Motivating Students And Teaching Them to Motivate Themselves By Maurice Gibbons
» Motivating students to pursue SDL
» Dealing with the SDL crisis
» Motivating SDL students and teaching them to motivate themselves
» Dealing with difficult students
Motivation is both a unique and critical issue in teaching adolescents to be self-directed. It is unique in that the teacher must motivate students to take on the task of managing their own activities, and must then teach them to motivate themselves as an essential aspect of continuing self- direction. It is also unique in that we are dealing with adolescence; a dynamic and sometimes troubled stage in students’ lives. Our efforts are most successful when they are appropriate for the tasks their unfolding natures present to them. Students often begin SDL activities with enthusiasm and then “hit the wall” of responsibility and become disheartened. This is discouraging both to students and teachers. It is critical to anticipate this possibility and be ready to respond to it as an important teaching opportunity rather than as a sign that the program is failing or that the student is hopeless. Finally, some students will begin with prior experience in, and a proclivity for, self- direction; others will arrive with little experience of personal responsibility and a dependence on direction from others. Those not ready must be identified quickly and given special guidance. As with any adolescent group, some such students will be especially difficult, and the teacher must be ready to respond appropriately. Fortunately, the dynamics of the SDL process itself provides the teacher with a framework for dealing with all of these issues successfully.
Motivating Students to Pursue SDL
The first step of motivation in SDL is to build enthusiasm for involvement in the process. This begins with the teacher’s understanding of SDL and commitment to it so that s/he can be a strong promoter of it. At the beginning, especially if the program’s students are volunteers, the teacher should present SDL as an outstanding choice for students to make, one full of opportunities challenges and benefits for those who participate. Even for those arriving in the classroom, display posters summarizing the program and its advantages to students, collect slides of student work in previous classes for a show of what is possible, and personally promote the program as an exciting adventure in learning. Including parents in a promotional meeting and securing their endorsement can also be influential in selling the program to students.
The second principle is modeling SDL. The teacher should be a model of the process; one who is committed to it and is actively employing it. The first SDL activity teachers can celebrate is the decision to teach this program and to address the challenges that it offers to them as well as to the students. A second activity, one in which the teacher is pursuing a special interest, not only assures students that the teacher values the process , it also inspires their efforts. By employing the process, the teacher also gains insight into the skills and struggles involved. One SDL teacher, for example, used his efforts to become a published writer as a model for the process with his students. They followed his progress with interest and especially the difficulties he faced and how he responded. At every turn, he learned what his students were going through and what help they needed.
A third principle of motivation for SDL is creating a positive climate that nurtures student productivity. That environment should be stimulating, non-threatening, inviting and positive. A stimulating SDL environment would be an ever-changing visual provocation to think and act created by both teachers and students. Pictures, posters, charts and examples of work should abound. Stations should be available for computing, reading and any special activities of the course or field. There should be private places, small-group meeting corners and space for class meetings. Build a think-tank, a .com tone of individual effort with common purpose; individual roles in a shared, exciting enterprise. Busy, active meeting times should alternate with quiet reflective times. Imposed competition is threatening. Competition chosen, competition in teams or competition with oneself is generally a positive stimulation.
SDL flourishes in an atmosphere of practical or realistic positivism. Students must believe that they can be successful in the enterprises they undertake. This begins with setting a warm, respectful businesslike tone in teacher-student interactions. It means teachers communicating to students their confidence in the students’ ability to be successful in the circumstances at hand, but always accompanied by the training and guidance that makes success probable. It also means teaching students to internalize that positive attitude in their conversations with themselves and to intervene if they become negative. SDL flourishes also in an atmosphere that says “We are altogether in this; we are going to help each other; we are going to make sure we all succeed.” Make the classroom a garden for SDL.
A fourth general principle of motivating student involvement and progress in SDL is providing initial or sustaining adventures, and using them as metaphors for the challenge involved. Any first-time dramatic experience will serve this purpose. When location permits, a camping experience provides everyone with responsibilities, requires independence on the part of participants and encourages bonding as a special group. Such an experience gives students who usually don’t shine in classroom work a chance to contribute and excel. When experts are available, a rock-climbing experience on a cliff-face (urban climbing walls are often available, too) provides an excellent model adventure. Such service activities as working with the elderly, the handicapped or young children one on one can also provide a rewarding experience. Choosing a charity and conducting an urban hike, bike ride or work project with each student sponsored for how far they go or how much they do, is another approach. No matter what challenge is presented, an orientation to it and a meeting to debrief the significance of the activity later are essential. The basic message is, “If you can climb this cliff-face and rappel down it, what else might you be able to do that now seems too difficult?” In such efforts, the involvement of parents or their substitutes can also prove invaluable.
