Q: Which is worse...
   Ignorance or apathy?

A:   I don't know and I don't care.

"I'm  a  teacher.  Be  nice  to  me  or  I'll  mess  with  your head!"
(An imposing threat, but let's try some other things first.  Take a look below for explanations and strategies.)

I don't give a sh----!
    That comment (or an equivalent one) is difficult for a teacher to hear.  How could youngsters who started out out in kindergarten with such enthusiasm for learning have fallen so far from the learning tree?  On the www.BehaviorAdvisor.com bulletin board, in my classes, and at my workshops I've heard comments like this one:  "I've tried everything.  This kid just doesn't care about anything - - - grades, success, penalties, NOTHING!"  These kids can be among the most frustrating for us serve.  We, as lifelong lovers of learning and sharers of society's archived information find it difficult to comprehend why someone wouldn't want to drink deeply from the fountain of knowledge.

  There are a number of reasons why kids give up in school.  Many of them are listed below.  Essentially though, here are the major reasons for why students lack motivation:
1. Fear of failure
2. Feelings of inadequacy; that one is incapable of doing well, so therefore why should one even make the attempt (Perhaps due to past failures in which others ridiculed them instead of promoting the failure as a chance to learn)                 3. Believing that schooling is unrelated to their lives and therefore has nothing to offer them.                                                                                         4. Dislike of the school due to the interpersonal experiences they have encountered therein (mean natured teachers, bullying, ridicule from others when attempts were made to learn) 

    To determine the particular reason for a student's lack of enthusiasm, look at the links on the home page titled "Figuring out why kids misbehave" and "Functional Behavior Assessment".  Once you know the reason, then you can devise a solution.  You'll also want to check out "The Circle of Courage" (click here) model that helps to assess why a youngster might not be motivated, and how to intervene.

They Fear Failure

    No one wants to appear inadequate around others...especially when those others might judge us or ridicule our less-than-stellar performance.  Kids who experience difficulties in learning or do not have the background knowledge to do well in your class may engage in "defensive behaviors" in order to avoid submitting work or offering commentary that might reflect poorly upon them.  In their minds "I'd rather appear to be bad than dumb."  For pre-adolescents and teenagers, being "bad" might even bring them admiration from peers!  There are a number of ways in which we can encourage involvement on the part of "unmotivated" students who fear failure:

Decrease the focus on individual grades
    Fearing a poor grade and possible ridicule by others, students may refuse to work in order to protect their frail self concept (with regard to academics).  If we place the focus on effort, not grades, any youngster can be a success.  The fear of failing evaporates (although it may take a week or two to convince the youngster that academic judgment is no longer an issue), and participation increases.   You may still have to submit a grade at the end of the academic term, but in your classroom you focus on effort and progress, not grades.

Create an accepting and supportive atmosphere

    Create a classroom environment in which it is OK to make mistakes, and where other students are encouraged to support their classmates, not belittle them.  Teachers don't just say "No, wrong answer" or correct student contributions that are incorrect.  Errors are used to teach, not just evaluate.  In the words of Bernard M. Baruch: "I have found that failure is a far better teacher than success."  I'm sure that he meant "learning from failure".

Self evaluation of effort

    When the youngster submits a product/paper/assignment to you, ask: "Did you give it your best effort?"  If the youngster says "Yes", then we say "Thanks for trying so hard. You should be very proud of yourself"  If youngsters are trying as hard as they are able, then we should be jumping for joy and doing back flips...happy teachers!  Kids who put forth strong effort naturally learn and do better.  Effort will result in the attainment of more facts, knowledge, and abilities...our goal as educators.   Follow up on your recognition of effort by asking the youngster what s/he did well (or better than before) and what s/he needs to do in order to make the product even better.  Then have the student revise the paper.

But what about grades???!!!!     Why bother worrying about them?  Your unmotivated student was probably receiving failing grades anyway.  And isn't it our job as teachers to get information inside of kids' noggins, not just to evaluate performance?

    We continue to encourage the youngsters and catch them being good (be sure to read the links on the home page about "Problems with catching kids being good...and how to do it right" so that we don't destroy motivation while attempting to build it).

