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September 26, 2019
Vol. 15
No. 2

The Revisionist Lens of First-Year Teachers

Last September, I walked into my classroom with a collection of ideas, preconceived notions, and teaching strategies from my pre-service training program. I was a first-time teacher, and in many ways, I felt equipped to create and deliver effective lessons. But there were gaps in my educational experience that related to classroom and behavior management. Now that I've come out on the other side, here's what I've learned.
Lauren Goegan, who is a PhD student in in educational psychology, has worked with me since our paths crossed at the university we both attended. She has provided insight into my findings and contributed to the research behind the takeaways.

Intrinsically motivated students are well-behaved students.

One of the first things that I noticed was that children love rewards. My reward system involved letting students choose small prizes like pencils and candies from a large bowl when they gave correct answers or completed tasks efficiently. While students seemed eager to earn these prizes, the effect wasn't always as I intended.
"Mr. Fargo, will the best assignment get a prize?" students would ask as I introduced a new activity or writing exercise.
When I replied that we weren't doing prizes that day, students' motivation was sucked out of the room. Rewards had become the foundation of my classroom-management system and students had become reliant on them. I had replaced intrinsic motivation, or their engagement in activities for pure enjoyment (Deci, & Ryan, 2012), with extrinsic motivation. Researchers have found that when external rewards are implemented, intrinsic motivation decreases (Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991).
I became more mindful of words as a source of motivation. Using supportive language when I notice a student putting effort into a difficult task can be infinitely encouraging. While my words are also an external source of motivation, I observed how students became more determined and confident—two building blocks for developing intrinsic motivation. I try to ensure that my comments are positive, specific, and sincere (Collins, & Cook, 2016). For example, saying "The way that you described the landscape made me feel like I was really there!" is more effective than simply saying "Good job!" This also builds important relationships with students.
I also gave students more control over their learning process. In one instance, we explored the concept of empathy by creating work from a fictional character's perspective. While I planned to have students write an individual journal response, some students asked if they could do an oral interview-style presentation instead. Since this approach also fulfilled the learning objective, I gladly approved and the students were excited to complete the task.
However, I didn't completely stop using rewards, as they can be a fun way to build relationships with students. I limit my use of prizes and rewards to transitional games and class breaks rather than academic endeavors. This allows students to let off some steam and interact socially with their classmates.

Students need to understand why they are doing what they are doing.

On multiple occasions, I created what I thought to be thoughtful and effective activities. In practice, however, many students were disengaged. I spent a lot of time redesigning activities until an interaction in the classroom caused me to change my approach.
"Mr. Fargo, I don't understand the point of doing this," stated a particularly distracted and exasperated student, as she sketched an image based on a detailed description I had provided.
I saw the sketch as a unique way to develop reading comprehension skills and have students visually represent the way in which they interpret words differently. But I didn't adequately provide this information to the students. I realized that the solution was not spending countless hours building new activities from scratch. Instead, I needed to frame existing activities with a better explanation of the skills they develop and their real-world applications.
During a unit on short stories, I explained that I wanted students to work in small groups because it develops cooperative skills, and they learn how to divide a large task into more manageable pieces, assign roles, and strategically implement a plan. They were to create a short fairytale narrative because writing develops effective communication skills and fosters creativity—key for any successful career path. Whether it is developing a new technology or envisioning your ideal bedroom layout, the benefits of creative thinking can be seen across the arts, sciences, and in everyday life. This explanation was built into my lesson plan, as a part of the introduction, and the students appreciated my openness.
The comments above can be understood within expectancy-value theory (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). In particular, the concept of utility value is motivation to engage in an activity because it is useful in the short and/or long term. There has been research, particularly in the area of teaching science, that examines how making science personally relevant engages students in the learning process, which can increase student interest and grades (Hulleman & Harackiewicz, 2009). It is important to link learning activities to explanations such as why the activity is important to learn or how learning might come in handy later on. Only then can students truly connect with an activity as something other than another class assignment.
In order to be most useful, these statements should not remain hidden behind the scenes, in curricular documents, and on the pages of a teacher's professional development notebook. They should be present in your classroom, visible on whiteboards, and within the teacher-led explanation of any learning activity. This transparency and openness give students a greater sense of accountability for their own learning.
As a result of these approaches, I feel more confident in my ability to provide students with a learning environment that provides them with the means to become motivated learners. I look to my upcoming second year of teaching as an opportunity to continue to develop and improve my teaching practices.

Collins, L. & Cook, L. (2016). Never Say Never: The Appropriate and Inappropriate Use of Praise and Feedback for Students with Learning and Behavioral Disabilities. Instructional Practices with and without Empirical Validity, pp.153-173.

Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology: Vol. 1 (pp. 416-437). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Deci, E. L., Vallerand, R. J., Pelletier, L. G., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). Motivation and education: The self-determination perspective. Educational Psychologist, 26(3-4), 325-346. doi: 10.1080/00461520.1991.9653137

Eccles, J. S. & Wigfield, A. (2002). Motivational beliefs, values, and goals. Annual Review of Psychology, 53(1), 109-132. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135153

Hulleman, C. S. & Harackiewicz, J. M. (2009). Promoting interest and performance in high school science classes. Science, 326(5958), 1410-1412. doi: 10.1126/science.1177067

David Z. Fargo is a 6th grade teacher in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where he teaches language arts and art.

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