To give and get the most from our students, we have revamped our evening faculty meetings to spend time learning from the expertise of our faculty and other educators on topics around pedagogy, learning, and mind-brain education. At our first evening faculty meeting for the 2019-20 school year, the Academic Office and the Office of Professional and Programmatic Growth engaged us on the topic of effective motivation strategies: a pretty key skill for working with teenagers!
To lay the groundwork, we first viewed a segment from a TedTalk by Daniel Pink on extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation. Marceau then summarized four main points about student motivation from the educational research, and connected these ideas to the mind-brain-education research we have been incorporating into our classrooms at Tabor. After a few minutes of reflection on our own strengths and areas for growth in our own work with students, the faculty broke into small groups to discuss and learn from one another.
The first point was a very important reminder that students are more motivated academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher. Of course, with our focus on community, creating powerful relationships is something we work hard at here at Tabor--and at a school like ours, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to build those student-teacher relationships in multiple realms, including the dorms, co-curriculars, and around campus. The next level beyond the personal relationship is creating a safe and positive learning environment. Only when students feel safe and known by their teachers and peers are they ready to express themselves fully. In small groups, the faculty discussed methods to help students feel most at home in our classrooms.
The next concept was how powerful a motivator choice can be in an educational context. In our small groups, we discussed how much meaningful choice we offer students to help them feel a sense of control over different aspects of their learning, from the topic of inquiry to means of assessment. Teachers brainstormed with one another various ways we could adapt our courses and lessons to create more opportunities for this motivational factor. Our focus on skills over content often allows teachers more options for granting choice, allowing students to dive deep into areas of their own interests within the learning units presented. It was motivating to hear the many ways teachers are doing this in their classrooms.
Choice helps students feel a greater sense of connection to their work, as does the next concept as well: fostering a sense of purpose and relevance to the work we ask our students to engage in. Our move to a 75-minute class schedule allows teachers more time in the classroom to meaningfully explore connections between the subject at hand and our students’ own experiences. In addition, opportunities to engage in global exchange, options to do research with local universities and non-profits, and ongoing service work with people with needs our students can meet are examples of more ways we build relevance and purpose into our work both inside and outside of class.
Finally, we discussed the importance of fostering a growth mindset in our students. In order to persist with difficult material, students need to believe they can improve and they need to have confidence that they belong. Offering feedback on effort rather than outcome and providing genuine encouragement is very important to fostering a growth mindset. Our teachers make efforts to help students see when they may need to switch gears to achieve their goals while keeping mistakes in perspective, a normal and integral part of learning. Maintaining high expectations while also affirming to students that we have confidence in them is critical to their ongoing success.
A story recently shared with us from one of our 2019 Circle of Excellence inductees, the Founder of True Ventures, Jon Callahghan ’87, illustrates this point so well. Jon shared, “The fall of my senior year was hard. I found myself in a five-person BC Calculus course with Paul White, a tough and respected teacher. After only a week in the class, I was falling behind fast and, as I looked around the room at my classmates, I was intimidated: they were brilliant and my gut told me I didn’t belong there. I went to see Mr. White to talk about it. I felt awful and was full of fear. He looked straight at me and said, “You can do this. You’re just like everyone else in there. It’s supposed to be hard and you have what it takes. Keep at it.” Mr. White’s confidence in me made me realize I had what it took and gave me the perspective to not get hung up on the notion that I might fail. He made me realize that the fear of failing was far worse than just pushing ahead. This lesson is the key to my personal and professional success.”
Each of these strategies is aimed at helping our students develop intrinsic motivation for learning--the type that really brings deep satisfaction as we align our work with our life’s goals and purpose. Indeed, in a world that holds extrinsic motivators in such high regard (grades, salary, titles, etc.), it can be an uphill battle to get students to focus on the feelings that come up when they work toward something they love because it resonates deeply with their sense of values and purpose. This is why our faculty encourage students to try new things, focus on incremental growth and progress, and reach for achievement without so much worry about early failures or embarrassment. It’s all a part of the process! This work is our motivation--powerful intrinsic motivation hard at work on behalf of our students!