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manos-union-color2-1113fg-v-554I began my teaching career about twenty years ago, and in that time I have seen a great deal of change around the concept of differentiation. It began, for me, as simply modifying assessments for students in special education . . . lowering the bar so that they may experience a taste of success. It evolved into ‘differentiation’, which really was little more than a name change and continued impact really only the way assessments were given and graded. The next step was differentiating instruction and assignments for students in special education.

Then, the great reformation . . . differentiation applied to every student. For the first time in American history, public education took on the task of educating everyone, instead of simply offering seats in a class. Gone are were the days of ‘teaching to the middle’ . . . spray and pray – stand up there, lecture your little heart out, and let the chips fall where they may, the common mantra: “Well, I taught it. It’s not my fault if they didn’t learn it.”

Now that teachers are expected to address the learning styles and needs of all students, have we reached the full definition of differentiation? In my view, there are two more branches of differentiation that need to be fleshed out and practiced. One is in dealing with student behaviors, but that is a topic for a future article. Today, I am addressing the concept of differentiating motivation.

Not all humans are motivated by the same thing, however all human behavior is motivated. It’s not that students who refuse to do our bidding are not motivated, it’s simply that they are not motivated to do what we want them to do. It is up to us as teachers to figure out what how to channel their energy toward their education.

In the course of my study of motivation, I have learned something important about myself . . . I am as malleable as Play-Doh. Dangle a carrot in front of me, and I’ll follow you into battle. I love affirmation, tangible (preferably edible) or intangible prizes and status symbols. A quick example: As soon as I was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Connecticut I went to the book store and bought hundreds of dollars of UCONN logo merchandise and made people start calling me ‘Doctor Darcy.’  I am very motivated by ‘belonging’ and affiliation with a group as well as by the status of the title of ‘Doctor.’

As teachers, a very common misstep is the attempt to motivate our students the same way in which we are motivated. If a teacher is competitive, they use competition in the classroom as a motivator. Do you recognize yourself in one of the categories of motivation below? Of course, this is a small selection of both motivators and strategies to employ those motivators.

Teacher’s Motivators Classroom Motivation Strategies Used:

– Competitive games
– Leader boards
– Any time there are a limited number of students recognized

– Using quiet reading time as a reward
– Allowing students to work on projects alone

– Honor Role
– Hanging up exemplary student work
– Student of the Day/Month

– Any tangible reward for an expected behavior.

– Class t-shirts
– Class team names

One last personal anecdote to show just how ineffective using one’s own motivators in class can be: As a Spanish teacher, there are certain concepts that require rote learning and practice. In an attempt to making the dreaded ‘verb worksheet’ more palatable, I turned it into a competition activity. Students were allowed to work with a partner on the worksheet. When they were finished, and believed they had the correct answers, they brought it to me and I identified which ones were incorrect. They went back to their desks to fix them and then brought the new answers to me for checking. The team that finished first (all verbs complete and correct) was given allowed the lead the class in an activity the following day.

How did I err? Let me count the ways:  1) Competition is only motivating to people who have a chance at winning. I remember with great detail looking at the disengaged students and thinking, “Geez, I can’t do anything to get them going. I try to make something fun, and they just sit there.” Of course they did . . . they knew quite well the handful of students who had a shot at winning and they weren’t one of them, so why play? 2) As much as I love being in front of a room and performing, not all people feel that way. Some students were perfectly capable of winning, but under no circumstances wanted to be required to speak in front of the class. 3) After I had a winner, there was no reason for the other students to finish the work. The only motivation I had given them was to win, not to learn.

What’s the bottom line? Just as we spend the time to get to know our students personally and academically, we need to explore what motivates them. There are many motivation surveys available on-line (Rick Lavoie has a great questionnaire included in his book on motivation) that a teacher can use to gauge student motivators. Teachers can have a ‘menu’ of acknowledgements from which their students choose after success. Most importantly, the same motivator does not need to be offered to all students. Fair is not teaching everyone the same; rather it is treating everyone the way they need to be treated. This holds true for academics, discipline and motivation.

Linda left the classroom after 16 years as a secondary World Language Teacher in the Hartford region....

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