A fifth principle of motivation for students of SDL is to adapt your course or program to the students’ experience of adolescence and the demands it places on them. Adapt it so that by doing the course students are helping themselves to achieve the transformations and transitions that they face. Adolescence is a very distinctive state. We know that many teens experience growth spurts and hormonal storms, and now the latest research shows that the brain goes through a period of chaotic adjustment, too. Students are becoming adults and have to accomplish the demanding task of setting childhood fantasies, dependencies and behaviors aside. And then, students have to take on the task of developing the person they will be, establishing new kinds of relationships with others, becoming independent and competent, shaping their values and character and generally beginning the transition to more adult-like behavior.
Fortunately, the features of SDL are well matched to the demands of adolescence. They require students to learn in a way that promotes these transformations and this transition. The freedoms and responsibilities, the challenges and relationships, the lifelong skills and processes as well as the accomplishments that students experience, all make SDL a training ground for the successful completion of the psychosocial adolescent agenda. Make that agenda a guide to course design, construction and interaction. Treat them with respect, acknowledge their challenging journey, encourage independence, recognize mature behavior and celebrate all achievement. Every classroom period will present many opportunities to nurture these student accomplishments, and every time you do, you will be helping them with the unavoidable demands of maturation that are boiling in them.
These five approaches –- selling SDL, modeling it, creating a positive environment for it, introducing dramatic experiences and matching the program to the demands of adolescence –- comprise a dynamic framework for motivating students to adopt SDL and to be successful in pursuing it.
Anyone coming in for the first time could surely think there’s a lack of discipline here. No lineups. No bells. Kids coming and going. But that’s all out here. We’re concerned about what’s going on inside them. Their sense of purpose and direction. Their ability to manage themselves. The thoughtfulness that they show to others. That’s the discipline we care about. Jefferson County Open School Principal
Dealing with the SDL Crisis
Becoming self-directed is not easy. There is much for students to learn both about managing learning tasks and about managing themselves. Some students who have experience in self-direction or a proclivity for it will readily adapt to the process. Others who are dependent, have low self-esteem or come fresh from a pattern of failure in other classes will find it difficult and need special assistance. Many students will begin with enthusiasm, but when the responsibilities involved accumulate, some, perhaps many, will falter. When that happens, some students will accept their failure as their own and become discouraged. Others, however, may blame the program or the teacher for their difficulties, and complain. If this condition continues without treatment, a crisis can develop for students, the teacher and the program.
Since this crisis is a predictable event, it is important both to take steps to prevent it and to be ready for it with solutions that will help students through it successfully. The prevention is to introduce the skills and responsibilities of SDL gradually. The solution, when the crisis occurs, is to regard it, not as a failure of the program, but as an important teaching moment. The crisis brings the difficulties involved into sharp focus. This enables the teacher to identify them, focus on them and guide the student through them. When students make it through successfully, they will later regard the event as one of the most important experiences of the course, if not of their learning lives.
If students are simply “turned loose” to achieve course outcomes or course projects on their own, the course is in jeopardy. If, on the other hand, we gradually introduce students to the tasks and the skills they need to achieve them, we give every student the opportunity to be successful. In such a graduated approach we begin with a high degree of teacher direction in completing course outcomes and, as students become skilful, gradually withdraw direction until they can achieve them on their own and the transition is complete. Gradualism is the key. Pursue the outcomes together as a class, then in small groups and finally as individuals. Make initial tasks simple and easy and gradually increase the level of difficulty and complexity. Ensure initial success and then teach them the problem-solving process. In self-direction, especially in self-directed activities that are challenging, problems always arise. Giving up is one of the most common gumption traps. Teach them to be proud of their ability to identify and resolve the difficulties they confront. By preparing them thoroughly by introducing tasks and skills gradually, teachers both minimize the crises students will face, and lay the groundwork for getting them through the crises that cannot be avoided.
The crises that students experience seem to follow a pattern. It is not universal, but is common enough to merit our examination. If a particular experience of it varies, many of the stages in the pattern will appear in some form with some students, and the responses we describe will prove useful.
Decision. Students are often in an SDL class because they chose to be. In such instances, they begin with high expectations. When students enter a class unaware that SDL is involved, teachers often begin with an introduction that also raises expectations. Students usually begin in anticipation but in ignorance of the rigors involved. The teacher can help to prepare students in a number of ways. One is to tell the story of a famous self-directed person. This person can be anyone who has achieved greatness through their own efforts: civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr., Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meier and golfer, Tiger Woods. One excellent example is the Wright brothers Wilbur and Orville. With only high school educations and no sign of exceptional talent, these two bicycle-shop owners systematically solved the problems of powered flight, and at Kittyhawk in 1903 flew their famous biplane for the first time. It was an exceptional self-directed learning project. Such stories provide a vivid introduction to the process. Students could also compile lists of local and other global SDL achievers and, from such examples, compile a list of features both of self-directed learners and achievers, and of the process of SDL. Such discussions might conclude with Winston Churchill’s six-word graduation speech to an Eastern American college: “Never give up! Never give up!”
