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Equity Resources, Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Mar 15, 2020

How to motivate and engage reluctant learners

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

How to motivate and engage reluctant learners

By Angela Watson

“You can break motivation barriers for disengaged students by recognizing that motivation is an investment decision.

Students have time, attention, and effort, and they are making a decision every single day about whether they want to invest those things in our classrooms or in something else.  Making your classroom worth investing in is about creating a space where students’ time, energy, and effort will be rewarded.” –Dr. Robyn Jackson

Join us, as Robyn and I do a deep dive into her quote above. We’re tackling whether there is such thing as a kid who doesn’t want to learn, and then working through the four causes of student disengagement (instructional, institutional, interpersonal, and internal). Robyn explains in-depth how teachers can identify and address each cause in practical, relatable ways.

We camp out for quite a while on the topic of interpersonal barriers, because there’s a powerful approach there which can be used to re-engage a reluctant learner. Robyn explains how to uncover students’ primary will driver: purpose, mastery, autonomy, and belonging/connection. We discuss what each one means, and how you can incorporate these needs into your daily lessons in a way that reaches all your kids.

Feeding kids’ dominant will drivers is surprisingly simple once you understand the basic principle: In fact, just changing the wording you use when giving directions to kids can address the variety of will drivers in your classroom and increase the likelihood of engagement, and Robyn shares specific examples.

Motivation is a complex issue, and Robyn provides lots of concrete tools to solve the root problems permanently. This is not about quick tips and hacks: I promise if you can invest an hour of your time into learning the principles from this episode, it will forever change your teaching — Robyn’s work is just that powerful.

Don’t muddle through the rest of the year trying to use band-aid solutions with disengaged kids — it’s not too late for a breakthrough, and these simple, powerful principles can make a huge difference quickly.

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ANGELA: Robyn, one of the most pervasive issues that I hear from teachers is students’ “lack of motivation” and “disinterest in learning.” So I want to tackle this phrasing first, and get to the root of what we’re talking about when we refer to disengaged kids who don’t care about school. Do you believe that there is such a thing as a student who doesn’t want to learn?

ROBYN: It’s funny, I was just in a school this week doing micro-slicing with a group of administrators and they told me that one of their biggest challenges was that they had so many students who were unmotivated, disengaged, not interested in learning. And we went into — in the space of an afternoon — maybe eight classrooms, and in every single classroom, I didn’t find one student who looked as if that student didn’t want to learn.

What I did find, was a lot of students who were not interested in learning what the teacher had to teach. I found a lot of students who were not interested in learning in the way the teacher was taking them through the lesson.

But they didn’t seem to me like they were uninterested in learning, because there were times when they’d perk up or something would happen and you could see that they had an interest, but the way that the classroom was being conducted was kind of killing their motivation.

And so I’m not sure that I believe that there is such a thing as an unmotivated kid, but I do believe that there are students who are unmotivated to learn either what we’re teaching, or they’re unmotivated to learn in the way that we’re asking them to learn.

I agree with that, and what makes it tricky is that sometimes, it can give teachers the impression that they have full responsibility when kids are disengaged. It’s their fault: their lessons must be boring, they must not have a good relationship with kids, or there’s something wrong with them if every student isn’t 100% engaged all the time.

So I want to acknowledge there are a lot of factors that impact disengagement, and then from there, talk about a principle that I know you espouse, which is about creating a classroom environment that is worth investing in.

I think that’s really the key to shifting the culture of your classroom so that kids are interested in learning and you’re teaching in a way that makes it easier for kids to be engaged. So can you talk a little bit about this classroom environment that’s worth investing in?

Yes, and I do want to emphasize that when I say that there are kids who may not want to learn what we’re teaching or how we’re teaching, I don’t want anyone to walk away and think that I’m saying that it’s the teacher’s fault because a lot of it has to do with the way we were trained or how we’re being expected to teach students or that we’re not given the right tools to be able to engage students.

And then, students do have a responsibility. I mean, I wrote a book called Never Work Harder Than Your Students. So I believe that students have a huge responsibility.

What I see a lot of teachers doing is working very, very hard to engage students in ways that are never going to work. I see teachers who have been taught that if you just do this trick, or if you just say this, or if you just organize your classroom this way, that will lead to student engagement and motivation. And those strategies and tricks don’t work on every kid.

So when I talk about creating a classroom worth investing in, I’m not talking about tricks and strategies and putting cool things on the wall or having mood lighting or creating reading corners. I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about the fact that I believe that motivation is an investment decision: that students have time, attention, effort, and they are making a decision every single day about whether or not they want to invest that in our classroom, or if they want to invest it in something else.

Now, sometimes students come to school and they’re depleted of all of those things because of what’s happening at home. So they don’t even have it to invest. We have to understand that, too.

