One of the greatest challenges secondary teachers face is how to motivate their students. By middle school, students have a good idea of where they fall in the academic hierarchy and based on past experience can reliably predict how the school year is going to go.
For struggling students, the years of repeated failures may cause them to develop a sense of helplessness. In psychology, this experience is called learned helplessness—a sense of powerlessness due to repeated failure. Signs of learned helplessness may sound familiar to most middle and high school teachers: passivity, giving up, procrastination, decreased problem-solving ability, frustration, and low self-esteem. Some researchers believe this sense of helplessness contributes to depression and many other forms of mental illness.
Quite simply, if a student is four grade levels behind, she may wonder, what’s the point in trying? When students reach this conclusion and the sense of helplessness sets in, they will likely shift their focus from how to improve to how to cope and make the most of the hopeless situation. This becomes one of the most challenging and frustrating problems teachers face: How do we convince struggling students with a history of failure to persist?
Building from my previous post, this post continues to summarize the wealth of psychological research around student mindset and motivation by focusing on the second question we must help students answer if we want them to do hard things, take chances, ask questions, and make mistakes: “Does this matter to me?” In spite of our best efforts as teachers, learning to cross-multiply fractions, memorizing the periodic table of elements, or practicing the intricacies of comma placement are not fun. Students, like all people, will not put forth the effort, time, and struggle necessary to master these skills unless they feel it has a relevance to their life. According to the mindset research, there are two possible pathways to shifting how students answer this question: communicating high expectations and helping students see how school connects to their future and values.
“Why Am I Here?”
When a student has failed virtually every math test for six years, it is reasonable for him to expect that the next math test is not going to go so well. The brain is a sorting tool; once it has sorted that math, science, or reading is “not for me,” the brain shifts its focus to what is relevant and to making the most of the situation. This often translates to acting out to get out, being the class clown, or other more dangerous behaviors.
What can we do as teachers to prevent this student from believing further effort is useless? One of the most common findings inabout youth who defy their negative life circumstances is the presence of a consistent caring adult outside of the home. When we send positive messages, such as telling a frustrated young girl that it’s important she learn the scientific method so she can cure cancer, we are working to change that child’s narrative in order to shift the results.
The power of teacher expectations was first documented by Robert Rosenthal and others and came to be known as the Pygmalion or. As the image (below) shows, the beliefs teachers hold about their students can create a virtuous cycle that feeds student achievement and reinforces itself. Researchers at the Mindset Scholars Network have extended this line of research by documenting the power of communicating high expectations to at-risk students. For example, the research of offers educators some important guidance when working hard to reach youth. As the authors explain, "The guiding philosophy of many of the most successful programs aimed at minority youth is an emphasis on the malleable nature of academic ability—the message that 'intelligence can be taught.'"