What Motivates Learners? Freedom.

6660118393_4ea4496f6a_bThe best part of my day is always second period, which is called “Spartan Time” in my school.  That’s the thirty minutes set aside in our school’s schedule for students to participate in remediation or enrichment experiences offered by their teachers.  While many of my peers use that time to get students who were absent caught up on missing assignments or reteaching students who are struggling to master core concepts, my room is almost always full of sixth, seventh and eighth graders who are working on passion-driven projects, who are spending time studying with their friends, or who just want to reconnect with me.  Every student is productive – that’s the only rule for being allowed to stay in my room – but there is little formal structure governing their work.

Stop by and you will see small groups tackling simple tasks like preparing for upcoming tests in study circles or more complex tasks like raising awareness about the impact that sugar has on the human body or addressing global poverty.  I will be checking in with everyone, wrapped in a flurry of activity that doesn’t stop until Spartan Time ends.  Sometimes, you’ll catch me lending a tangible hand – proofreading content that kids have created, providing suggestions for upcoming projects that need to be completed, or troubleshooting the small handful of internet connected devices that we have access to.  Other times, you’ll catch me doing nothing more than offering encouragement and kind words – letting students know that I am happy to see them, proud of what they are working to accomplish, and ready to help whenever they need me.

Learning during Spartan Time in my classroom is active and student-centered and flexible.  It’s free-flowing and collaborative.  It’s loud and sometimes full of laughter and always full of smiles.  It’s literally the one time of day where you can literally feel the energy my room.  The kids who spend their time with me know that I believe in them.  They also know that I trust them to use their time wisely and that I can’t wait to see them again tomorrow.


What I love the best about Spartan Time is that the students in my room are always motivated and almost always on task.  Classroom management requires nothing more than creating a safe and open space where my kids know that they can explore and study and try together for a few minutes every day.  Most of the kids who come to my room have a deep sense of appreciation for what I am trying to create.  They know that the freedom to come and to be and to choose is the exception to the rule during a typical school day.

But make no mistake:  I’ve definitely had to answer some uncomfortable questions about the way that I’ve chosen to structure my Spartan Time classes.  “Couldn’t you be more productive,” interested outsiders ask, “if you spent those thirty minutes providing intensive support to the kids who failed your most recent test?  Aren’t you just throwing time away by letting kids decide what they need in order to be successful?  And if you throw that time away, how are you going to make sure that your students master the core content in your classroom?”

Those are legitimate questions, right?  After all, we DO live in a high-stakes world where “being productive” means “producing results on end-of-grade exams.”  The chances are that structuring every minute of every Spartan Time period to pretest or retest or preteach or reteach or react to benchmarks or differentiate or intervene WOULD result in higher test scores – and higher test scores WOULD probably result in a better reputation in our community.

But if we believe that student motivation has a direct impact on academic achievement, then our students actually need MORE experiences like the one that I’m trying to create during Spartan Time.

Students who are engaged in school are given ample opportunities to be creative and to tap into their own curiosities.

Need proof?  Then spend some time poking through the research results of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA) – a nonprofit group “dedicated to studying, promoting, and putting into practice the conditions that foster student aspirations in schools and learning communities around the world.”  What QISA has demonstrated in study after study is that three key factors define the most motivated students in our schools:  a strong sense of self-worth, a strong sense of engagement, and a strong sense of purpose.

According to QISA, students with a high sense of self-worth know that they are valued and appreciated.  They feel recognized by – and important to – both their peers and teachers.  They feel like they have a place to belong; they are surrounded by people that they look up to; and they know that personal effort and achievement matter just as much as mastering core academic outcomes.  Students who report feeling high levels of self-worth in school are five times more motivated than students who report feeling low levels of self-worth in school.

Students who are engaged in school are given ample opportunities to be creative and to tap into their own curiosities.  They are emotionally invested in their learning spaces and they see learning as adventurous and risky and exciting.  Schools that foster engagement provide students with meaningful challenges connected to individual interests; encourage questioning in all circumstances; and leave students inspired to explore the world around them.  Students who report high levels of engagement in school are sixteen times more motivated than students who report low levels of engagement in school.

Finally, students with a strong sense of purpose know that they matter.  Schools that develop a strong sense of purpose in students expect every child to make careful choices and to accept responsibility for their actions.  Students are trusted and celebrated often.  More importantly, students recognize that they can make a difference and know without a doubt that their teachers believe in their abilities.  Students who report feeling a strong sense of purpose in school are eighteen times more motivated than students who see school as pointless.

This resonates, doesn’t it?  At our core, we KNOW that student self-worth, engagement and purpose matters.  Sadly, schools haven’t don’t a whole heck of a lot to prioritize those behaviors.  As the Quaglia Institute explains in their most recent survey of student aspirations:

“Unfortunately, these results suggest that not enough has been done by schools to focus as much attention on fostering a positive learning environment as a way of improving academic outcomes, as it has on assessing those outcomes. Those working in schools know well that there are non-academic means to academic ends. Yet, as a nation, we have focused our attention only on academic results and have paid far too little attention to the personal, social, and environmental factors that our students tell us make a significant contribution to their academic motivation (QISA, 2014, p.15).

So what kind of learning spaces are you working to create?  Would visitors to your school walk away convinced that learning is a joyful act worthy of celebration?  Would they see students who know that they are trusted and powerful?  Would they see teachers who have found ways to create space for kids to take risks and to make choices and to have fun at school?  Could they find evidence that you are committed to something more than just test scores?

Or would they leave knowing that you are doing little more than chasing the academic dream – marching students through lessons and learning experiences regardless of the costs to student motivation and inspiration?


Image credit: Brad Flickinger

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