Teacher Preparation

Want Teachers to Motivate Their Students? Teach Them How to Do It

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 06, 2019 3 min read
Principal Betsy Gavron of Wayland Middle School, in Wayland, Mass., takes part in an un-birthday celebration for the school's 6th grade advisory group, which sets aside unstructured time for students to build relationships and bond with their teachers and each other.

Most teachers intrinsically understand the need to motivate their students, experts say, but teaching on intuition alone can lead to missteps in student engagement.

A study released in May by the Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, found most teacher education programs nationwide do not include explicit training for teachers on the science of how to motivate students.

That’s why some teacher education programs are exploring ways to help teachers learn how to engage their students in deeper ways.

“Everyone has a gut sense of the importance of a student’s relationship with a teacher. ... It’s not a scholarly understanding but a human understanding,” said Mayme Hostetter, the president of the Relay Graduate School of Education, one of the few programs nationwide with formal courses for teachers on student motivation.

But that “gut sense” can mislead teachers, Hostetter warned.

“The most common [misconception] is teachers think this is what it meant for me to have a strong relationship with my teacher, so this is what it means for kids universally to have a strong relationship with their teacher,” she said.

“But, of course, every kid is different—there are differences in community and culture—and it’s taken a while for teachers to try to develop a new repertoire for building relationships with kids who are different from the way they were.”

Building Relationships

As part of a two-year graduate education program at Relay, teachers take a summer semester on recent research on building strong relationships with students and ways that academic mindsets, sense of belonging, and other issues affect students’ motivation to learn.

In the fall, the student-teachers enter the classroom as resident teachers while still meeting for ongoing training in building strong classroom culture.

Cultural divides can hinder teachers who are asked to connect with their students beyond the narrow confines of the subjects they teach.

The Mindset Scholars study found that teachers’ in-service professional development also tends to separate subject-matter training and social-emotional-support training, making it more difficult to connect the two.

Tim Klein, a teaching fellow, and his colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, witnessed teachers’ frustration as their K-12 schools implemented advisory periods to build student-teacher connections.

“A lot of the way that educators build relationships with their students is through their content knowledge,” Klein said. “So if you’re a chemistry teacher, and you have students interested in chemistry, it’s that shared experience of chemistry that’s helping you build meaningful relationships. But then what’s happening is when you take away the content, teachers have no idea what to do to fill that space in a meaningful way. ... It’s not the best way to build a relationship.”

“What we think is a much, much better way you build relationships is to understand the elements of purpose that students have,” he said.

Finding Purpose

Learning to Motivate

The Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study student motivation, asked more than 17 leaders of teacher-education programs whether and how they incorporate emerging research on how teachers affect “social psychological factors that support—or undermine—students’ motivation to learn.”

The resulting report recommends several ways teacher-preparation programs can integrate discussions of motivation and social supports, such as:

Providing faculty feedback and data from recent graduates about areas where they felt the program did not prepare them for the classroom;

Giving school or district leaders the opportunity to talk about why they need new teachers to understand student motivation; and

Guiding faculty discussions of recent research and analyses of social aspects of learning.

Source: Mindset Scholars Network

In response, Klein and his colleagues developed Project Wayfinder, a school-based program to help teachers understand emerging research on student motivation.

In four-day crash courses, educators work through instructional approaches to help students feel safe and supported in the classroom and ways to help students look beyond surface motivations to identify their own strengths, weaknesses, and goals. It also includes a curriculum to help teachers frame advisory periods.

An early Boston College pilot study of about 30 schools using the training found that teachers were able to improve students’ motivation and identify a personal purpose for their learning.

Project Wayfinder, which started in 2014 has since expanded to 56 schools in 18 states serving about 4,000 students.

Both Hofstetter and Klein said teachers need more permission and support from school leaders to prioritize broader approaches to engaging their students.

“We’re at this place where the purpose of education today is getting to college ... and we’re using that as the number-one carrot for why students should care more, for why they should be motivated in school,” Klein said.

“So you come into class and you say, ‘Hey, you should do this either because it’s going to get you into a great college or because I’m going to work really, really hard to make this interesting for you.’”

But higher education is a means, not an end, and Klein said students end up being more motivated to achieve, both in K-12 and in college, if they understand “their purpose as something that is personally meaningful and also benefits the world beyond the classroom.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at www.novofoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as Want Teachers to Engage Their Students? Teach Them How

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