For years, I thought that the best way to motivate students was to have an extensive “bag of tricks” at the ready. The moment my students’ motivation began to lag, I could simply pull out my bag of tricks and find something new and novel to snap their attention back to the lesson.
Sometimes I’d play a game, or tell them a funny story about my life. Sometimes I would break up the lesson with group discussions using provocative topics. Maybe a neat new lesson strategy I’d learned at a conference or a different assignment format borrowed from a colleague. I was always looking for a new way to keep my students motivated.
But many days, instead of being motivated, my students would look at my efforts, yawn, and put their heads back on their desks. Other times, they would perk up for a moment or two and then slide back into boredom once the novelty wore off.
I started to resent them as they waited each day for me to entertain them with a new trick, a novel strategy, or gimmick they hadn’t seen before. It felt like I HAD to be interesting all the time or they wouldn’t bother to engage in my lessons. It was a lot of pressure.
Then one day, I visited a master teacher’s classroom to observe her practice. Here’s what I noticed. She didn’t use ANY tricks and yet her students were highly motivated, working hard and truly engaged with their learning, with her, and with each other. She pushed them HARD – and they seemed to like it. How, I wondered, was she able to take many of the same students I had and get them motivated and engaged when I struggled to get them to even stay awake? It seemed like magic.
And for a long time, that’s exactly what I thought it was. Magic. Some secret gift I failed to get when they were handing out teaching gifts. Sure, I reasoned, she could get kids motivated. She’s really talented. But what about the rest of us? What about those of us who aren’t naturally gifted? How could we have a classroom where our students were engaged and excited to learn?
I was determined to figure out the secret. It took me a few years and a lot of trial and error before I was finally able to figure it out. Motivating students is not the result of some special gift, or charm, or having the right tricks and strategies. In fact while tricks and strategies may seem alluring, they will let you down every single time.
In order to explain why, I need to tell you a story:
There once was a great commercial fisherman. While others had fancy motorized boats with sophisticated GPS tracking systems, the latest mechanized rods, and an array of specialized lures, he used an ancient rowboat and a simple fishing rod.
And yet, he consistently out-fished all of his competitors.
In fact, he once entered a fishing contest with some of the world’s best sport fishermen. After a weekend of fishing in the same waters, they all brought their haul to be counted.
Not only did he win the competition, he caught more fish than all the other competitors combined.
When asked what his secret was, he simply replied: “Most new equipment is designed to catch fishermen, not fish.”
His process was not to worry so much about the latest and greatest equipment. Instead, he spent his days studying the current and the tides, checking the water temperature, watching the seasons, and paying attention to the things that were most important to the fish.
It turns out, if you want to catch fish, it’s not the equipment you use or the latest technology that matters. If you want to catch more fish, you have to learn how to think like a fish.
The same is true if you truly want to motivate students. It’s not the fancy tricks and strategies you employ. If you really want to motivate your students, you have to learn how to think like them.
Unfortunately, most motivation strategies out there seem more designed to catch teachers than students. But tricks and strategies do not lead to lasting motivation.
But the good news is that there is a simple but specific process to getting and keeping students motivated, and once you know this process, you can have a classroom where students not only pay attention, they actually take ownership over their own learning and come to class each day ready and excited to learn.
I’ll be sharing parts of this process with you over the next few posts. In the meantime, if you want to go deeper into the process and get it started in your classroom right away, then check out How to Motivate Reluctant Learners for a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to motivating all of your students.
If you’re fed up with tricks and strategies and you want to inspire real motivation in your students, then you need the process outlined in How to Motivate Reluctant Students where you’ll get step-by-step guidance on how to build a system that sparks and sustains student motivation over time. You can order your copy here.