What we can do as teachers and as educators make sure that we have a classroom worth investing in, so that when students do have access to those things, they will make the choice to invest them in our classroom rather than withholding them and investing them in something else.

Making a classroom worth investing in is really about creating a space where their time, their energy, and their effort will be rewarded; where students will feel like, “If I invest in this classroom, I’m going to get something back of equal or greater value for my investment.”

And a lot of times, that’s not going to be the formula for understanding the area of a triangle. That’s not going to feel like an equal return for giving you my attention. What kids are looking for — in fact, what I believe all human beings are looking for — are four things, and research backs me up on this.

In order to be motivated, every single human being has to have mastery, purpose, autonomy, and belonging. And study after study on motivation mentions one or more of those four things as being necessary for students to be motivated.

So when I say you have to create a classroom worth investing in, how often do students have opportunities to experience mastery in your classroom every single day? How often do students have real opportunities to experience autonomy? Not just “you could use blue or black ink” choice autonomy, but real meaningful choices in terms of how they learn and what they learn and when they learn and why they learn.

How often do our students have a real sense of connection to other students, to you as a teacher, and then how often do our students have a sense of purpose, where they understand what they’re learning and why they’re learning and how they can use what they’re learning in their real lives?

And if we were intentional about that, a lot of the motivation issues that I see in classrooms would evaporate, because students would choose to invest in your classroom on a day to day basis. It doesn’t solve 100% of the motivation issues, but it does solve a lot of the motivation issues that I believe are really easily preventable.

What are some of the common classroom barriers to motivation that you’ve seen and how can teachers work through those?

There are four big barriers to investing in a classroom that students face on a day to day basis. The first one is instructional, the second is institutional, the third one is interpersonal, and the fourth one is internal. So I’ll take each one and kind of break it down, and I’ll talk about what I’m seeing a lot in schools lately with regard to those four barriers.

So the big one with instructional barriers that I’m noticing is that teachers have been so drilled on “best practices” and they are being evaluated in a way that they feel that they have to perform those best practices on a day to day basis, and the teachers are losing a sense of understanding why they’re teaching what they’re teaching.

I think that a lot of teachers are being made to jump through a lot of hoops. And when I sit down with teachers and talk to them and ask, “Okay, so why are you teaching this? Why is this important?” no one has engaged them in that kind of conversation. They’re just given a curriculum and expected to teach it. And a lot of teachers are being handicapped by being given scopes and sequences that are prescribed down to the minute about what they should be doing every single day.

And we’re not taking a step back as an educational culture and asking, “Why are we teaching this?” And so when we get up in front of students that relevance is missing.

So I’ll often sit down with teachers and I’ll say, “Okay, why are you teaching this?” And they’ll say, “Because it’s on the test.” And so I’ll say, “Okay, why is it on the test?” And then they’ll say, “Because it’s in the curriculum.”

So we need to take a step back and understand why it is that students need to learn it. And if students had that kind of real relevance, then I think it would go a long way towards helping them invest in the classroom.

I’ll give you an example:

I was working with a teacher recently who was teaching area and perimeter and I asked her, “Okay, so why are you teaching area and perimeter?” We went through the “because it’s on the test, because it’s in the curriculum” thing.

And when I asked, “Why is it in the curriculum?” she thought for a moment and said, “Well, if you ever want to lay carpet in an irregularly shaped room, you need to know the area and perimeter.” And I said, “If that’s all you’ve got, you’re going to lose your kids right away.” And we started laughing because who lays their own carpet anymore? Most people call somebody and they get it done. So we started digging a little deeper and thinking about, “Okay, how will students be able to think differently? What will they be able to do differently?”

We came up with this: The reason that students need to understand area and perimeter is that it helps them make better decisions about how to use space. Once we understood that, all these possibilities started emerging about how this can be relevant to students’ lives.

And once she went back and taught that lesson to her students, they were way more engaged and excited and motivated about it because she came from the standpoint not of, “You need to learn this because you’re going to be tested on it,” but “You need to learn this because when you know this, you’ll be able to make better decisions about space.” And that includes all kinds of decisions, and when she talked to them about the different kinds of decisions that they could make, all of a sudden, her kids were interested.

So if we can overcome that instructional barrier by making what we do more relevant, and that doesn’t mean changing all of your word problems to “Beyonce has one Apple, Jay Z has two apples. How many apples do they have?” That’s fake relevance and kids will see through that. But really thinking through, “Why do we need to know this?” and helping kids understand that. I think a lot more of our students will invest in our classrooms.

So we’ve talked now about instructional. The next one I think you had said was institutional?