Initial Excitement. New experiences are exciting, especially when they offer new freedoms and many opportunities for interesting, adventuresome learning. Students often begin the program eagerly. They enjoy having their own space, being free to move around and talk and setting up interesting activities. Some will take on huge projects through misjudgment or in an attempt to impress both peers and adults, and then plunge into the task. Others will set minimum goals and defend their value heatedly. They may even believe that token learning is either acceptable or all that they can accomplish. They will dabble and socialize. These excesses represent both poles of the spectrum of misconception of an SDL project.
At this point, the challenge is to maintain the excitement but also to nudge the student responding excessively into a more appropriate level of intensity. The individual conference or meetings with the support group and advisory group offer excellent opportunities. While discussing the learning contract, for example, the teacher can raise the issue of task intensity and discuss the task and its magnitude. Role playing students who are pursuing excessive projects and what happens as a result will give students a chance to see the necessity of manageable expectations and the true intensity of the challenge that lies ahead. The teacher knows; the student may not.
Recognition. As students pursue their SDL projects they soon experience the magnitude of the task and many will be shocked at the enormity of it. Gradually they realize all that they have to learn and accomplish, the difficulties that they have to overcome, the arrangements they have to make, the people they have to work with and the visibility of their success or failure in accomplishing what they set out to do. This shock is a reasonable response for any dependent, disorganized or casual student and may occur to students of any capability. It breeds in them feelings of confusion and doubt, but it is a normal stage – and an important one – in the progress toward accomplishment in SDL. This trauma of freedom is the recognition of the responsibilities that go with increased autonomy, the same responsibilities they must learn to assume as they approach adulthood.
The key responses here are clarification without accusation and assistance without rescue. The challenge is to identify problems and consider solutions. Clarify the new teacher and student roles they are experiencing. Say, “This you can expect from me, and this you are expected to do for yourself.” Help the student to analyze exactly what is happening; conduct a forensic review. Ask them to identify what is working and what is not. Follow a pattern that they can use themselves for troubleshooting in the future. Start with the students’ intentions and goals. Are they too ambitious or too trivial? Have they pursued a real interest or what they think they are expected to pursue? Follow the steps in the process. When the problems are identified, list them. When the review is complete choose a key obstacle and encourage the student to generate solutions. Choose the best and expand it into a plan.
During this process, the teacher may observe that the student needs certain important attitudes, concepts or skills. This is an excellent time to teach them - - when they are most needed. One skill that often seems lacking but necessary for students is self-management: setting personal goals, drawing up a prioritized list of tasks, creating a timetable and monitoring progress. These approaches can also be taught to support groups so students can help each other to avoid difficulties or to work through them. Let students know that their struggle is real, that it is normal and that by understanding and resolving the challenge of responsibility now, they are preparing for a successful adulthood.
Crisis. The shock of recognition may merge with crisis or follow it despite the teacher’s efforts. In this stage surprise turns to abandonment in hopelessness or resistance and avoidance in anger. Some will be immobilized by the complexity of their self-directed tasks, fail to meet deadlines or perform at a level much below the one they anticipated. The crisis intensifies until they must deal with their failure. Some will blame themselves, feel hopeless and become lethargic; others will become hostile and blame the teacher or the program. Whether students internalize or externalize their reactions, calm, confident response is essential. Students must be guided through this crisis.
When kids run into problems and get down - - you wonder. When some just can’t handle all the responsibility and want out, you worry. Then their parents start calling and you panic. But that’s not the time to quit. That’s the critical moment. That’s the time to teach them what self-direction is all about.
Open School Teacher
In responding to students in crisis take nothing personally. Keep focus on this critical issue and upon helping students to resolve it in a way that prepares them to deal more successfully with the next problem or crises when it arrives. Ask for and listen empathetically to the students' concerns. Acknowledge them and move to solutions. This may be a good time to renegotiate the learning contract, to make it more manageable or to consider a new activity. Help students to recall a time when they faced such difficulties and worked through them successfully. Use it as a model, explore what attitudes and strategies accounted for their success and then transfer them to the current situation. Revisit this hope, vision or dream for the activity underway. Encourage them to value the outcome and to reconfirm their dedication to it. Then take a piece of the old goal and plan to complete it as a separate activity. Breaking the plan into sections around sub-goals as separate challenges enables students to address each one more hopefully. Arrange for students to work with an admired peer or small group in the class. Consider setting a high-interest, brief activity to give them a success from which to move forward.
Students who internalize their difficulty and blame themselves may benefit from a counseling approach in which the teacher encourages them to discuss the feelings they are experiencing. Listen and respond without judgment. Help them to identify the feelings and the aspects of the situation from which they arose. Help them to test the truth of assumptions they may have about their inability to handle such situations by setting another task and pursuing it. The transition to successful self-direction means replacing “No, I can’t” assumptions with “Yes, I can” affirmations. Make sure the test is appropriate and do everything possible to prepare the student for success and to guide him or her to it.
