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What's the Best Way to Motivate Kids?

Soapbox is an occasional Education World feature that gives educators a chance to express their views.

Chris Kline was a classroom teacher from January 1989 to December 2003, with a three-year break from 1997 to 2000. While Kline has taught all grades from first grade to college level, the majority of his career was spent teaching junior high school-level science. Kline now is the education coordinator at the Boyce Thompson Arboretum in Superior, Arizona. These comments were from a posting on the Middle Web listserv on June 12, 2003.

By Chris Kline

I think a part of the [student] motivation problem we face actually stems from a much larger issue -- that being the assembly line mentality we have toward education. We haul 30 sets of raw materials into our classrooms every August and expect (at least politically speaking) 30 finely tuned, well-polished machines to come out in June.

That ain't going to happen, no matter how many accountability tests we throw at them.

I don't think there is a one-size-fits-all motivation/discipline/education plan out there. At my previous school, we used Make Your Day, which in my opinion made no one's day. The kids who are normally "good kids" did all the things they normally would have done anyway. The "bad" kids didn't give a squat whether they a) they got to participate in the reward day activity or b) they took home enough discipline referrals to paper their bedroom walls.

I once had a group to whom I offered an entire class period to play outside. All the group had to do was go ten days (not in a row) without anyone getting a discipline referral. It took us four months to accomplish this. I had a couple of kids who I think intentionally got discipline referrals just to spite the whole group. It used to be that the other kids would have taken care of someone like that -- but we don't let them do that anymore either.

I think reward days work for "good" and "fence rider" kids. Once a month, you take them somewhere really cool to "play." I liked to take mine to a rock climbing gym in Flagstaff, Arizona. Although it is a funny thing; when I wanted to take them into the forests once a month for environmental hands-on science education, I was told they were missing too much class time. Hmmm!

Problem is, if the kid doesn't get to go on Reward Day, he or she doesn't sit back and reflect on the behavior that limited the participation. Instead, the kid and the parent are ticked at the teacher because the teacher enforced the rule that knocked the kid off the Reward Day fence.

I agree that more meaningful/interesting lessons will naturally bring about motivation. I also know that teachers are a) human and b) on limited time schedules. If you can throw a super-creative, hands-on, interesting lesson in twice a week, you're doing well. Every lesson is not going to "wow" every student, every time.