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Education Opinion

Motivating Students to Succeed

By Robert Rothman — April 22, 2014 2 min read
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Last month I had the privilege of attending the 2014 Deeper Learning conference at High Tech High in San Diego. The conference was a great opportunity to hear from and meet educators who are providing their students with schooling experiences that enable them to develop a broad range of competencies and produce great work. A particular highlight was a presentation by middle schoolers at Polaris Charter Academy in Chicago, who had completed a fantastic project on gun violence in that city. Their talk, to 400 educators, was truly inspiring.

I found one session particularly interesting. Camille Farrington of the University of Chicago, along with Carissa Romero of Stanford University, Ron Berger of Expeditionary Learning, and Eduardo Briseno of Mindset Works, led a session on academic mindsets. The workshop explored ways that teachers can structure classrooms to enhance students’ motivation to work hard and succeed.

The session was packed--so much so that participants had to move to a larger room to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend. Why so much interest? Aren’t deeper learning experiences supposed to be motivating, by providing students with opportunities to engage in real-world projects that matter to them? Perhaps the teachers at the conference believed that more was needed, for some students at least.

As the parent of a teenager, I know that motivation is a constant challenge. Adolescents seldom leap at what adults expect them to do. And for some students, especially those who have experienced failure at school, persevering toward a distant goal of a high school diploma must be a hard climb.

In a new book, Failing at School, Camille Farrington shows compellingly that the way most high schools are organized helps contribute to a cycle of failure for many students and does little to support student success. The schools assign students work that they see as irrelevant, awards grades to them without providing them opportunities to improve their work, and, if they fail a course, make students go through the whole process again while trying to keep up with their other classes.

Many of the schools engaged in deeper learning challenge many of these practices. They provide students with opportunities to have a voice in the projects they pursue. They provide students time to revise and improve their products. And they provide support for students every step of the way.

But as the interest in the conference session showed, teachers are clearly looking for additional ways to help students. Fortunately, according to Farrington, there are many things teachers can do to support students’ academic mindsets. As she writes:

[S]tudents put forth effort to learn when they saw a clear path to success, had teachers who cared about them and made them feel like valued members of the classroom community, experienced a direct connection between their work and improving grades or accumulating credits, and found the work fun or interesting or relevant.... [T]eachers who demonstrated concern for the young people in front of them, who took time to check on their well-being and were attentive to their academic progress, who patiently explained and then re-explained until students understood a lesson, and who worked to make their classrooms active and interesting places, these teachers elicited a level of effort and commitment from students that didn’t happen in other classes. Broadly speaking, these were the classes that students passed.

How can schools structure themselves to make these practices routine?

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.