Yes. So a lot of times, the rules that we have in our classroom present a barrier to motivation. I’ll give you an example:

I remember as a teacher, I really believed in teaching bell to bell, and I wanted to be one of those tough teachers: tough but fair. I wanted my kids to know I didn’t play. So at the beginning of every period I would tell my kids, “Look, if you are not in the classroom and in your seat when the bell rings, you are late. And if you are late, you owe me a half-hour detention.”

Now, I thought I was cracking down and motivating kids to get to class on time, but here’s the unintentional consequence of that rule. If a kid was running to my class and the bell rang and they were rounding the corner in the hallway to my class and the bell rang, and I closed my door, what is that kid going to do?

They already know they’re going to owe me a half-hour detention at lunch, so they will decide to take that half-hour now. They’ll slow down, they’ll turn around, they’ll go to the bathroom, they’ll go to their lockers, they’ll go to other classrooms and wave at their friends through the window. And then finally they’ll stroll into my classroom 30 minutes after class has started and I’ll say, “Hey, see me for detention.” They’re like, “Yeah, I know.” They’ve already gotten their break now.

So my rule was actually creating more tardies rather than preventing tardies. And our schools are rife with rules just like that — rules that are killing kids’ motivation without even realizing it.

The way that we deal with kids who are behind is we put them in remediation, which keeps them stuck behind rather than focusing on acceleration, which helps them not only be successful tomorrow, but helps to start to fill the gaps so that they can be successful next week and three weeks from now. Our rules can unintentionally de-motivate kids, when we were thinking in creating those rules that this was actually going to help kids do what they were supposed to do. That’s what I mean by institutional barriers.

Okay. The next one is interpersonal barriers.

That’s where we get into the relationship that students have with a teacher, and that’s when we also get into “will drivers.” And one of the fascinating things about will-drivers is this: every single person has a dominant will driver.

I believe every single person is either driven dominantly by mastery, purpose, belonging, or autonomy. So what happens is that as a teacher, we have a dominant will driver. And what we do is we try to motivate students based on our dominant will driver.

I’ll use myself as an example. Mastery is my dominant will driver. I want to go in and accomplish things. I’m driven by being able to accomplish things. And as a mastery driven person, the question that I’m always asking is “How? How do I get better? How do I make the A? How do I make this better? How do I help kids?” Everything is driven by “how.”

So when I’m trying to motivate students, my default is going to be to try to motivate them in the same way that I’m motivated, through mastery. I’m going to sit down with students who are struggling and I’m going to say, “Don’t worry, I can show you how to fix this.” And I’m going to sit down with students whose heads are on their desk and try to figure out how to help them get their heads off the desk.

The problem is that not every student is driven by mastery. So if I am always going around answering how, how, how … and my students are not asking that question, then my efforts to motivate them are going to fall flat.

And what’s going to be frustrating for me is I’m going to think I’m doing everything I can. “Why is this kid not motivated? It must be that kid; that kid must be lazy,” when in reality, I’m just feeding them what feeds me without realizing that they need something different.

So if I understand will-drivers, then I know I’m mastery driven. That helps me understand this is my default.

But it also helps me understand what my student’s default is, and then I can step outside of what I believe is best and I can feed my student what they need, and that helps me reach my students.

This is also true for adults. I tell administrators all the time when they’re asking how to motivate teachers, “If you are trying to motivate your teachers based on your will driver rather than basing it on what the teachers will driver is, it will always fall flat.”

And so a big interpersonal barrier that’s happening in the classroom is that there’s this conflict of will drivers. Teachers privilege their will driver above all other will drivers and they don’t often recognize the other will drivers in the classroom. And so they only feed one will driver, which means that there are some students whose needs never get met.

Let’s camp out on this a little bit before we talk about that last barrier to motivation. Realistically speaking — given how many students a teacher is dealing with — how can they identify students’ will drivers and figure out specific strategies for addressing those?

So you’re right that when you have a classroom full of students, it’s really hard to identify everybody’s will driver accurately off the bat.

But the beautiful part about teaching is that we get to interact with our students every day, 5 days a week for 180-something days a year. And so you don’t have to walk in the first day and know everybody’s will driver. You just have to know that they exist.

What you do — and this is part of creating a classroom worth investing in — is that you create a classroom where every single day, there’s an opportunity for students to feel mastery, every single day there’s an opportunity for a student to feel connection/belonging, every single day there’s an opportunity for students to feel autonomous, and to have a sense of purpose.

What you will find is that as you do that, there are some students who are going to gravitate to the part of the class where they get the mastery piece and others will gravitate to the belonging piece. And so you can just make sure that you are intentionally building all four into your classroom, and now you’re meeting the needs of your students.

Then watch where your students gravitate. Watch what they respond to, and start with the students that you’re struggling the most to motivate. Those are the students you study and you say, “Okay, what is that student’s will driver?” Because the moment you figure out that student’s will driver and start feeding it, that student starts to turn, and that student starts to respond to you differently.

