Case Study: Motivating Reluctant Learners


Oct 11

WhyWe were recently leading a 2-day intensive on motivating reluctant students. The participants were completing a GAP analysis we designed to help them identify the institutional, instructional, and internal factors that affected their students’ motivation. School teams worked together to identify their key barriers to motivating students and developed plans to increase their students’ motivation and investment in their learning.

Many of the groups were eager to rush to developing solutions but we cautioned them that they needed to better understand their challenges first. Then we introduced the 5 Why’s. The 5 Why’s is a strategy we use with many of our clients to help them get closer to the root cause of their challenges so that they can develop better and more effective solutions. We started by selecting one large challenge revealed by the Gap Analysis. Then, participants asked why 5 times to get to the root cause of their challenges.

At first, many of the participants were reluctant to take yet another step before getting to the solutions. Anxiety was high as they looked at their challenges and were eager to start solving them. But, they chose to trust the process and gamely began working through their 5 why’s. One group looked at their biggest challenge to motivation which they identified as the high level of poverty their students experienced. Here’s what their 5 why’s looked like:

Challenge: Students are in poverty and therefore are unmotivated to invest in school.

1. Why does poverty keep them from investing? Because they are trapped in historical cycles of poverty and do not value education because they don’t see that education can help them escape the poverty cycle.
2. Why don’t they see that education can help them escape poverty? Because they don’t trust school.
3. Why don’t’ they trust school? Because their families haven’t had a positive experience with schooling.
4. Why have their families not had a positive experience with schooling? Because of the historical racism that has been a part of the institution of school. They base their distrust of school on their own experiences and then convey that distrust of school to their children. They dismiss school.
5. Why do these messages get in the way of motivation? If students don’t trust school, they will not invest in school. There is a dichotomy between what school says is valuable and what home says is valuable and our messaging isn’t as strong as the messaging that is coming from the families.

As a result of this exercise, this team decided to focus on changing perceptions of school and building more trust and rapport with families as a way to increase student motivation in school. Notice that their solution was not a surface solution. It addressed the root cause of their challenge and has a greater potential to have lasting results. The team left really pumped to start this work and are confident that it can make a difference when so many other strategies they have tried have failed.

Another group also identified poverty as a huge barrier to motivation for their students but their 5 why’s led to a totally different conclusion.

Challenge: Students are not motivated to invest in school because of poverty presents a huge barrier.

1. Why does poverty present a huge barrier to motivation? Because students struggle with the consequences of poverty like addiction, broken families, crime, etc. All these things are distracting and keep students from focusing on school.
2. Why are these distractions of poverty keeping students from focusing on school? Students have to go through so much at home that they don’t have any energy left for school.
3. Why don’t they have any energy left? By the time they come to school, they are worn out and preoccupied with what is happening at home. Nothing we do in school can keep their attention or make them put forth the effort they need to invest.
4. Why is nothing we’ve been doing in school helping them focus? Because school isn’t really relevant to their lives. What they learn in school doesn’t really help them deal with what they are facing in real life.
5. Why isn’t school relevant? Because we are so focused on testing right now that we don’t ‘take time to show students how what they are learning can be relevant to them beyond the test.
At the end of this conversation, the school team decided to focus on building more relevance into their instruction. They also looked at ways to ease the transition from home to school for their students so that students had a tangible way each morning to get into the school mindset. Again, notice that their solutions didn’t address the surface challenge but got to the root cause of their challenges.This team too feels confident that these solutions will make a major difference in their students’ motivation.

Every school team in the room came to similar “aha’s” as a result of digging more deeply and taking time to understand their challenges before attempting to solve them. As a result, they all walked out of the 2 day session with viable plans for increasing their students’ motivation and building a school where students would happily invest.

That’s the value of taking time to really examine your problems before you begin to try to solve them. Not only will you come to a much more effective solution, you won’t waste your time on things that won’t work.

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(2) comments

Kevin Freeman October 12, 2013

Thank you for sharing this article. I plan on using the “5 Why’s” activity with my staff this week.

    admin October 13, 2013

    Wonderful! Please let us know how things go. We’d love to hear about the discoveries you and your staff make using the process.

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