Helping Students Motivate Themselves

I have a great interest in understanding student motivation for learning. What motivates students to learn? How can I help students motivate themselves? What are some implications for classroom instruction?

I came across this article – Strategies for helping students motivate themselves – and was struck how 3 out of the 4 qualities mentioned match Daniel Pink’s work on The Puzzle of Motivation (a TED Talk worth watching; or if you prefer, here is a link to an RSA Animate version on the same talk).

Essentially the insight that I had confirmed again is that tokens and rewards work well as motivators for simple tasks. However, they don’t work the way we think they should when it involves the conceptual and creative thinking that takes place in cognitively challenging tasks.

In their place, a teacher has a greater chance in motivating and engaging students in their learning by thinking about the “Motivation MAP” – an acronym I use to focus on the three essential qualities of motivation and engagement.

Motivation MAP = Mastery, Autonomy, Purposefulness

M = Mastery

Are students working to demonstrate their developing competency and mastery in learning? Are students reflecting on how to improve their learning? Does teacher feedback focus on student effort for their learning rather than an innate ability? (Check out this website to learn more growth mindsets; or if you prefer, here is a link to a video about fostering a growth mindset.) Encouraging student mastery in learning feeds their desire to get better in what they do and, as a result, is a powerful motivator.

A = Autonomy

What choices are offered to students that allow them to be active participants in their own learning? Does this extend beyond simply letting student choose who they will work with on a project or in what format they can complete an assignment, whether poster, essay or presentation? Are there opportunities for “cognitive choice” so that students can determine how they will learn something new? Are they asked to self-assess and reflect on their learning? Offering this type of choice in our lessons helps foster student autonomy and their desire to be more self-directed. This also leads to better engagement.

P = Purposefulness

Of what value are the learning activities in the classroom? Do the students sense that they are simply completing “busy work” or do they find the learning activities meaningful and relevant?  Is there purposefulness in what we do together? When students sense a value in their learning, they will be more motivated and engaged to proceed further, if not deeper, into their learning.

Thinking about the “Motivation MAP” is a simple reminder to helping students motivate themselves: mastery, autonomy, and purposefulness.

Where to begin when personalizing learning

As readers of this blog may know, I have a great interest in personalizing the learning experience for students.

I find that in its simplest form, personalizing is offering students choice and challenging them to think in creative ways that are meaningful and rewarding to them. I have been practicing this for a while in my own classroom, and have witnessed a high degree of student engagement in classroom learning tasks as a result.

Lately, though, my thoughts have turned to scaling a model of personalizing learning for an entire school.

Where do you begin if you want to implement personalized learning for an entire school or school system?

I find that “The Honeycomb Approach to Personalized Learning” makes good sense in that it keeps the student learning experience central to all considerations during the planning process.

Honeycomb approach to personalized learningsource: The Institute @CESA#1

This approach developed by The Institute @ CESA#1, rightly notes that our attempts to implement personalized learning for an entire building isn’t necessarily a linear planning approach. It will get “messy.” Instead, we need to remember that all planning begins with the learner at the core of all thinking (and not new schedules, technology devices or even ‘trendy furniture’ as primary considerations.), and the honeycomb allows us to do this. This helps us focus our thinking on three factors (the cells in blue):

Learner Profiles – Comprehensive, data-rich learner profiles convey how a student learns best and are used to plan a customized learning environment and instructional strategies.

Customized Learning Paths – Students help create unique learning paths based on their individual strengths and interests. Content, pace and feedback are calibrated for each learner and needs are addressed as they occur rather than having to remediate later.

Proficiency-based Progress – All students are expected to demonstrate mastery of rigorous, comprehensive standards. Progress is based on what students have learned, not how much time they have spent in school.

From these starting points, necessary decisions can then be made about suitable teaching strategies and engaging classroom learning experiences (the cells in orange), the expectations for the different roles and relationships of both students and teachers (the cells in green), and the appropriate structures and policies to support the personalized learning practice (the cells in purple), with each decision assessed for its potential impact on the core components.

There are a number of advantages in using the honeycomb approach when planning for personalized learning. Of those mentioned here, I think the flexibility of the this approach offers an “organic” opportunity to help develop teacher capacity for instructional effectiveness in meeting every students’ learning needs:

The core components and surrounding cells can guide professional learning activities for individual educators and teams; they are also useful in supporting collegial coaching and feedback.

