to engage in challenging learning tasks (Marchand & Skinner, 2007). In other words, students' willingness to seek help is tied to their ability to achieve. It is especially important that we help older struggling learners feel comfortable asking for help. For them, the perceived advantage of receiving aid may not seem worth the risk of embarrassment.

Teacher Actions That Build Trust

Studying the research and working with students for decades has clarified for me particular things students value in teachers. If we consider what most students want in a teacher, we can identify specific teacher actions that will provide students what they need, forge trust, and ignite interest in learning.
Students want an adult to listen and respond to them. Listen carefully to what students tell you. Identify the primary issue (whether personal, academic, or other) and respond to it. "I am bored" has a hundred meanings, most of which have nothing to do with boredom. Remember that trust is never built through manipulation of weakness or exploitation of fear.
Students want a safe, well-managed classroom. Punishing or embarrassing students in front of others or removing privileges earned are never good classroom-management techniques. You may need to help students learn strategies to quiet themselves, of which there are many. Silent reading on a topic of interest to the student, for instance, is an excellent calming and concentration-building exercise. Books do not have to be at the student's instructional level. They may contain more pictures than words, feature puzzles and jokes, or focus on nonacademic topics.
Students want fair, equitable treatment. Fairness is a subjective concept: Your idea of fairness may not be the same as the students' ideas. Be prepared to explain your beliefs when you and students see fairness differently. Establish an equity threshold. This means not only determining a "bottom line" of teacher-created expectations and rules, but also developing a system for student input and negotiation. Something as simple as a suggestion box will give students a voice in how their classroom functions. Schedule weekly discussion time for students to have their say, and keep that time inviolable. Involve students in writing rubrics and setting grading expectations.
To avoid preferential treatment, dispense rewards and praise with caution. Keep these tied to student work and behavior and make feedback detailed enough that students know why they are being rewarded. Rewards are tricky: If they are taken away, students may feel punished.
Students want peer approval. To ease students' fear of embarrassment, permit individual students to speak with you privately about accommodations or extra help. Exercise caution in holding up any student as an example to others, whether positive or negative, no matter how pure your intentions or how innocent your comments seem. Respect boundaries; a teacher is never a peer. Good fences make good teachers.
Students want feedback on progress and a map for "getting there." Establish individual short- and long-term goals for each student, keeping them in a place where the student can visually refer to them. Readjust these goals frequently with the student. Acknowledge progress toward goals when it happens. Struggling learners need steady feedback.
Provide explicit instructional guidance in areas in which the learner struggles. Help each student develop a personalized learning plan and time line to keep in a folder along with his or her goals. Don't dumb down content, but rise to the challenge of making meaning clearer; for example, make it a habit to use clear and simple English.
Students want encouragement. Establish through your words and actions that you are a learning resource, a role model, a listener and responder, and an advocate. Building students' self-esteem will empower them; building their knowledge will motivate them to keep learning. Remember that you may be the person in your students' lives who is best equipped with the personal and academic skills to help them achieve.

Providing Fuel and Oxygen

Relevant curriculum and interesting, scaffolded instruction are the fuel that will feed the fire. Lively lessons presented in sequenced increments help learners move toward their goals. To help keep struggling students successfully engaged in learning tasks and build their confidence, keep multisensory supports—a sort of learning tool kit—in their individual folders. This tool kit might include such things as computation tables, English or bilingual dictionaries, blank cards for creating flash cards, a list of Web sites, letter or number manipulatives, and blank templates for personal goal setting. Combined with personalized help from the teacher, such aids will support students' learning while protecting their individual dignity.
If well-planned instruction provides fuel for the fire, rich verbal exchanges and chances for student exploration provide the oxygen. To reach students who arrive at school lacking fundamental background knowledge, enriching students' spoken language is essential (Hart & Risley, 1995). Knowing this, we should question the deeply revered ideal of a quiet classroom. For many students, sitting silently impedes the learning process through which they construct meaning from their teachers and peers. A roomful of students sitting quietly for hours on end is an "ideal" we should avoid. Far better to establish opportunities for rich oral language exchange, which will increase students' fluency in thinking and reading (Dickinson & Tabors, 2001; Dyson, 2000; Nation & Snowling, 2004; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998).
A learning environment rich in verbal interaction and exploratory activities has substantial benefits for motivation. When we go beyond lecture and seatwork, students can more readily conceptualize subject matter. After catching a raindrop or feeling the wind on their faces, elementary students will be more ready for scientific talk about weather systems. Older students will be grateful for learning walks tied to subject matter throughout the schoolyard or neighborhood, and all students will enjoy expressing themselves through multimedia. Such active lessons will especially help learners whose desire to expand intellectually is hindered by poor reading skills.
Classrooms that abandon traditional arrangements may initially need to put other behavior-shaping frameworks or rules in place to maintain smooth operation. My own experience, however, has been that motivated students provide far fewer behavior challenges.
For teachers to succeed in building motivation, administrators and policymakers also need to revisit what kind of learning and behaviors they want to see in students and how best to achieve those goals. Administrators will also need to value creating motivation, and they may need to change schools in ways that will support teachers' fire building. Student motivation rarely burns evenly. Fortunately, we can carefully prepare our school and classroom environments to ignite and sustain learning.

Bartholomew, B. (2007). Why we can't always get what we want. Phi Delta Kappan, 88(8), 593–598.

Cottrell, C. A., Neuberg, S. L., & Li, N. P. (2007). What do people desire in others? A sociofunctional perspective on the importance of different valued characteristics.Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(2), 208–231.

Dickinson, D. K., & Tabors, P. O. (2001).Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Dyson, A. H. (2000). Writing and the sea of voices: Oral language in, around, and about writing. In R. Indrisano, and J. Squire (Eds.), Perspectives on writing: Research, theory, and practice (pp. 45–65). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Marchand, G., & Skinner, E. (2007). Motivational dynamics of children's academic help seeking and concealment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 99(1), 65–82.

Nation, K., & Snowling, M. (2004). Beyond phonological skills: Broader language skills contribute to the development of reading. Journal of Research in Reading, 27(4), 342–356.

Snow, C. E., Burns, M. S., & Griffin, P. (Eds.). (1998). Preventing reading difficulties in young children. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Wigfield, A., & Eccles, J. (2002). The development of competence, beliefs, expectancies for success, and achievement values from childhood through adolescence. In A. Wigfield & J. Eccles (Eds.), Development of achievement motivation (pp. 91–120). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

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