Then you do that with 1 or 2 or 10 students, and before long you get so good at it, you start recognizing it. And after a while, when you practice this and start paying attention, people will tell you what their will drivers are and they’ll tell you very early in your interactions with them. I’ve been doing this a long time. Now I can go into a classroom and in a matter of minutes, watch kids and how they’re interacting, and I can tell what their will driver is.

And then you test it. So you think that this child is belonging driven. Belonging driven people are driven by the question of “Who? Who am I to you? Who are you to me? Who’s my friend? Who’s my enemy?” Start working with that student and feed their will driver: what I mean is find great ways to answer their primary question.

So that’s a student where instead of saying, “You worked really hard at this,” I would say, “You’re a hard worker.” It’s a small nuance, but when a student who is asking “who” hears “you are a hard worker”, that student is going to respond to that,  because you’re feeding their will driver and they feel seen.  That student is going to be motivated again to do more work because you told them they’re a hard worker.

Now, if I said to a mastery driven kid, “You are a hard worker” they might think, “Oh, they think I’m working hard. They don’t think I’m smart.” You could say that same phrase to a mastery driven kid and they’re asking, “But how? How? How can I get better?” That’s a different concern about accomplishment. Hard worker says I’m working hard to accomplish something. A mastery driven kid might take that differently and may not be motivated by that, because they’re asking WHO not HOW. Does that make sense?

Yes, it does. Can you keep going with that? Give us some more examples about how to build these interactions into the lesson so there are different opportunities for kids with different will drivers to have those needs met. What would that look like?

I’m a secondary teacher, so let me take a secondary classroom. Between class periods, everybody’s busy — the teacher is working on getting ready for the next group of kids and kids come in. But the belonging driven kids would love it if you acknowledge them when they came into the room. So take some time away from setting things up and being at the door to greet kids.

Some kids are going to right walk by, but your belonging driven kids are going to stop, and they’re going to chat. They want to know that you see them right away.

Then when you start a warm-up activity, give kids options. So here’s today’s warm-up: “We’re going to be doing sentence combining, so you can pick this sentence, this sentence, or this sentence. If you want, you can do two or three, but we’ve got five minutes, and then you need to combine at least one of these two sets of sentences in the next five minutes.”

So now you’ve given kids options and choices, but you also fed that mastery driven kid who says, “I can do all four,” as well as the autonomy driven kid who thinks, “I have choices.” So the autonomy driven kid may just pick one sentence, or they may pick two or three or whatever.

Then when you get everybody together after the warm-up and you start the day, start out by talking about why you’re doing what you’re going to do: “Here’s what we’re doing today, here’s the success criteria, here’s what success looks like for today.” That’s for your mastery driven kids.

And you say “Here’s why we’re doing it.” That’s for your purpose-driven kids. So purpose-driven people cannot get motivated if they don’t have a satisfying “why.”

That’s me. I’ve got to have the why. If it doesn’t make sense to me — if I don’t see a purpose — I’m not doing it. I’m going to question the whole thing and I’m going to resist the entire thing.

Right. So why would I make you wait throughout the whole class period to answer that WHY question? That’s your number one question! I’m going to start the class period answering the why question so that you can get motivated and get to work right away.

I’m also going to talk about what success looks like again, because the mastery driven kid says, “Oh okay, is that what success looks like? Okay. That’s what I’m going to do.”

And then the other thing I’m going to do is throughout the class period, I’m going to be checking in with kids, and I’m going to make sure that I get to all of my kids.

I’m going to laugh, I’m going to let my hair down and be a real human being because those belonging driven or connection driven kids need that in order to connect with me in order to connect with the work. They don’t care about the work until they care about you. Whoever wrote the expression “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”? That was a belonging driven person, and it’s true for our belonging driven kids.

Okay. That’s a good point. I want to stop on that actually because I see debates every single time that quote is shared, with a portion of the people saying, “It’s so true. Kids are only going to learn from teachers they like.” And then there’s a whole cadre of people who are like, “What are you talking about? I had all kinds of teachers that I didn’t like and I learned so much from. Kids don’t have to like you. That’s not the goal.”

And so now the way you’re explaining that makes perfect sense: to a belonging driven person, it’s 100% true. But we’re not all like that. And it goes back to what you were saying about how we privilege our own will drivers and we assume everyone’s like us.

Yep, and so people will debate that saying to the death because for a certain group of people, that is gospel. It is true for them, and their experience has borne it out because belonging driven people remember you feed what you need. So belonging driven people are feeding that in their kids. They’re showing their kids how much they care, and the kids who are also belonging driven respond to that.