As the work gains momentum, schools and teams use the honeycomb as a guide for determining where to build out and scale their work as they move forward. For example, they might chose to add opportunities for Customized Learning Paths or Learner Independence as well as expand their work to other classrooms.

This article provides a concise introduction on how the honeycomb approach can work. Be sure to follow-through on the links, too, to get a wider appreciation on the application of each component.

All in all, I believe that personalizing the learning experience will engage students more in their learning, equip students with the necessary knowledge and skills based on their needs and abilities, and empower students as they move forward in their learning career. This truly is Vibrant Learning for me.


Dr. J. Rickbaugh. Finding your sweet spot: The honeycomb approach to personalized learning.

The Institute @ CESA#1. Personalized learning.

15 important reminders

The title caught my attention:

When not to use technology: 15 things that should stay simple in education

I agree with the author that we know better than to use technology for technology’s sake. An unfortunate pressure that some teachers face when their school invests in new educational technology is that they are asked to substantiate the heavy financial investment with student academic achievement gains that can be attributed to the use of technology, thus demonstrating a good return on investment.

While there have been researched and documented benefits in integrating technology with instruction, this article was a good reminder that certain aspects of using technology for learning need to remain “simple” to help students in their learning.

Of the 15 reminders, numbers 4 and 5 resonated deeply with me:

#4 – Don’t use technology when it decreases student interaction.

Technology as a tool can lead to incredible social connections for learning. The author rightly notes that technology can also reduce the amount of face-to-face interaction because people are “connected” online. We need to remember the important value of interacting, and learning, in a physical learning community. This is partially behind my thinking why it was so important to include on-campus classes in our hybrid community.

#5 – Don’t use technology when it reduces the chance of failure.

I believe that mistakes are a necessary part of the learning process, and ideally, an important step in self-discovery, too. In fact, I often encourage my students to take risks and make mistakes as part of their learning. This can help them arrive at a deeper level of understanding and learning. For these reasons alone, we shouldn’t simply rely on technology as an “easy way” to arrive an answer. Students need the challenge and feel the joy of success when they overcome and learn through their failures.

These are two important reminders. Why don’t you check out the remaining reminders? Do you agree with the list? Which ones resonate most with you?


S. Briggs – When not to use technology: 15 Things that should stay simple in education.

Let’s do an “exploriment”!

The weather was crisp, cool and clear last weekend when I went out with my family for a walk through the woods alongside the river. We stopped regularly to pick-up fallen leaves, examine tree trunks or toss pebbles into the water. What I enjoyed watching the most was how my daughter carefully investigated and asked questions about what she saw. She wanted to know more and learn about the growth cycle of trees now that they were losing their leaves, the process of animal hibernation, and the use of an old railroad trestle that we happened upon. When we were by the river side, she said it:

Let’s do an exploriment!

What a great word to hint at the learning that was taking place!

She wanted to continue exploring the riverbank for natural debris that she could toss into the river and experiment with different weights and materials. I loved how she wanted to combine the discovery of learning (exploration) with a reasoned inquiry (experimentation) to create her “exploriment”! It was great fun, too!

Back at home, I wondered later what the classroom would be like if I more deliberately fostered an “exploriment” attitude to learning? I asked myself if I sufficiently allow student exploration of ideas, materials, and passions? (Our learning from a question week was insightful.) Do I encourage them to test and experiment new ideas? How would this impact overall student engagement for learning? Would the classroom become more vibrant? Would my teaching practice become more vibrant?

I have to believe that the answer would be ‘yes’!

My resolution (once again) is to try my best as we ‘exploriment’ together in the classroom. I look forward to sharing my classroom ‘exploriment’ with a trebuchet after Thanksgiving break.

How do you know if you are a leader?

Leadership is not about experience, education, or talent. It’s about choosing to lead.      -Michael Hyatt

I enjoy following Michael Hyatt’s blog where his tagline is “Helping leaders leverage influence.” One of his recent podcasts offered 12 ways to know whether or not you are a leader. This was a good list to review and apply to my own situation. Am I exhibiting the qualities and mindset that he suggests, especially as it applies to leadership for learning?

A few qualities jumped out to me:

#1 – You long to make a difference.

#2 – You’re dissatisfied with the status quo.

#5 – You acknowledge what is but inevitably ask what could be.

These first three have been at the heart of what I am trying to do in the classroom and with the new school.

