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Teachers Shape Students' Motivation. Where Do They Learn How to Do It?

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Study after study finds students' motivation to learn is often driven by their relationships with their teachers, but a new report suggests many new educators enter the classroom with inconsistent training on what helps to spark that drive.

The Mindset Scholars Network, a collaborative of researchers who study issues of student motivation, asked more than 17 leaders of teacher-education programs whether and how they incorporated emerging research on how teachers affect "social psychological factors that support—or undermine—students' motivation to learn." 

In recent years there has been an explosion of research and interest in these motivating factors, such as students' sense of belonging at school; whether they believe academic abilities are innate or can grow through practice; their experiences of bias; and how they calculate the costs and benefits of persisting in challenging work. Last year, a 34-member Council of Distinguished Educators assembled by the Aspen Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development released a report arguing that teachers needed more and better professional development to build healthy class climates and support students' social-emotional learning. 

"You have new teachers who are both learning how to instruct and understand their content areas, but also having to engage in these [motivation] practices," said Lisa Quay, executive director of the Mindset Scholars Network and co-author of its new study. "Being able to see the truth of what your students are saying to you and how they're responding to what you're putting in front of them, and to build a deeper understanding as you correct misconceptions—that actually requires a pretty sophisticated understanding."

And not understanding effective motivation practices can lead teachers to approaches that backfire badly, such as one Idaho teacher who had students draw on the faces of classmates who didn't meet reading benchmarks.

The leaders of 15 teacher-training programs nationwide—including the deans and faculty of teachers' colleges and administrators of teacher residencies and induction programs—universally reported believing new teachers needed to learn how to influence these social factors. Yet they also reported little consistency in what aspects of motivation are taught or even how to define effective teaching to motivate students. By and large, individual faculty in the programs decided how or whether to include even well-known concepts such as growth mindsets.

"It's often done in somewhat of a surface way," Quay said. "With growth mindset ... from what we heard, there's interest in that, but it's not always done at the deepest level and also not done consistently across faculty in focusing on that with their pre-service teachers."

One challenge: Teacher training often separates research on content-specific instructional practices, such as reading or math, from social context that is considered to cross the curriculum—but in the process, those social influences end up left out of the discussion. 

"One thing we heard was that if this [motivation] work were to show up in a journal on math education, people would hear about it, faculty would read about it," Quay said, "but if it's not showing up in those places, then teachers are not going to to find out about it necessarily."

In particular, teacher-educators said their preservice programs didn't do enough to help educators recognize their own beliefs and biases and learn how to make their classes feel inclusive for students who were different from them. 

The report recommends several ways teacher-preparation programs can integrate discussions of motivation and social supports, such as:

  • Giving faculty feedback and data from recent graduates about areas where they felt the program did not prepare them for the classroom;
  • Giving school or district leaders the opportunity to talk about why they need new teachers to understand student motivation; and 
  • Guiding faculty discussions of recent research and analyses of social aspects of learning.

Photo: Getty


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