But the kids who are mastery driven, they may respond to it as well, but they don’t need it to be successful. And a lot of autonomy driven kids may not respond to that, because it feels suffocating, and autonomy driven kids always want to know where the exits are. They always want to know that they have a choice and they have an out.

I feel so sorry for autonomy driven kids in school because there’s almost no opportunity for meaningful autonomy in school. Even when we give kids tic-tac-toe choice boards, there’s no option for kids to say, “How about none of them? How about you tell me what you want and I will come up with my own way to deliver that to you?” We almost never have those choices in school. So the more that you can build meaningful choices into your classroom, the better.

Now what’s going to happen is when you start giving too many choices, your mastery driven kids are going to say, “Well, which one is the best one? Tell me which one to do.” So you have to give people some choice criteria to help them with their choices.

So if I was giving a homework assignment I would say, “Okay, we’ve gone through what we’ve done today and tonight’s homework is designed for you to practice so that you can become more fluent in this new skill that you just learned.”

I’m going to say that for, two reasons. One is that I want the purpose-driven kids to know why we’re doing the homework, and the other is that I want the mastery driven kids to know the success criteria.

And then I’m going to say something like, “Now, you have several options. If you struggled with this part, I would focus on these problems right here. If you feel like you’re pretty fluent already, I would focus on these problems right here and I would time myself so I can get better. If you feel like you are struggling, then I would focus on these problems right here and I’m going to give you another resource that you can take home tonight just in case you get stuck so that you will have everything you need, and by the time you’re done with this, you should feel like you understand it. And if you don’t understand it tomorrow, don’t worry about it. Because when you come back to class I want you to tell me what parts you don’t understand, and we’re going to start right away dealing with that so that you can make sure you’re understanding it because this is important. Everybody got it? Good.”

Then everybody gets what they need: The autonomy driven kids get a choice of options. The mastery driven kids get options, but they also get success criteria. The purpose driven kids get a why, and the belonging driven kids hear the message that ”you’re not a failure if you don’t get it. I’m going to be here for you. I’ll be able to answer your questions the next day. I just want you to try it.”

So everybody’s primary question has been answered: mastery driven kids have gotten the answer to HOW, the purpose driven kids have gotten the answer to WHY, the belonging driven kids have gotten the answer to WHO and the autonomy driven kids have gotten the answer to WHAT.

Autonomy driven people, their big question is “What? What are my options? What do I have to do? What don’t I have to do? What can I bring to the table?” So they are always looking for options and so we have to be able to give them the answer to that WHAT.

Now sometimes there won’t be options: Everybody has to take a test, and autonomy driven kids are fine with that. They don’t want anarchy, they just want to know that they have options at times.

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We’ve talked about instructional, institutional, and interpersonal barriers. What’s the final common classroom barrier to motivation?

The last barrier to motivation is the internal barrier. And it’s the most difficult one, because that barrier is something that kids bring with them. So, kids who have experienced a lot of trauma, they come to school and they can’t focus because of everything else that’s going on in their lives, or kids whose parents are getting a divorce, or kids who have food insecurity or are facing other issues that come with poverty, or kids who are having a surge of hormones, whatever it is.

Those are internal barriers to motivation. And in the past we treated those like a black box: “There’s really nothing you can do about it. What do I do with these kids nowadays, all they want to do is be on their devices? What am I supposed to do about that?”

But there is something that we can do, though it’s not going to solve everything. I think we have to really rethink how we’re providing additional services to our students because I don’t think schools have enough social workers and psychologists and resources for kids who are experiencing trauma.

I don’t think we have a good grip on trauma-informed instruction and we’re not giving those resources to teachers. Sitting teachers in an afternoon, half-day in-service and bringing in the speaker and talking about trauma-informed instructional practices are not going to do it. But I am really encouraged by a lot of the work that’s happening in trauma-informed instructional practices. I’m really encouraged by a lot of the work that’s happening in mindfulness right now where people are really starting to understand the brain biology around why kids shut down and what’s happening inside of kids.

I just think that we need to equip and empower teachers with this information. I think that we need to give them meaningful training around these things. When you do that, I think that we would be a lot more successful in addressing some of those internal barriers, but for the most part, we don’t get it in school.

So if the barrier is interpersonal and if a teacher doesn’t feel like they really have their resources to help the student with that, what’s the best approach?

I can only talk about what I would do. If I have an internal barrier in a student and I don’t know how to handle it, I’m going for help. I’m going online, I’m ordering books, I am talking to professionals.

I remember as a teacher I was having some trouble. Some students who were undocumented and they had a huge gap in their education. So when they came to the US and they went through an ESL program, but they’d have a two or three years gap in their schooling. And I was trying to reach them — they had recently come out of ESL, and I just didn’t have the experience or expertise to be able to reach them.

And I found we had a community liaison in our school who worked with families who are going through a lot of the same things as this group of kids was going through. I invited her to come have lunch with me at the school one day.

