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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Forget Taking a Hard Line. Try ‘Soft Tactics’ to Spark Student Motivation

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 09, 2023 11 min read
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I’m not sure if you’re going to find a more useful series of suggestions on student motivation than you’ll find in this series of posts, and today’s piece wraps it all up ....

Motivation and ‘Flow’

Jeffrey D. Wilhelm is Distinguished Professor of Literacy Education at Boise State University. He currently is directing a Dispositions of Democracy project supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities A More Perfect Union grant. His latest book, Planning Powerful Instruction: 7 Must Make Moves explores the EMPOWER model:

What are the primary challenges of teachers? Certainly motivation and engagement are near the top of every teacher’s list. We’ve all experienced carefully planned lessons and units that fell flat, leading to a long, arduous, and painful slog through the Slough of Despond.

My colleague Michael Smith and I, deeply concerned about student motivation and engagement (but particularly for boys and young men) engaged in two major studies to understand 1) what is necessary to motivation and engagement, and 2) how to implement rich instructional models and practices that meet the conditions necessary for motivation and engagement.

There were two major sets of findings. First, learners seek the experience of “flow” (how people feel when they are completely engaged in an activity) in any activity, in school or out, before they will deeply engage. And second, students in the studies shared an implied social contract with teachers: This contract to care demanded that a teacher must work to know me (both personally and as a learner), care about me, connect to and address my interests and concerns in some way, assist me over time, never give up on me, be passionate about what we are doing together.

Q. What kind of curriculum meets the demands of flow and the social contract to care, which we found to be prerequisites to motivation and engagement and, therefore, to all learning?

A. Guided Inquiry

Guided inquiry as cognitive apprenticeship is an instructional model that has many exemplars, including project-based learning and UbD (Understanding by Design Framework). My colleagues at the Boise State Writing Project and I developed a model called EMPOWER that captures the major elements of all major guided-inquiry models.

EMPOWER also captures the major findings from a wide set of research into motivation, engagement, and optimal experience, as well as into effective teaching and learning, development of expertise, and much more. The steps of EMPOWERing instruction and how they meet the conditions of flow:


Graphic by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm

And EMPOWER necessarily meets the conditions of Flow:


Graphic by Jeffrey D. Wilhelm

Imagine a classroom where students are learning about the Civil War in the traditional informational approach. Students in such classrooms often ask, “Why do we have to learn this? When am I ever going to use this?” Click on this link to see how a classroom using the EMPOWER method would study The Civil War.

EMPOWER is designed to support planning of highly engaging instruction that positions the students as agents who learn new and more expert ways of engaging, knowing, thinking, doing, and being. In both formal studies and a wide variety of teacher research studies, we have found this approach to enliven classrooms, engage learners, and lead to deep learning and understanding. This is not surprising, since EMPOWER captures and operationalizes the best of what is thought and known about engagement and about powerful instruction.


‘Empathetic Persuasion’

Dale Ripley, Ph.D., has taught for over 40 years at the elementary, secondary, and postsecondary levels, primarily in high-needs schools. His latest book, The Tactical Teacher: Proven Strategies to Positively Influence Student Learning & Classroom Behavior, shows teachers 58 ways to improve the negative classroom behaviors of even their most challenging students in order to increase student learning:

In my school career, I learned quickly that trying to use “power” with defiant students was rarely effective. Instead, I have developed strategies I call “soft tactics” that I use to get students to a place where success in school matters to them.

The first strategy I use is to make a commitment to be there for the long haul. I tell my students early on that their success at school matters to me, and that no matter how tough things get, I am not going away. I promise them that I will show up every day, I will be prepared with lessons that are relevant, and that if I don’t show up, they should check the obituaries because that is the only reason I will be away. Then, I honor that commitment. While many students don’t believe me at first, after several months of me showing up daily, with a positive attitude and genuine concern for their success, I eventually wear them down.

Another strategy that I find effective is reciprocation. Reciprocation involves me going well beyond what students would normally expect of a teacher in terms of helping them. I have fed students, given them clothing, helped their families with basic needs, visited them in hospital after suicide attempts, and bailed them out of jail. It is very difficult for a student to refuse your request to work hard in school on a Monday when you bailed them out of jail the day before. And once I can get a student to make a small commitment to doing some schoolwork, I’m in, . . . and we go and grow from there.

