Friday, February 17, 2012

Friday's Five - Our Students Need to Believe They Matter

It's human nature to want to matter.  We all have that desire.  It motivates much of what we do.  For some, it motivates them to seek financial success.  For others, it motivates them to do charity work.  For me, it was a driving factor in why I became a teacher.

Our students have this need as well.  Unfortunately, many of our traditional practices in education make students feel that they have no worth.  It's a primary reason why our students are lacking motivation.  Why work hard if you and what you produce don't matter?

I've heard many educational experts tell me that the way to solve this problem is to tell students why what they are doing in school will relate to their life when they get out of school.  Our students don't care about this.  The long technical reason is that their frontal lobes aren't completely formed, and such rational, unemotional thought is not possible for them.  The short reason is that asking a kid to trust you and be motivated by something that may or may not benefit them 5, 10, 15, or 20 years down the road is absurd.  Our kids need to feel important now.  If we want them to learn, we'd better start meeting this need.  Here are five ways to allow kids to feel that they matter.
  1. Problem Based Learning (PBL)  If you want kids to feel that that matter, have them do something that matters.  There are a multitude of problems that need to be solved in our communities. Challenge your students to solve them.  How can we help the local food pantry raise money?  How can we effectively publicize the upcoming blood drive in our school?  What data can we collect and use to prove that there needs to be a stoplight at the intersection near the school? 
  2. Publish their work. It is insulting to a student to work hard on a project, paper, or other in-depth assignment with the end result being that a teacher looks at it, judges it, and hands it back with a number or letter on top of it.  Use a class blog, wikispace, or other avenue to publish their work.  Let them share with friends and family around the globe.  Let their research be used by others.  Give them an audience other than the teacher.  Better yet, let them publish their writing in a book using a site like and use the proceeds to solve a community problem like the ones described above.
  3. Stop expecting students to be motivated by grades.  Grades are a way to rank, sort, judge, and punish students.  They are not an effective way to motivate students.  A plethora of studies show that external motivation is not lasting and will not serve our students in life.  We need to give them the experiences of learning for the pleasure of learning, feeling the joy of helping others, and being valued for reasons other than being the best hoop jumper in the class. An emphasis on grades undermines our ability as teachers to give our students those experiences and does nothing to lead our students to believe they matter. 
  4. Allow students opportunities to consult, collaborate with, and learn from community members.  If you want students to believe that their math lesson is important to their life, bring in a member of the community who uses that math in their job every day to share his/her experiences with your students.  Then allow the students the opportunity to be an accountant, small business owner, mechanic, home builder, etc.  The same opportunities can be worked into classes in almost every subject area.  In addition to the valuable career awareness that comes from these types of interactions, there is the chance for students to do work that is necessary in the community.
  5. Allow students to use tools current to the generation in which they are living.  Forcing students to read outdated textbooks to get information, having them spend hours answering questions that have easily "googled" answers, and not allowing them to use 21st century tools to demonstrate their learning not only makes school seem woefully irrelevant, but sends the message to our students that we don't respect them.  If we did respect them we'd allow them to share their learning using tools and in ways that are familiar to them, regardless of our traditions and comfort with those tools and methods.  This is especially true when those tools and methods are much more aligned with the expectations of the workplace they will graduate into than what we have traditionally done in schools.  A zoologist would think nothing of pulling out their phone to find out the best diet for a pica, but our students learning about mammals must wait until their weekly computer lab time slot - even though they have a very capable phone in their backpack.  An advertising executive would think nothing of sending a text of a picture to a colleague to ask for an opinion on a piece of concept art, but many of our students would get an in-school suspension for sending a similar text to a peer.  I could list examples like this all day long.  I know someone will argue, "Many students who can text their friends won't learn anything because they'll be distracted."  I'll argue, "All of our students who believe school is irrelevant and that we don't think they matter won't learn anything."  Maybe we should teach them to use technology in appropriate ways instead of banning it. 
What are your thoughts?  Do you have other ways to make students believe they matter?  Share your ideas with us in the comment section below, and share this post with others in your network so that we can hear their ideas as well.

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