And she sat down and I just said, “Okay, talk me through: what am I missing?” I asked for her help and she helped me. She looked at the kids, she came and sat in my classroom, talked to the kids, she talked to their families. She taught me some things that I just didn’t understand about kids who are in that situation and what they were dealing with. She taught me some things that I didn’t understand about culture, and then I was able to reach those kids.

So if you don’t have the resources, find them, get them, go online, read the book, find somebody else.

A lot of times what I do, if I’m struggling with a particular kid, I find somebody in the building who has had success with that kid and I say, “Okay, tell me your secret,” or I find somebody in the building who is being successful with the kind of kid I’m dealing with. And I just shadow them: I study them, I become a sponge until I learn it.

A lot of that’s the mastery driven in me: “How? How do I reach this kid?” But I feel like if you don’t have the resources, you still have access. There’s somebody who knows — there’s somebody who’s written a book about it, there’s a podcast you can listen to, there’s some resource out there. Find that resource because we got to figure out a way to reach every single kid.

I do not give myself a pass and I don’t give anybody else a pass by just saying, “Well, I’ve got too much to do. And that kid just has too many profound problems and I don’t know what to do about it.” I just don’t buy that. I believe that if they’re in my classroom, they’re mine and I have to do my best for that kid.

That’s right. And it’s not like it’s a walk in the park if you do nothing: you’re creating massive amounts of stress and extra work for yourself, and probably having your lesson derailed every single day for the rest of the year.

Or, you can invest half an hour into trying to talk to someone else in your school, and get a little bit more insight and solutions. It’s sort of a no-brainer to me, but then again, I’m a purpose-driven person, so I’m just thinking, “Why? Why would I do nothing? What’s the point of continuing to teach the way that I’m teaching when it’s not working? I’m not going to do that anymore. I need to know why the kids are behaving like this, and I’m going to have to find a solution.”

That’s what would drive me — like it’s pointless to keep going the way that we’re going, something has to give, something has to change it. I’m not going to settle for things to continue like this, and I’ll go find solutions —  same as you.

But it’s just interesting how we’re working from different places — that you’re working because you want to have the best solution. You want to master the situation, and for me, I need a purpose. I can’t just show up every day and teach a kid that’s not going to learn. That’s pointless.

Yeah, I think we’ve been trained to look at outcomes and ascribe to those outcomes the same as motivation. And it’s a huge mistake to do that.

We do that with kids all the time. We look at a kid who is achieving and we think, “Oh, they’re achieving because ____” We think about all the reasons why we would be achieving and then we think, “Yeah, they’re doing it for the same reason,” and they’re not.

Some kids are working hard because they want to please you. Some kids are working because they are driven to conquer and master everything. Some kids are working hard because they see the point and they buy into the point. Some kids are working hard because they feel like working hard. We look at the outcome of achievement and we think, “Oh, well, that kid’s a motivated kid,” but we don’t understand why they’re motivated.

So what happens if things in the classroom change and the thing that was motivating them is no longer there? And then we’re saying, “Well, what happened to this kid?” And we’re panicking or freaking out. If we understood their motivation, we’d understand what’s happening. We’d understand how to maintain it and sustain it over time.

The other thing is that even if I’m a mastery driven kid, it doesn’t mean that I’m always going to be the “A” student. Some of the students who are failing miserably in your classroom right now are mastery driven. They can’t figure out how to be successful, but that’s what they’re looking for. So that’s why they shut down, they turn off, and they stop working because they can’t figure out how to get mastery in your classroom. It’s not that they’re not motivated. They are motivated. They just don’t know how to be successful: they’re not getting the answer to how.

There are some kids who are belonging driven who are some of the most isolated, mean kids out there. They need belonging badly. They don’t know how to get it.

There are some kids who are very purpose-driven, but who seem like they don’t have a sense of purpose at all. And it’s because they haven’t found a sense of purpose that they can believe in yet.

And there are some kids who are autonomy driven, who when given choices, shut down because even though they need choices, they don’t know how to make good choices.

So we can’t judge kids based on their outcomes. We have to look for what drives them: Look for that will driver and feed it. And then when we do, that’s what turns things around for the kids.

It’s so much more nuanced and complex than just saying, “These kids just don’t care about education. They just don’t value an education. They just don’t want to learn.” There’s so much more there to unpack.

Yeah, one of the things I always say is “be who you want to see.” And one of the things that happen to teachers a lot is that administrators put them in boxes: “You’re just not motivated. You just don’t want to work hard. You just want to give up on kids. You don’t care enough about kids.”

And we would never allow that to happen to us because we see the nuance: “I do care about kids. I’m working as hard as I can for these kids, but at some point, I’ve run out of tools. So what else am I supposed to do? I have to still be able to teach the kids in a class.”