Likeability is also another influence strategy that is very effective. There are two parts to likeability. First, we know that we have a tendency to like people who are similar to us in some way(s). There is a lot of research that supports the fact that we tend to like people who are like us. So very early in the year, I implement strategies that help me find out a great deal of information about each student in my class—what music they like, what video games they play, what sports they play or follow, favorite TV shows or movies, and so on. I then use this information as a “way in” to establish similarities with students, especially the more challenging ones.

The second part of likeability is the basic classroom truth that students don’t learn well from teachers they don’t like. So I do a lot of things to ensure my students like me. I give candy at Halloween, candy canes at Christmas, chocolate on Valentine’s Day and at Easter. I give them help in myriad ways—sometimes school-related, sometimes in their personal lives. It is really hard to dislike someone who constantly shows you that they are concerned about you and they are consistently there for you. Please don’t misunderstand likeability. I have classroom rules, and they are nonnegotiable and apply to all students at all times. Being likeable does not mean you are a pushover.

As well, I pay very close attention to the physical environment of the classroom as a way to appeal to students (mostly at the subconscious level) so that they will be motivated to come to school and to work. What students hear, what they see, what they smell within my classroom all impact the way they feel about being there and doing the work. By using music, certain visuals, and specific colors in the classroom (including giving students control over certain areas of the room), I work to create an environment that is pleasant for them to be in and one that is conducive to getting the work accomplished.

Other tactics, such as making students continually aware of their standing in regard to attendance and academic progress; using empathetic persuasion; using rewards effectively (for algorithmic tasks but not for heuristic creative tasks); and using cognitive bias strategies such as loss aversion and the focusing illusion; all work to get students to a place where they are motivated to come to school and to do well.


Student ‘Voice and Choice’

Kathy S. Dyer is an educator who has served as a teacher, principal, district assessment coordinator, and adjunct professor:

Want to engage and empower learners to motivate themselves? Create opportunities for them to have voice and choice. We’ve learned that kids thrive in environments where their voice matters and they have choices in the learning process. There are many ways this can happen in a classroom when learning experiences are designed around what, who, where, when, how to learn, and how to demonstrate.

  • What: Something as simple as a self-assessment or pretest at the start of a unit can provide choices about what to learn.
  • Who: Learning options might include as an individual, with a partner, from an expert, or in a small group.
  • Where: All learning doesn’t take place sitting at a desk/table—let learners be creative in choosing an environment that works best for them.
  • When: Learners can be able to choose or negotiate time timelines for some activities.
  • How to learn: Examples of modalities might include reading, watching, listening, modeling, participating in an online community, talking with peers/experts, choosing strategies to use.
  • How to demonstrate: Clarify the success criteria and offer a menu of choices for products/presentations

Learners of all ages appreciate having their voice heard and choices to make in their learning. Offering both voice and choice leads to more self-directed learning. Think about learners who have had little control over when and how they learn in the last few years. Designing learning experiences that offer these options might be one way to give learners some control they may be missing.

In the beginning, it may be necessary to teach learners how to make choices and share their voices. You might start with 3-5 choices before you move to “50 ways to show what you know.” It may feel a bit chaotic in the beginning. Once you and the learners get the hang of it, more learning, engagement, and ownership happen.


Thanks to Jeffrey, Dale, and Kathy for contributing their thoughts.

This is the sixth post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, and Part Five here.

The question of the week is:

What strategies have you used to create classroom conditions where students were more likely to motivate themselves, including those who didn’t initially seem very engaged?

Chandra Shaw, Irina McGrath, Meg Riordan, and Andrew Sharos kicked off this series.

Chandra, Irina, Meg, and Andrew were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, I shared an excerpt from my new book, The Student Motivation Handbook.

In Part Three, Diana Laufenberg, Mary K. Tedrow, and Valerie King offered their suggestions.

In Part Four, Whitney Emke and Laura Robb wrote their responses.

In Part Five, Mike Kaechele, Eric Richard, Pat Brown, and Ann Stiltner discussed the topic.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all EdWeek articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.


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