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The Debrief

What is this worth to me? Valuing each lesson from a student’s perspective

Dan Cogan-Drew
Nov 11, 2020

“An estimated 1.3 million students stopped engaging with their schools at the end of last academic year” - EdWeek, October 13

“More than 5,000 students across Connecticut who opted for online-only schooling have not logged on to a single day of class” - Hartford Courant, October 19

“People learn best when they find the content, outcomes, processes, and relationships associated with learning important and relevant.” - Transcend Education

When school was face to face, much of our approach to teaching and learning could afford to rely on the physical proximity of students to teachers to students to enforce at least superficial engagement via compliance. Now that students are physically removed from their teachers and the locus of decision-making rests with them on a daily basis — do I show up for class? Do I turn off my camera and check out of the lesson? Do I show up but only “dial it in,” so to speak? The substance of their motivation rests on their perception that the value of the time and effort is equal to or greater than the cost. That value can be expressed in many ways, but if it is not made explicit and there is a near-term competitor for their attention (virtually anything else on their screen, household obligations, or other), they may opt out of learning.

Back in March, when schools first started going fully online at the start of the pandemic, school leader Chris Lehmann asked some important questions about how to preserve engagement at a time when the habits of compulsory schooling were in a state of suspended animation. I want to raise those here as they remain central to the challenge facing many educators, most especially those who have grown accustomed over their careers, to doing most of the work in the classroom. As a superintendent commented to me on a webinar back in August: “When I walk into a classroom and I see the teacher doing all of the work, I remind them later when I see them — the one learning the most is the one doing the most work.” 

Here’s what Chris shared back in March:

He then summed up these tweets by asking: “Why would a student want to learn this? Do this? Create this?” If we have difficulty answering this question for ourselves, we’re going to have a hard time presenting a strong argument to our students as to why this matters. 

For students to feel motivated to engage in learning — especially now — the learning has to have value. It has to have value to the student that is greater than the cost of engaging. Relevance and relatedness of the task to the student’s own identified sources of value are paramount here. The closer the task is related to these sources, the more likely they are to find value that sustains their motivation and engagement with the task. The more remote the task from their own self-concept, from their current and future goals, and the less it taps into their inherent interests, the greater the likelihood that they will find that the cost is greater than the value. 

If you’re finding that your students’ motivation is lagging, here are three questions to ask about the learning experiences that you’re designing for them: 

1. Do students find inherent enjoyment in the task? Are they intrinsically motivated by the goals of the task — like reading an article that wonders if great white sharks are endangered — without need of any additional incentives like points or gold stars?

One way to find out: Ask them to reflect in writing on what they enjoy doing in their free time. Or give them free reign to choose any article they like, that they actually read from start to finish, and share in 3-5 sentences why they chose — and completed — this article. What was it about the topic that held their attention?

2. Are students mindful of the usefulness of the task to their future goals? For example, if they want to be a civil rights attorney, can they see that spending time reading an article on voting rights is taking them a step closer to their goal?

One way to find out: Ask students about their goals. Fast forward 20 years when they are being honored at an awards ceremony. What award are they receiving? What did they do to earn it?

3. Is there value to them in the attainment of the task as it relates to their self-concept? For example, “I’m a space nerd and this article on space-grown lettuce is just the kind of thing that space nerds read”.

One way to find out: Ask them to imagine that someone is writing a book about them, or filming a biography. What are two or three titles for the book or film? What would a tweet say that was promoting the film?

Let’s be real. Levels of motivation can easily ebb and flow over the course of the day and activity to activity within the same subject. Nothing will ever be consistently highly motivating; everything can be a drudge at some point, so this isn’t about reaching an idealized hyper-engaged state. It’s about keeping students with us, all year long. If we can keep in mind Chris’s questions about the role of the educator and the need to think in a student-centered way about their experience of the lesson or the unit, that perspective taking can help shift the work — and the learning — to them. And we can make it through this together.

Up next: why the learning science of autonomy and student agency may be the answer to surviving a year of teaching in a pandemic.

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