We would never let somebody look at us and just label us as lazy or say that we don’t care about kids. But then when we reach a breaking point, we’re often tempted to do that to our students and just write them off as being lazy or saying that they don’t care.

So you need to be who you want to see. If you would never allow somebody to do that for you — if you recognize the nuance in the work that you do — you need to do that for your kids. If you understand that there are extenuating circumstances every single day that affect your motivation and it’s not that you are a bad teacher, it’s not that you don’t want to work hard, but rather, you just believe that this unit is stupid so you don’t want to teach it, or you believe that this unit is not going to allow you or students to be successful, or you don’t like your boss so you’re not going to do it … you have those reasons that explain why you behave the way you do.

Well, be open to the fact that your students also have those reasons. Look for them, be open to them, because once you understand that, you stop seeing kids as lazy.

I mean there are lazy kids, let’s just be real. There are lazy kids, but usually, the kids that we call lazy, they’re not being lazy. They’re just looking for a good answer to the question of their dominant will driver and unless you answer that, you’re never going to reach them.

Yeah. That was definitely true for me as a student. All of my teachers would say I was unmotivated. I didn’t apply myself. I wasn’t working to my potential. I was so disengaged, but it’s the will driver. Like you were saying, I didn’t see the point. I didn’t understand why we were doing what we were doing. I didn’t know how I’d use it, so it just didn’t seem as interesting or relevant to me as the things that I cared about. But I wasn’t lazy. I certainly would’ve looked lazy if you had seen me then. And I also looked disorganized, which is sort of ironic now given how organized I am as an adult, but now I have a purpose, and now I have autonomy. I can do it the way that I need to do it, in a way that makes sense for me. And that’s a gamechanger for me.

Imagine if you had had a teacher who looked at you and saw beyond the disengagement and understood that you were just waiting for somebody to help you see the point. And imagine if that teacher had helped you see the point … it would have made all the difference.

And for teachers, the same thing is true. I developed will drivers to try to help teachers motivate students, but I spend most of my time talking about will drivers to administrators because administrators do the same thing. They fall into the same trap of looking at teachers and labeling them a certain way. When in reality, those teachers aren’t lazy or disengaged. Those teachers are looking for the point or they’re looking for the answer to whatever their will driver is.

There are kids right now in your classroom who would start to engage, who are begging somebody to come in and answer their question of who or what or why or how. And if you did that, they would immediately turn on. They’d be so engaged in school, and imagine how different their outcome might be if you did that, if you took the time to understand their will driver, to feed their will driver, and help them to learn in a way that was purposeful and meaningful and lasting, rather than just going through the motions, biding their time until they can get out of your classroom.

And then imagine the difference it makes in how much you enjoy your work, when you’re actually connecting with your kids, when your kids are actually being successful, when your kids are actually becoming more independent thinkers and learners and going out of your classroom not only understanding, but excited about what they’re learning and going out of your class with a purpose every single day.

I think this motivation issue, it’s a huge one. I think we talk about it in very superficial terms, but if you really want to reach all of your students, then you need to start thinking about how to reach all of your students, and it’s not going to be a magic trick.

People ask me all the time, “Is there a test I can give my students so that they can tell me their will driver and I could just take their results and then feed their will driver?” And of course not, no, I don’t even want to create that kind of test because that’s a very disengaged way of connecting with kids. Understanding kids’ will drivers is really about spending time with them, getting to know them, paying attention to who they are. You don’t want to shortcut that work, because that work is going to help you understand the nuance of each individual kid and be able to feed their will-drivers in a way that almost feels natural.

The moment you start testing and saying, “Oh, this is the belonging driven kid, so every single day I need to tell them they’re smart and kind and important,” you’ve missed the point. The point is to pay attention to the kids: look at what they need and find ways to feed their will driver in a way that’s unique to every single kid.

I know that sounds more complex, but frankly, that’s what teaching is. It’s not about standing in front of the room and talking to 30 kids who are paying rapt attention to you. It’s really about standing in front of the room and finding a way to reach 30 individuals and help them learn in a meaningful way.

What would you say to a teacher who’s listening to this and thinking, “We’re well into the school year at this point, and I feel like I have just tried everything for this kid. Nothing seems to be working. I don’t feel like there’s anything I can do now to get them invested in my class?”

A lot of it depends on the kid’s will driver. I’ve walked into schools where I come in at the middle of the year, teachers hear about will drivers, and they take a kid who they’ve already spent so much time investing in and nothing has worked. They apply the will-drivers to that student and within a matter of weeks, they have a breakthrough.