Changing negative assumptions begins with hard evidence.
Realism. In this stage students accept the reality of the difficulties involved in SDL. They recognize what is required from them to overcome these obstacles and they acknowledge the advantages of becoming skilled at solving their own problems. In the best scenario, students covert the experience of overcoming their difficulties into valuable lessons. They clarify their role in the process of self-direction and accept the roles of others. They develop a clearer picture of what they can accomplish, they accept the need for organizing their time and effort, and they value the importance of SDL learning. This state of readiness is the turning point in the transition to productivity.
This is an important opportunity for the teacher to confirm and nurture this transition. Encourage students to write about their difficulties and success in their journals. Encourage them to share their struggles and resolutions with others in groups or with the class. Celebrate them. Underscore these achievements in personal comments and in comments on the student’s contracts, comments that can be included in their portfolios and can be seen at home. Reaffirm the value of challenge, struggle, achievement and personal growth. Build a climate of realistic optimism, nurture “Yes, I can” efficacy.
Commitment and Achievement. After their struggles, students become successful in their SDL activities and more committed to its practices and principles. As they become more self-disciplined, more systematic and effective, and as they begin to achieve the outcomes they seek, they will also begin to report positive changes in themselves and their parents will begin to report such changes at home. Problems will arise, but in most cases, students will solve them proudly. They will report feelings of empowerment, satisfaction and pride.
This is the time to confirm, celebrate and more forward. One excellent way to confirm and celebrate is to conduct the first self-evaluation conference with students and their parents. Organize for one to four students to be reporting on their progress at one time, each telling about their difficulties and their final achievements. This will also allay the fears that parents of struggling students may have about the program. Then move students on to the next task with new contracts and more challenging endeavors. Problems will still arise but will seldom be so devastating again. Now seasoned, students will work with enthusiasm, celebrate and help each other and they will dare to aspire.
Plateau and Remobilization. After a period of success, students may tend to relax, feel comfortable and slack off. They resist new challenges and rest on their laurels from past achievements. Having reached a plateau of success, they pause. This pause is often deserved, but it is not uncommon for students to settle in and need to be pried out of the nest again.
Keeping track of student activities daily on an observation sheet provides an indicator of where individuals are in their progress and where the class is generally. It provides an early warning system for detecting problems and slow downs. When students slack off, distinguish between breathing in between efforts and slowing down in effort altogether. When a slowdown occurs, it’s time to remobilize the students concerned or the class in general. This may be a time for firm insistence on performance, for challenging contracts and dramatic action. Confront students proposing familiar, comfortable and easy projects. Introduce a provocative stimulus. Invite former students to return and talk to the class. Introduce a class project such as a science trip to a new environment for field studies or conservation activities. Conduct a service for people in need. Organize an adventure or a retreat to re-energize the class. Be careful before you confront apparent slackers. One girl seemed to be doing nothing, but when the teacher approached, he found out she had discovered data bases that enabled her to compare personal habits among women and the incidence of breast cancer. She had been up late running the data for three nights.
Knowing that students will experience these stages helps teachers to be prepared for them. It also enables teachers to avoid them or to reduce their impact by preparing students and the program so that both are free from make-or-break crises. In SDL as in life, however, problems abound and these kinds of issues will arise. The responses suggested here should be helpful in motivating students to address their difficulties and in guiding them through to success.
Motivate Students and Teach Them to Motivate Themselves.
The key to self-direction is motivating students to design and accomplish their own learning tasks, and then motivating them to motivate themselves to learn.
Is this possible? Yes, if we create a motivating program, and if we can teach students to create highly motivating tasks to pursue and compelling ways to pursue them. SDL is designed to motivate. The program is aimed at the crises adolescents face. It offers a transition from control by others to control of themselves. Freedom is given as responsibility is taken. Students learn to find and pursue their interests, to struggle and achieve and to demonstrate their achievements and reap the rewards. They learn about themselves by finding out what they can do and become. They learn about others, find companionship and see themselves as they are seen by the many individuals and groups they experience. And they learn about the world and how to move through it competently. If a program were designed for motivating adolescents, this would be it. Unfortunately, much of the positive feeling comes after the struggle through the fires. Knowing that the appreciation of their students will come is important for the teacher’s motivation.
Recognition by students that the program is dealing with their issues will gradually emerge, and you can help that process by connecting the activities to their greater purposes. As they take control, for example, students should realize that it is an adult act and a step toward maturity. Be your students’ challenge cheerleader. Above all, sell competence. Competence is its own reward, but they have to get there first. Do whatever you have to do to get them to the place where they taste the pleasures of skill. Competence is also their passport to the future; excellence in a field is their employment visa. The advantages of life go to the competent – the pleasures of the experience, the admiration of others and the greatest financial rewards.