I remain convinced that we need to change our thinking and approaches to teaching and learning in order to be more responsive to the needs that students have today. We live in a society and culture that has changed dramatically in the last few years. Unfortunately our approaches to teaching and school have not.

  • We need to engage students in their learning by honoring their interest and initiative to learn. We need to envision a learning space as one in which students are dynamic and passionate participants in the learning process.
  • We need to equip students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions that will help them face an uncertain future with confidence and preparedness. Our teaching needs to address the headware and heartware needed for their future.  It needs to develop a student’s capacity for innovation.
  • We need to empower students with a mindset for growth and service to improve the world in which we live. They need to believe that what they are learning can help them influence and contribute meaningfully to society.

Qualities #10 and #12 resonated more with who I am as an educator and my attempt to align my actions with my beliefs:

#10 – You value relationships more than tasks.

#12 – You’re a learner.

I like to learn. I like to ask questions and understand more. I try to direct this desire for learning into meaningful conversations and relationship development with others who are committed to improving teaching and learning in the classroom. Together we can achieve more as an investment in our students’ future than if we are working alone.

I think it is helpful to review lists such as these and then self-assess one’s growth accordingly. It helps reinforce what we believe and provide reference points as we project a future of positive impact and choosing to make a difference.

We’re all influential in ways we don’t fully appreciate, but the person who is intentionally influential is going to use their influence for good, to influence a person to help them grow, get what they want, become what they were meant to be. That’s a leader. -Michael Hyatt

Teach content or teach thought?

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to curriculum development and 21st century fluencies. How can I help students develop those essential literacy skills, or fluencies, that will help them succeed in today’s society? What balance do I need to establish between “crystallized intelligence” and “fluid intelligence”:

If our job is to teach skills, facts, and concepts–crystallized intelligence–then thinking is simply a tool, and our curriculum is content.

If our job is to teach critical thinking, design, and problem-solving–fluid intelligence–then thinking is our collective circumstance, and our curriculum becomes thought. – Terry Heick

An emphasis on the former has been the standard for generations of students and classrooms. This has been the default in our planning for teaching, too. I often tell colleagues that “We teach as we have been taught”; thus the persistence of this emphasis in schools. We need to be deliberate in our efforts to change.

What if we were more intentional to make critical thinking and 21st century fluencies the focus in our classrooms? How might this change the classroom? How might this impact the way that the curriculum is experienced by students? How will it change me as my students’ teacher and as the learning leader for the school?

I like how Heick explores this implication on teaching, teachers and the classroom environment:

To learn to think, students need powerful and inspiring models that reflect the design, citizenship, creativity, interdependence, affection, and self-awareness we claim to want them to have.

To teach careful, creative, and truly innovative thinking, students need creative spaces and tools, and frameworks to develop their own criteria for quality and success.

They need dynamic literacy skills [read: ‘fluencies’] that they practice and build upon endlessly.

Not projects that have creativity and design thinking added on, but projects that can’t function without them.

And they need control of it all.

I am reminded how I argued for a paradigm shift in how we “do school” when I first presented my ideas for a new school to the Board. It isn’t an easy challenge. It can be messy, too, Nevertheless, I still believe that the positive impact for students and their learning is worth the effort.


T. Heick – Are you teaching content or teaching thought?

Students as creators or consumers?

I have been reflecting on the “learning from a question week” experiences from last week as my students were clearly engaged with the learning opportunity throughout the week. This reminded me of the importance and value of having students experience themselves as creators, rather than consumers in the learning process at school.

I returned to my copy of “Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world” by Tony Wagner, which I have been using as one of many resources to guide my thinking. It brought back to mind the value in providing opportunities for students to pursue personal interests at school in order to develop their passions. Such opportunities are inherently motivational. This is what happened last week. The students were so focused in what they were doing that they often commented at how quickly each class session seemed to speed by. Pursuing personal passions can also help develop student expertise and creative thinking skills, too. This is why I often said to the students that they were going to be our ‘local expert’ in the question they were researching; they needed to share their insights with the rest of us. The challenge was to do this in a manner that could keep the rest of us engaged (thus the need for some extra critical and creative thinking in their blogs).

My big take-away: Last week reminded me once again that the teaching and learning environment can help develop a student’s capacity to innovate, especially when students are afforded opportunities to create rather than simply consume information.

My question: How can I design learning situations that continue to foster a creator orientation to learning rather than a consumer orientation?