The only challenge is that if that kid’s will driver is belonging, because belonging driven people — remember their question is WHO — and if your actions all year long have been conveying, “I don’t value you, I don’t like you, I don’t believe in you,” then you go back and start saying, “Hey, your will driver must be WHO, so I just want you to know I like you, I believe in you, and I value you,” but if it’s not sincere and it’s not real, you’re not going to reach that kid.

So the answer is two-part. First of all, if you have a kid who you’re struggling with and you have tried everything, try will drivers because I’ve seen it over and over again: when you understand a student’s will driver and start to feed that will driver in a way that conveys that you really care, then you can reach that kid. I’ve seen it happen in a matter of weeks — not months, not years —  in a matter of weeks, because we can’t resist our own will drivers. We really can’t.

The second part of that is that you have to mean it. Like you can’t go in and say, “Okay, let me try this new tool with a kid so I can reach the kid because he’s getting on my nerves, and if I could get him quiet and working, then my classroom would run a lot more smoothly.” That’s not going to work.

The only way feeding will drivers works is when they come from a place of authenticity. You have to genuinely care about a student so you’re not just feeding their will drivers.

I remember one time I was training a group on will drivers and one of my mastery driven people in the audience was saying, “So with belonging driven people, how do I convey that I care who they are — should I use body language?” And he’s trying to show me body language where he’s walking up to them and fake hugging them.

I was like, “No, this is not a paint by numbers thing, where ‘if your students need this, do that’. It doesn’t work that way. You have to really mean it. You have to really care enough about a kid to not only discover their will driver, but consistently feed it. And if you feed it one time — if you do one thing that you think is belonging driven and the child doesn’t respond right away, you also have to trust the process that it will work.”

If you are not seeing results in a matter of weeks, you’re probably feeding the wrong will driver. And I’ve done this, I’ve made this mistake. I looked at somebody and I was like, “Oh they are definitely mastery.” And I’ve fed mastery for two months, and the relationship just deteriorated. It just got worse and worse and worse. And then I realized, “Oh my goodness, I thought they were mastery, but really, they’re belonging.” I switched and started feeding belonging, and the relationship turned around in a matter of days.

So if you are feeding somebody’s will driver — genuinely, authentically feeding their will driver — and you’re not seeing results, go back and rethink whether or not you guessed their will driver correctly. And if you didn’t, use the process of elimination. People can’t resist their will drivers so you should see responses within a matter of weeks.

I’m going to close out the show with a “takeaway truth”, something for teachers to remember in the week ahead. So what is something that you wish every teacher understood about student motivation and working with kids who are disengaged in class?

It’s hard because I have like five!

I’ll take them all, Robyn. Everything you say is brilliant, so give us as many as you want.

I don’t know if it’s brilliant. But because I’m mastery driven, I don’t want one take away. I want to do it all. I have to think about the most important thing. Like if you just said, “This is one thing I could do this week.”

Okay, let’s start with that.

Start by understanding your own will driver and then watch how that impacts what you default to, and how that affects your students’ relationships with you.

So for instance, once I understood that I was mastery driven, the first thing that I realized to my horror was that I was giving my students (my workshop participants) too much information. Because when you’re mastery driven, you want to know what’s the right thing to do. So I gather all this information, I do a lot of thinking about it, and then I emerge and say, “I have the answer.” And then I want to share it with the world. And it’s like drinking from a fire hose sometimes. Once I understood that, then I started to slow down. I started to say, “Okay, they can’t take it all, it’s too much. I have to break it out into pieces and I have to make sure that I give people time to process and I have to make sure…” etc.

Understanding my own will driver changed my behavior, and when my behavior changed, it changed how motivated and engaged my students — or my workshop participants — were. I think the same thing can be true for teachers.

So maybe the most powerful thing you can do right now is to stop and think, “Am I mastery driven, am I purpose-driven, am I belonging driven, or am I autonomy driven?” And then start paying attention to how that will driver is impacting your relationships with your colleagues, your relationships with your students, what you default to in the classroom, what you privilege in the classroom and what you ignore in the classroom, and what you count as ridiculous and foolish when it may be not ridiculous and foolish to somebody else.

If you could just understand your own will driver and also understand that not everybody shares your will driver, just that understanding alone can go a long way towards making you more aware of differences in people, and help you start to see them and feed those differences so that you can get more people motivated.

Truth for Teachers podcast: a weekly 10 minute talk radio show you can download and take with you wherever you go! A new episode is released each Sunday to get you energized and motivated for the week ahead.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. LOVED this episode. Really gave me so much to think about. Do you see any value in explicitly teaching the will drivers to kids? Do you think it would be empowering or limiting–I can see an argument for both!

    1. I think it would be empowering! Once they know what motivates them, they can take responsibility for tapping into that motivation. So if your will driver is “purpose” and you don’t know why you have to complete an assignment, you can find the why (give yourself a reason).

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