Aboriginal Learners and Motivation

Recently I was a part of an introductory meeting for my district’s Aboriginal Enhancement Agreement Committee, and the theme: “how do we motivate our Aboriginal students?” came up again and again.

This theme assumes that this group of students are skills yes, motivation no. That is: they can do it, they just don’t want to.  This puts us in the “motivation business.” Now we need to come up with a suite of motivational strategies to get them to be successful. We will create and apply incentives and punishments to motivate them to do what they need to do.

What if we are wrong? What if these learners are skills no, motivation yes? That is: they lack the skills to do it, so they can’t do it.  Now our role just changed, we are now in the “problem solving business.”   We can work with each individual to find out what the missing skill or unsolved problem is and get to work on fixing it. Once the student has the skills they will do well because they are already motivated to do well.  This is collaborative problem solving, where we do things with students instead of doing things to them.

I’m a kids do well if they can guy. I believe that all people are motivated to do well. Nobody gets up in the morning and thinks to themselves “I want to do poorly today.”  There is usually a lacking skill or unsolved problem that is getting in the way of people doing well.  Our job is to work with the learner to dig down and find the unsolved problem and then get to work on fixing it, together.

If these ideas pique your interest, go to Ross Greene’s Lives in the Balance website for more information about kids do well if they can.


Give them an inch….

I was watching a presentation online this morning by Alfie Kohn. Although familiar with Kohn’s work, I have never seen him speak before today. What an excellent and passionate speaker he is! One idea that he spoke about really resonated with me and I would like to look at it a little more closely.

Alfie talks about the old saying “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile.” This saying from folk wisdom implies that there is something intrinsically wrong with kids…and by extension with people. It says that people have a naturally tendency to be dishonest, greedy, selfish and are not deserving of trust. Therefore, people need to be controlled.  This is Theory X and Theory Y stuff from Douglas McGregor that I came across in my masters courses.

Kohn argues in his presentation that in his experience, people only take a mile when they are  consistently given inches in their lives. That is, only when they are over-controlled do they tend to take advantage.  The last thing they need is more control, tighter regulation, harsher consequences and less trust, which is how we tend to respond.

Out in the real world, I have worked with many staff. They have acted across the continuum of Theory X to Theory Y.  It is not one or the other, but we all have tendencies.

Last week I had a student in my office complaining that a teacher wanted him to sign a contract saying he was going to be on time for class that was upcoming next semester.  The student did have a past record of not showing up for class on time.  However, the student was excited about the new, more advanced class and was now upset because they had not been given a chance. No one else was signing the contract (not fair), and the class had not even started yet. I agreed with student and told them to approach the teacher with their solid arguments. I spoke with the teacher as well on the student’s behalf, explaining their concerns.  The teacher changed their mind, no contract needed.

This was a bullet dodged, I can only imagine the reaction to the contract if it was put in place. Starting with mistrust is extremely difficult as we all know.  Students need to know from us that we believe that they want to excel and that we will provide them with autonomy not control.  This teacher’s heart was in the right place, they thought the contract would help them be more successful through control. But more control is not what people need. They need a chance to show us that they can exceed our expectations if only we start by giving them a mile.

Mastery is an Asymptote

One of the VP’s responsibilities at my school is updating the school’s road-side sign. When I came to the school this past August, I was excited to take this on. It has always been a beef of mine that school road-side signs are so often out of date, displaying PT Meetings and Pro D Day dates from two months ago. I took this beef to a higher level when I actually wrote a short essay about it for a masters course. The assignment was to write about something that bothers you about schools today.  It was kind of a tongue and cheek paper saying: here we have an opportunity to communicate with the public a message, beyond announcing band concerts, a chance to say what education and this school are about, what we stand for and what we believe.

As I look back on the year so far and how it’s gone with the sign, it has been both an opportunity and a pain. I can now say that I understand why messages from months ago are still there, as changing the sign moves down the priority list each day because more pressing VP duties step in front. I’m not making excuses but….ok, I’m making excuses.

It all started off great this year.  I used one side of the sign to give the dates to remember, and on the other side I put up inspirational quotes. I tried to pick quotes that reflected the ideas of our school mission statement. These were ideas about creating community, life-long learning and motivation to achieve our potential. First I used a Dewey quote:

“Education is not the preparation for life; Education is life itself.”

Then there was one from Martin H. Fischer:

“All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.”

And finally one of my all time favorites about education from William Butler Yeats:

“Education is not filling a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

Like I said, updating the sign has become a chore in a lot of ways, one that hangs over me and smacks me in the face every time I arrive at and leave from school with an outdated message displayed. These old messages look at me as I walk by and scream change me! What are you waiting for? It’s December and the Hallowe’en Dance on Oct 28 is so long gone. But, the quotes were inspiring students and teachers, who would come up to me at random times to share that they loved the quote, to ask where it’s from, or tell me a story that relates to the quote. The quotes and their reaction have been a joy that offsets the chore of updating the sign.

So, over the winter break, I had time to catch up on a few books that I had started this fall but could never seem to find the time to finish. One book was Daniel Pink’s Drive, an excellent book about what motives us these days. Pink argues that three things are essential to motive us today; autonomy, mastery and purpose. If you can increase these factors, people’s intrinsic motivation to perform will be maximized.

On the chapter on mastery, I came across the quote:

“Mastery is an Asymptote.”

Being a math teacher at heart, this quote really “spoke to me” as it were, and it has been going through my head for weeks since I read it. Immediately, I knew I had a new inspirational quote for the road-side sign.

I shared this genius idea with my girlfriend, (who by the way just called me nerd for using the saying “as it were” in my writing) who said “that’s great, but what does that mean?”

First thought: Ah, a problem…what if people don’t get it?

Next thought: Ah, an experiment…I’ll put it up to see what the reaction is. I bet a ton of people will see the sign and come up to ask me what it means, and I can explain it to them, ask them what they think, and can they think of something in their life that they strive to master. Something they steadily work towards, always approaching but never quite touching, like a function and it’s asymptote.

You see, mastery is like an function (the blue line) approaching an asymptote line. You keep getting closer to the thing you are trying to master but there is always more to learn, you can refine, improve, reflect, change strategy, you get infinitely closer, but you never really get there.

And the realization that you cannot get there keeps you pursuing, it is so alluring…

So I changed the sign this past Monday, as “Happy Holidays” did not cut it anymore as we had already been back at school for a week.  I put “Mastery is an Asymptote” up.  I grinned like a scientist who waited for the unknown results of his experiment.  How many people would ask? I expected them to come flooding in the next day, eager to learn about the quote, and discuss motivation and mastery.

And I waited,
and waited,

and waited.

By Friday only one person had asked. Only one.

Oh well, sometimes exciting experiments do not work out like we had imagined. There could be many reasons that no one asked: most people knew what it meant, people were afraid to ask, people didn’t care enough to ask, or no one pays attention to the sign.

Whatever the reason, I will still look for the chance to communicate to the public a message from the school, about education, community, life-long learning, and motivation to achieve our potential, even if the message follows dates to remember from last month.

School of Rock

Last night I watched the movie School of Rock when I was in a hotel room in Calgary at the end of my Christmas visit to my girlfriend’s family in the prairies. I admit I love this movie because it brings together a couple of my favorite things, school and rocking out.

However, last night I watched through what felt like different eyes, as I have been on a journey with those I have been following on twitter and the blogs I have been reading…a couple of different parts and themes of the movie became visible to me for the first time….

On Mr Schneebly’s (Jack Black) first day as a temp (TOC) he notices that teacher he is subbing for has system of rewards and punishments for her students (gold stars and demerits.) Mr S is outraged when he sees this, and says to his students “What kind of school are they running here?” then he proceeds to tear down the poster displaying the demerits and rips it into tiny pieces. “From now on, while I’m in charge, there will be no grades, no good stars and no demerits.”

This made me think of what I have been reading in Daniel Pink’s book Drive about motivation. Right on Mr S, those rewards and punishments won’t motivate us to learn! They won’t engage us in the long run!

Next thing that really became obvious to me was the value of the “Rock Band” project. This was something that was authentic to the class because it had something that they could practice and work towards. Along the way, Mr S taught them about what Rock was all about…sticking it to the man (of course)…and also the subtleties that make all rock shows great, the moves, the attitude, the face melting solos…

One especially beautiful thing (tear) was that in the end, it wasn’t about winning the Battle of the Bands, but rather it was only about putting on a great rock show. They didn’t do it for the gold stars, they did it because rocking out was something that they needed to do, it was their gift to the world, their contribution to society.

I find this movie inspiring even though it has mega cheese served with it’s messages about motivating kids to be inspired to take on challenges and to follow their passions even if the man tries to bring them down. Thanks Dewey Finn and the School of Rock.


Side note: the part where the young girl asks to be a singer after she has been cast as a groupie makes me tear up every time. If you are a fan of music and singers this movie is worth a download just for this part.

It started with twitter….

I was at a the BCPVPA conference presentation this past October and saw Cale Birk from South Kamloops High School speak about collaboration inside instructional time. During his presentation Cale said “Twitter is the best Pro D thing I have ever seen.”

Now, I had tried Twitter with a small group of friends and found it to be kinda fun, we could write amusing tweets about what we were up to, thinking about, random info etc, but it only lasted about 6 months. We found that we could text each other and update our facebook and accomplished the same thing.

So, while sitting in the presentation, I pulled out my iPhone, logged onto twitter, found Cale and clicked “follow.”

Ah, now I see…

What I have found since is that there is a pretty big community out there (many in BC) who are principals and vice principals who have the same interests and passions as me. Now I have a group to watch and hopefully interact with as I learn and grow as an educational leader.

I work in a smaller district and we are working on many of the ideas that reoccur in tweets and blogs, personalized learning, relationships, assessment for learning, collaboration (and more…) and it amazes me that there is so much out there for me to read, think about, and learn some more. The information is literally endless.

Now by creating my own blog I also have the chance to create and contribute, which challenges me but it seems I like a challenge…

So thanks to Cale Birk for that simple statement in a presentation this past October, I feel as though opportunity for me to really grow as an administrator has arrived.

Side note, I wonder how many others heard the same at that presentation and are following along the same path as me, it staggers my mind to think of the numbers that will joining along with me over the next six months, never mind what we can do together over the next 2 years, and so on….