The greatest motivator is the active pursuit of personal interests in real circumstances. In his book, Motivating Humans (1992), Ford outlines the main principles of motivation that he derived from research. They not only support the practices that follow, they also demonstrate that SDL is a motivating program. That is, as students master the processes of SDL they are learning also how to motivate themselves by discovering their interests, by finding compelling ways to pursue them and by sustaining their efforts to a rewarding conclusion.
Help students to find and pursue a passion. The most recurrent theme among SDL teachers is the importance of helping students to find something that interests them, something that is theirs, something that is full of promise. Everything flows from that compelling interest. The search for a passion is the purpose behind the drive to expose them to a variety of experiences in a variety of situations. When Jeremy Tanner discovered a passion for flying, he became energized in all of his work.
Help students to translate interests into clear and compelling goals. As Ford suggests, specific, desirable goals are essential. Without them, little else matters. Once a passion has been identified, the next step is to translate it into specific goals that can be acted upon. Competencies and challenges provide a general framework within which each student can find personal focus and effort. By learning to set their own goals, students also learn to motivate themselves. The learning contract and major challenges or graduation passages focus students on the task. Make sure that the goals are stated so clearly that the student and anyone else reading them know what needs to be done. Be sure that each goal is the student’s own and that it is compelling. If several are tied together in a common enterprise, motivation is even stronger.
Where did that kid who couldn’t wait to get to school or swimming and piano lessons go? The kid who helped me in the kitchen, loved to go camping, read books, brought his friends over. Who is this surly monster who swears, loafs around, can’t stand school and comes home later smelling of smoke and god knows what else? I want that nice kid back. A teenager’s mother
Connect students with at least one person who cares about them. Students in SDL need to know that there are people who care about them specifically, and especially one person who is directly connected with them and their progress. Belonging to a community is important, but a special contact is critical. In many programs this person is the advisor with whom they meet regularly in an advisory group, and individually at least twice a week. As an advisor, be available, connect, support, counsel and guide. At Jefferson County Open, the program begins with each advisory group taking a camping trip together so that such special connections can begin.
Deal with each student as an individual in an individual situation. The special contact, such as the advisor, should treat the student as a unique individual in a unique situation. Many students will have unique issues to deal with in order to become self-directed. Some will have issues at home, others with peers and still others in dealing with themselves that impede their progress. Monique may be running from her stepmother’s abuse, Bill may be in trouble with the police, Angie may be spoiled helpless and Sangit may be in cultural crisis. These issues must be resolved by the students themselves, but they need the opportunity to talk, confirmation that they are okay and guidance in developing alternative strategies for resolution.
Provide feedback to students and teach them to secure feedback for themselves. The effort to achieve goals flags without specific, helpful feed back. Students not only need feedback, they also need to know that feedback is coming. Responses to their efforts are most useful when they clearly specify successes and point out ways that the student can improve. Keep track of everyone; provide regular commentary. Conferences provide a good opportunity to give feedback, but be sure that it guides improvement and is perceived as useful. SDL programs are designed to build in several feedback systems: peer support groups, advisory groups, teacher-student conferences, working with mentors, their community activities, demonstrations and celebrations. Teach them to ask for feedback and to “read” the effectiveness of their efforts, that is, to determine from the results of their initiatives which are successful, which are not and why. Feedback motivates by naming successes, identifying problems and suggesting solutions. Without feedback, students lose their way and their momentum.
Challenge students appropriately, and teach them to challenge themselves. Challenge students in activities they value. Outward Bound challenges students unfamiliar with rock climbing to climb difficult faces on a safe belay and then to repel down again. The cliff-face, the mountain, is used as a metaphor for the challenges we all face in life. “If I can climb the mountain when I was sure I couldn’t, what else might I be able to do that I think I can’t?” Challenge is an invitation to break out of limits, to exercise one’s strengths, to know one’s power. A pattern of successfully meeting challenges leads to a sense of efficacy. When we ask students to write contracts, we invite them to challenge themselves to reach new levels of performance that they can only imagine. We invite them to test and to realize their powers. But, we must be careful that the challenge is neither so great that it is unattainable, nor so trivial that it is not worth doing. Challenge should be difficult but possible for the individual.
Recent research has made it clear that we need challenge throughout our lives if we wish to develop our mental capacities thoroughly, and to retain our alertness into old age. It is also clear that challenging ourselves to do things that we value is the major means by which people learn when schooling ends. Successfully meeting challenges also confirms our talents, reassures us that we can meet what challenges lie ahead and lifts us to a higher platform from which we can see even greater challenges ahead.
