Friday, February 10, 2012

Engagement and Motivation

Several years ago, my colleague and I developed a workshop on engagement and motivation. Without these important aspects of classroom life, all the skill and strategy instruction in the world will not result in student success.

In the most recent Reading Today journal, researcher, John Guthrie, commented again on the importance of motivation and engagement. He said, " Motivation and engagement in literacy is a serious predicament across the spectrum from K-12. Beyond skills, effective readers and writers have developed interests, commitments, and beliefs that energize their literacy...Although motivation and engagement are vital for all students, they are not picked up automatically." What is the professional development that is needed for teachers to be empowered to support student engagement more effectively? In order for students to persevere and to develop the stamina to read complex texts and large volumes of diverse materials that the standards require, they will have to be motivated to persist and engaged in high level thinking as a regular practice in the classroom every day.

There are seven important aspects to consider with regard to engagement and motivation. I will discuss them in no particular order.

Humans are goal-oriented. Every student should know what the knowledge goal is for every lesson. That goal will be intrinsically motivating if it revolves around student learning not the test. Students want to be independent and competent not controlled and compliant. The good news is that teachers are central to creating the environment. When that environment demonstrates that the teacher and instruction is grounded in deep understanding for the student, the students will be motivated to work hard, to succeed. So, being clear about and consistently working with students in pursuit of the knowledge goal(s), leads to motivation and engagement.

The classroom must provide opportunities for real world experience. Inquiry and authentic reasons for reading, writing, speaking and listening are highlighted throughout the new Literacy Framework. If the discussion directly depends upon the reading that was done, the work is more relevant. If the listening is required to gain information from peers that will then be synthesized with information personally gathered, the activity is more relevant. If someone besides the teacher will be reading the writing - letter, email message, poster, brochure etc. the audience can be imagined and considered as the piece is prepared. All of these instructional activities require students to apply knowledge and skills as well as use them to increase knowledge, making the activities more like what we all encounter in real life every day. Writers write for readers and readers question and think with writers.

The new standards ask students to read and synthesize material from multiple sources; to read multiple pieces in various formats before speaking or writing on a particular subject. Multiple resources provide the differentiation that a diverse student population requires. Providing multiple resources ensures that all students will find material that is interesting and accessible. This can certainly be challenging in our current economic climate unless we think in a more global context. The Internet provides many opportunities to find open source and accessible texts, some of which are purely visual or auditory and some that combine both.

Over and over again in the motivation and engagement literature, choice is highlighted. Choice, differentiation, inquiry, and self-efficacy combine to create a perfect context for motivation and engagement. The new standards emphasize student-generated questions. This is often an untapped resource. As a new topic emerges, students automatically begin to wonder about the subject. Harnessing and organizing these wonderings so that students may choose which to pursue, can be a blueprint for providing choice, developing inquiry, and making students responsible for learning and sharing that learning with peers. Choice is rarely wide open. You may work with a partner, or on one of these three topics, or visit three of these six websites, or choose one of these presented formats for demonstrating your expertise. No matter how wide or narrow the limits, providing choices makes learning more interesting and enjoyable.

Teachers who demonstrate a belief in the success of all students are more motivating. Once a strategy has been taught, students need a chance to use the strategy in a purposeful and meaningful way. The standards emphasize proficiency and independence for all students by the end of the grade level. As teachers, we will want to provide the practice needed to be proficient and the opportunities to try independence with knowledge, skills, and strategies many times throughout the year while we are still at hand to provide timely and useful feedback. The gradual release of responsibility is paramount for engagement.

Structured peer collaboration is essential to motivation and engagement. Otherwise the classroom is a place of constant "parallel play" and our students have developed beyond that stage by the time we meet them. Collaboration provides much needed practice in use of academic language, problem-solving, and rigorous discourse. Even writing should involve collaboration at times. I have written with a co-author. It is challenging and rewarding. Part of the gradual release noted above involves working with peers. There are plenty of required tests that must be done alone. The real world requires many more challenges that involve collaboration.

Motivation and engagement require that the assessments align with the instruction and that coherence between them is evident. Whatever that knowledge goal was that's what should be assessed. So if the knowledge goal involves understanding simple machines, then everyone should not be required to write an explanation of them. Knowledge of simple machines may be demonstrated in many ways. If the knowledge goal is to learn to write explanatory text, then everyone will be required to write, however, the topics could be different and the presentation may be different as well.

Throughout the new Framework, I find links to increased motivation and engagement, for teachers as well as for students. I hope you are using the standards to reinvent some of your lessons with the standards as your objectives. The recommendations are to try out some lessons or units this spring, to be at near full implementation for next year and then to fully implement the new standards at all grade levels by the 2013-14 school year. Stay tuned for lots more support and collaboration as we continue the process, and whatever you do, stay motivated and engaged!

Books to consider:
Guthrie, J. Editor. (2008). Engaging adolescents in reading. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press.
Lots of individual articles by various authors on the subjects of engagement and motivation.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Rothenberg, C. (2008). Content-area conversations: How to plan discussion-based lessons for diverse language learners. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.
This book has an appendix filled with collaborative structures to support peer collaboration at all levels. It includes linguistic frames to give language learners practice in academic language and discourse.

Please note:Harvard Graduate School of Education will host a
four-day professional education institute, Making it Work: Implementing a
Comprehensive PreK-3rd Grade Approach, May 9-12, 2012. Full details about applying, as well as additional information about the content of the Institute and the preferred team
composition, may be found here: