The interviewer looked at me and said, “What are you going to do to make sure your kids practice?” I’m not sure of my exact response but I’m sure I uttered the words, “practice chart,” “raise the bar,” and “play tests.”
At the beginning of our careers as teachers, I think many of us teach the way we were taught. During my first years of teaching, I struggled with motivating and engaging my students. I used the strategies and techniques I experienced as a student—mostly fear and intimidation—with little success. I turned to rewards and bribes, basically manipulating students into compliance. This just resulted in students who focused on the reward but didn’t make connections and thought only superficially about the topics and eventually losing interest. All of these strategies left me concerned about how students find their passion, cultivate their curiosity, and engage in learning.
Student motivation and engagement is a rising crisis in our schools today. There is a lot of evidence showing that students begin their school career curious and excited about learning but after a few years begin to lose interest and disengage from learning. Most concerning are students who are disengaged but still go through the motions, performing far below their potential. Too often there is a disconnect in classrooms between classwork and meaningful work, and that lack of connection has far-reaching implications. How are we best serving our students to become independent, self-reliant, and engaged citizens, now and into the future?
I believe that to solve this crisis we need to personalize education and focus on intrinsic motivation while de-emphasizing extrinsic motivation. It is our obligation as teachers to reflect on our curriculum, assignments, and assessments and ask if the enterprise the students are engaged in will lead to an increased love of learning, just as it is our calling to make learning purposeful, inspiring, and relevant for every learner.
I embrace the belief that teachers can build intrinsic motivation when we promote autonomy, mastery, and purpose. For example, rather than emphasizing grades I have my students take ownership of quarterly reflections and individualized self-assessments that are based on rubrics created by the student and teacher. Parents rave over the quality and depth of the multifaceted report that includes both student and teacher comments. I engage students’ distinct and diverse interests and intelligence by using authentic summative projects that are presented in a video prior to performances, or as we call them, “informances”. I educate students about their brains and myelin. Instead of demanding practice charts, I teach the value and characteristics of deep practice. I also teach the value and necessity of mistakes, something too often stigmatized in our product-focused education system. I cultivate an environment where students feel safe and connected to others and that fosters a growth mindset.
As Ken Robinson stated in his 2013 Ted Talk about the growth of the human mind, “Curiosity is the engine of achievement.” We need to harness the research and strategies to create schools that spark children’s imaginations. A student’s educational journey to graduation should really resemble a crescendo building toward a celebratory ending, full of hope and promise for the future, rather than fading out through a gradual diminuendo and nearly silent final note.
As educators, I believe that we can “Light a Fire in Kids” by focusing on three “truths” about teaching and learning: intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and connections. We can’t force our students to learn. As educators, it is our job to create the conditions for growth. The seeds of potential lie within each person. Cultivating an environment of possibility will ensure that students and teachers not only succeed but also find their passion.
Chris Gleason is an instrumental music educator at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. He is the 2017 Wisconsin Middle School Teacher of the Year and the first Wisconsin teacher to be named a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 50 years. Chris was also a semifinalist for the 2017 GRAMMY Music Educator Award and the recipient of the 2016 Michael G. George Distinguished Service Award. He is the past chair of the Wisconsin Comprehensive Musicianship through Performance (CMP) Committee and the Wisconsin State Middle Level Honors Project. He is active as a clinician and speaker in Wisconsin and across the Midwest.
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