Encourage students to identify their strengths and to employ them as often as possible. Every student has strengths that they can identify. Their strength may be relationships, athletics, artistic expression, character, assertiveness, languages, humor, organization, caring, construction, reliability or any among hundreds of others. In Now, Discover Your Strengths (2001), authors Buckingham and Clifton identify thirty-four themes of strength based on a Gallop study of over two million people, and then propose that everyone can learn best by building on their five signature strengths. When we use our most powerful frame of mind or form of intelligence, our preferred style of learning and utilize our strengths in pursuit of goals that thrill us, we build a momentum that is difficult to stop. Students may take Gallup’s Strengthfinder. com Profile on line or simply decide for themselves what they do well, what strengths they bring to anything they do, what others would say were their powers. Using a group to anonymously list each other’s strengths is also a good group-builder. Make your own class muster list of SDL strengths; keep it displayed on a chart.
Ensure that every student experiences success. Success motivates. When we see that we can complete a task, we are ready to do it again; when we do it well and are acknowledged, we want to do it again. If it is a success we want and achieve it after a struggle, we can’t wait to do it again. If the success was also exhilarating and earned us praise, we will do anything to do it again. Sequences of such successes, especially when they are occasionally interrupted with difficulties that are overcome, are life-altering. They are the threads that compose the fabric of our lives, and shape the images that define who we are.
Create successes by employing gradients of intensity in assigned work and by encouraging students to set units of work that are attainable. Provide many pathways. Urge students to employ their strengths. Convert one overwhelming task into a sequence of easier ones and urge them to do the same. Evaluate so that each student has an opportunity to succeed, such as, by measuring progress against personal baselines or by seeking validation letters. Celebrate achievement; be sure that everyone is celebrated. But make sure that the success is real and that there is hard evidence of achievement both for the student and for others to see. Do not claim success for the empty-handed fisherman. In every activity every student should have an opportunity to succeed and should feel that the opportunity exists. Patterns of real success increase effort, raise self-esteem and nurture a sense of efficacy.
Help every student to become competent in achieving their goals, and if possible, in becoming expert in a field of their own choice. Competence is the ability to succeed. As such, it is the other side of the success story; it is the ability to generate the skilful outcomes that are deemed successful. Competence is its own reward, but also is the chief means by which we gain the rewards offered by society -- praise, respect, status, power, greater opportunity and financial reward. The deeper reward is becoming absorbed, going beneath the surface of things. In Creativity (1996), Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes this feeling of contented absorption as flow, the effortless involvement in intense activity for the quality of experience it provides. We also experience such absorption when we exercise skills in challenging projects.
Teach students to be skilful and teach them to be very skillful — expert, if possible, in a special field of choice. Every child should be working on becoming absorbed and competent in a field of activity that gives them pleasure. The balance of curriculum coverage is depth of study. While it is important to learn something about everything, it is equally important to know everything about something, or to come as close as possible. All approaches to assigned topics, and all worthy fields of human endeavor are open to them.
Never stop trying to motivate students or to teach them to motivate themselves. There are many ways to motivate students, far more than we can cover here. Somewhere there is an approach, an experience or a comment that will click and the student will be on the move. Don’t give up. The jump-start event is often a surprise. Who wold have anticipated that when Billy sat down with little kids he would be in his element, or that a problem-kid to us would be a hero to them. When he came into the room, they all wanted him at their tables; and when he was teaching them, they looked at him with open adoration.
Billy, one of the toughest students imaginable, found his transformation, to everyone’s amazement, when he agreed to help the kindergarten teacher and became responsible for a group of little children. Get your students going any way that you can. We can only wait so long for them to set themselves on fire. Spontaneous combustion may not happen. The inert sometimes need to be nudged into action. They need to discover their powers be using them. Billy discovered his by chance. It was not his choice. He sat with folded arms, putting much more energy into not doing than into searching for something to do, not to mention into searching for a passion. Billy was asked to help out in a class and found his strength and interest. Once in flight he started to take over and was soon on his way.
A final note. It is difficult to be civil to students when they are resistant and objectionable. In such instances, however, treating students respectfully is critical, especially since we want them to respect themselves and then others. When you don’t give up or become resentful, students see what is happening. They know. The door stays open. These guidelines for motivating students are also guidelines for the self-motivation that ensures continual, life-long learning.
Working with Difficult Students
Here are ten ways to work with difficult students that you can build into your SDL program. Every teacher has to put together an approach that suits his or her own style, but these approaches will significantly reduce the unruliness of most difficult students, if the teacher is comfortable employing them. These techniques are not designed for seriously delinquent students, however. The control over such students is usually the treat of losing the privilege of being in an SDL class, and going back to TDL. Once calm is established, negotiating the terms of the course begins: freedom for responsibilities. In a broader sense, the SDL process is the best method of managing difficult students. Get students to a success and then build on it. The process gives students the power to produce and involves highly motivating elements, such as the pursuit of personal interests and demonstrating success to an audience of peers. When success leads to passionate involvement in a field students become too busy to be difficult. Find what works for you and them.
Teach students the behavior you expect from them. Make clear what is expected and give them the repertoire of responses to meet those expectations. Students can’t behave the way you want them to if they don’t know what is expected, and they can’t give you what is expected if it isn’t in their repertoires of behavior. Establish clear, simple routines for exercising the responsibilities that go with the new freedoms that they have in SDL. When they begin the day or period, have them file a plan for the work they intend to do. When they go out of the classroom to another part of the school, into the community or beyond, teach them to seek permission from home, from you and from anyone responsible for them where they are going. Make up appropriate slips.
Tough kids respond to heroes — especially sports heroes. I encouraged one group to write fan letters to players on local teams. The kids labored over these letters and were thrilled when players responded, and most did. One even accepted an invitation to join the kids for a street hockey game. We kept a record of players’ performances, worked out their stats and started a corner for responses and memorabilia. It’s a winner. Brian Hodgins, retired special education teacher
Before they go to work sites, for example, teach them how to handle themselves, how to introduce themselves, how to interact with adults, how to get the most out of the situation and how to give back to it, and how to thank people. Role play these situations, doing them both badly and well. Make the expectations clear; that they will go where they say they are going, that they will do what they say they are going to do and that they will conduct themselves well. Make it clear also that if they violate these expectations, they will lose their privileges for a certain period of time. New freedoms are earned by meeting the new responsibilities that go with them.
Help the lost student to decide. For a variety of reasons, some students may have difficulty making choices or the commitment to any choice they make. Some are very dependent or have been so controlled or so criticized or punished for their initiatives that they are immobilized. They may act out when confronted with a decision to make, but more likely they will not be any trouble, just helpless. Be patient. This is an enormous issue for the student and a critical transition for their SDL work. Begin with small tasks. Discuss possibilities with the student at first and then assign a promising activity. Next offer a choice of topics and discuss making a decision between the two. Repeat these if necessary and then move to an independent but non-threatening decision. Guide the student through the process of considering interests, choosing one and transforming it into a goal or task. If necessary, begin with choosing desired experience rather than a task.
If the student is responsive, discuss the feelings that accompany such decisions and commitments. Counseling is an important role for the SDL teacher. If necessary, acquire counseling skills, consult with a counselor – include one in some of your consultations or arrange with the student to visit one if the situation seems to require it. Help such students to trust their own interests, desires and decisions. Without faith in themselves, progress in SDL is doubtful.
Connect students to their powers. Students become successful in SDL by becoming connected to their capacities; through SDL successes, they discover and develop those abilities to manage their own learning and their lives. When they learn to challenge themselves and to meet those challenges, they are inspired not by us but by their own achievements and their realization that “I can make my vision of the future a reality.” SDL teachers do not use their powers to control students but to help students to gain control over themselves in the exercise of their own powers, their own powers to decide, manage and produce. As one SDL teacher said,
I thought we were poor, that I had no inheritance, until I discovered a quote written by my father and remembered that it was what he often told me, ‘All that hinders the individual from expressing the full power of the infinite universe is his lack of faith, his inability to realize the stupendous truth that he himself is the very power which he seeks.' It's a rich inheritance, and what I try to help my students to discover.
Many problems recede when students realize, by what teachers say and do, that the purpose of SDL is to make them confident, competent executives as well as workers in the creation of their own successful lives. The major impediment to this realization, and the cause of many student difficulties, is self-doubt, their wondering if they have power and can realize their dreams. Their struggle to achieve is matched by their struggle to believe - - in themselves. As teachers will discover when students tell their stories during demonstrations and graduation — often in very moving terms — winning this inner struggle is the greatest challenge and their most important victory.
Build pride. Keep a sharp eye out to catch students being successful. When you do, have a repertoire of ways to acknowledge them. Have a recognition time each week when achievements are recognized before the class or advisory group. Students will work to be recognized. Find or create real reasons to recognize struggling students. Send notes home — and to students. Create a recognition wall and post achievements on it — a wall of honor. Recognize all achievement. Do not compare students. Measure progress individually. All progress counts.
Set appropriate challenges. All SDL programs are challenge programs. They challenge students to take charge and create achievement. Find appropriate challenges for difficult students and assign them or work them out with the student. Billy’s work with little kids was transformative. When he graduated, he thanked his teacher for persevering with him, and later began a career with the YMCA. Search for the right challenge. Make up a questionnaire at the beginning of the year asking each student to identify interests, experiences, talents, activities outside of school, hopes and dreams. Add notes to each student's dossier as you discover things about them. Use the dossier as a guide to selecting appropriate challenges. Keep initial tasks brief and when you find a positive response, extend them.
Connect students with admirable adults. Teachers are often associated with parental roles and so become the targets of the adolescent struggle to separate from controlling authority and establish a personal identity. This can be a stormy experience for parents, teachers and especially the embroiled students. Try to understand rather than react. Other adults can be very helpful. Find out if grandparents or aunts and uncles are available. Approach service organizations, such as Rotary, to see if they will take part. Find people who will take students on as apprentices even for a short time. Service roles with the elderly or with children or anyone in need can also be influential. Move students toward adulthood by connecting them with models of the adult role, people who can listen to them, counsel them, work with them and show them positive adult styles.
If what you’re doing isn’t working, stop doing it and try something else. Reframe: rethink the situation. Ask, “When were things better than this? What would be happening if things were better now?” Remember when you were successful with this kind of kid before and draw on that experience. If you haven’t been successful before, find someone to advise you who has. Gary Phillips, Educational Consultant
Teach students who need it. Some students may need to be more gradually weaned from teacher direction than others. For a few, the sudden loss of familiar structure will be confusing and distressing. Students who have learned to plan the TDL game skillfully may resent the new structure which rewards a different kind of learning performance than the one they have mastered. If they can’t figure out what the teacher wants, they may founder or continue to produce familiar study products, such as, the answers to questions in a textbook or essays. Provide a teaching bridge for such students. Hold a brief seminar; teach lessons, give assignments that are marked and returned. Gradually make the assignments more open so students have to make more decisions and develop their own themes and activities. Make the graduation topic from this seminar a brief passage activity.
Place difficult or struggling students strategically in groups. When groups are set up for various learning activities in school or outside it, place difficult or struggling students with a strong group. If group success depends upon the contribution of all members, the pressure is on everyone to work, and if group members are skilled they will encourage their difficult member to contribute. Success with the group, even by not acting out and especially through participation, can give students the success they need to start. Be careful; a determined dissident can destroy all but the strongest and most skillful groups. Be ready to intervene and possibly to withdraw such students. Similarly, be ready to encourage and reward those who modify their behavior and help their groups.
Provide students with diverse resources for learning, and experiences in diverse environments. Many students feel lost in the classroom because they cannot find a way to be successful or competent. They either become passive and avoid school or find a way to establish a role that maintains their self-esteem, that gives them some status and that helps them to belong. Causing trouble is one way, resisting the process is another and insulting the teacher is a third. By offering alternative ways to learn and by changing the environment so that a greater range of activities is possible enables more students to find productive ways to succeed.
Brian Herrin takes his class camping early in the year so that students who may not excel academically can raise the tent, start a fire, find the way, canoe, fish, cook, identify birds, plants and animals. “Change the location”, Brian says, “and different kids get a chance to star. It makes for a very different classroom.” The faculty at Jefferson County Open agrees. The first two weeks are devoted to a camping trip. Each advisory group plans and conducts a one week outing together. “We want them to see a completely different way to learn. We want them to bond with each other and have their own core group right from the beginning. We want them to know each other so they can help each other and accept help. They are going to need it,” observed one teacher. Find diverse environments enable more students to shine.
Diverse resources also enable more students to find the right means of learning for them. When the hook is made and the student finds success, the trouble is often over. Introducing learning through video and computer may catch some. Laboratory research and fieldwork will grab a few, Apprenticeships and work experience may be essential for others. Drama on a mountainside, in river rapids or plunging from a plane will hook many. Service with aids patients, infants or the elderly will be compelling for many more.
Target specific students with specific transformative experiences. Troubled Billy found teaching children and was never the same again. When “Maddog” Manson got the chance to train his dog, during the process he trained himself, too. Helen Barr invited two of her promising but troubled students to an elegant dinner with candles, classical music and a tough reading assignment “to ensure a stimulating conversation.” She gave them a marvelous crash course in a cultural life style they knew nothing about. “Instead of punishing them, I fed them. The poor boys never recovered. They did the most amazing things,” she said. Melvin took Amber, his most difficult student, to a Rotary meeting and asked her to speak in his place about the SDL program she was in. He said that it was a risk, but he knew it was all right when Amber began, “Any program that can put up with me being in it, has to have a lot going for it.”
Teachers can also target the resources and experiences for themes in their own subjects. Marcia Stankowski insists that her English and drama students see a compelling play performance in the theatre, or act in one for an audience. Mark Hatcher takes his earth science students on field trips to study landforms and collect mineral specimens. “Different kids get hooked in the field,” he says. “I give the difficult kids responsibilities and bargain with them that if all goes well this time, we’ll do more trips later.” Help every student to find a means of learning, a sense of importance and a place to shine. If the students can’t find it, find the experience for them.
Motivation is the engine that drives learning. Do everything possible to engage students in SDL. Help them find the determination to work through their first confrontations with the difficulties involved in directing themselves. As they begin to achieve successes, confirm their accomplishment and use success to teach them to employ the SDL process to motivate themselves. Conduct that process as a motivational activity and be ready to focus on troubled students with a repertoire of responses that will help them to find a pathway to achievements that will give them the pride and self-esteem they need to change.