    If a youngster reports that s/he did not give his/her best effort, ask "What prevented you from putting forth your best effort?" and provide assistance/support.

Use cooperative learning groups

    When we structure assignments and activities so that kids can make at least minimal contributions to a project and share whatever knowledge and abilities they possess, we become mentors and facilitators of learning, not just lecturers.  The pressure on students to perform perfectly, and fear of individual judgment are both lessened when kids cooperate to produce a product.  To be sure that every student in the group participates actively, assign each one a role or duty.  You can find out more about implementing cooperative learning practices by clicking on the link on the home page titled "Cooperative learning".

Offer Help

    In private time with the youngster, say: "I know that no one wants to fail.  You are.  You shouldn't be.  What would you need to be motivated to try?  What can we do to get you excited about trying again.

They Don't View School As Being Pertinent to Their Present or Future Lives

    I personally don't study the digestive systems of ants because I don't see it's relevence in living my life.  Kids too can "shut down" on learning about subject matter when they don't see the relevance of the information being presented.  When kids say "Why do we have to know this stuff?"  we ought to be able to point out how it will help them in their lives (present or future).  We should have a better answer than "You gotta learn this material so that you can learn the material I'm going to teach you next week."  To this day, I cannot figure out how being able to divide fractions is useful to me (when you cut a recipe, you are really multiplying fractions, not dividing them...so that example isn't valid).

Educate them

Tell the students why the material is important

    ...and not just "Because it's on the test."  At the beginning of the lesson, before you teach even a smidgen of information, tell them what they are going to learn and why it is so important for them to know it.  Whenever possible, use examples that are present in their daily lives.  Forget the example in the math book about Jennifer and Todd going to the supermarket to buy bananas and apples.  Place the same functions in an example in which Wei Chu and Kong Ting go to the market place to buy eel, bok choi, and ginger root.  Or use the example of Juanita and Julio going to the bodega (corner store) to purchase red beans, rice, and plantains.  Whatever the background and experiences of your kids, use it when first teaching new material (Have you walked around their neighborhood to see what their daily lives encompass?).  Once they gain an understanding of the material, then we can move to more abstract examples.

Have them determine why schooling is important

    Find some private time to meet with the youngster.  In a respectful, concerned manner (talking TO, not AT him/her) ask:  "What job/career can you envision yourself doing when you're older?" (If the youngster doesn't know, make an appointment for him/her to see the guidance counselor to take a vocational skills and interests survey in order to identify possible occupations for which the youngster might be qualified or might enjoy.)   Then ask "What do you think you need to know to be successful at that career?" (You're thinking about how your subject matter might be important here).  In fact, ask: "Can you think of any career in this world where it is better to be uneducated than educated?" (I can't think of one.)   They may mention professions that require a great voice, a strong body, quick reflexes, bravery, etc., but then say "Yes, but is that person better off being dumb or smart?".  Even if they do come up with something, you can ask "Do you want the job?" (probably not)   The next step in the conversation would be to ask why teachers like to have an orderly and civilized classroom (It's not just for us, but also for the benefit of THEM and society).

    You also might ask if the behavior that was displayed will help him/her to be successful in life.  If s/he says "Yes", ask how so.  If the youngster plans on living the life of a criminal or street thug, discuss how s/he will be better at that undesirable life style with knowledge and information to triumph over others in arguments, obtain the affections of another, etc. (Don't worry about creating a better criminal.  We obviously don't want kids to enter or remain in this life style, but if we can convince them to learn, they are more likely to avoid/escape it.)

    Another approach is to say: "What will you do when you're older?"  Obtain an answer about the chosen profession/job.  Then have the student investigate that position (e.g., surfing the internet, reading professional books and job announcements for that profession, interviewing those who are employed in that profession) to determine what must be learned in school to be successful at the chosen career.

    Other approaches are also possible, depending on the age and interests of the student.  We might talk about how humor becomes funnier and wittier when more advanced wording is used, how being knowledgeable impresses those to whom s/he is attracted, how someday his/her children will think their daddy/mommy is so smart and thus be very proud of them, etc.  In fact, ask if s/he can think of any plausible situation in this world in which it is better to be under-informed and mal-educated.

Help students connect with the school

    Our greatest psychological need in life is to "belong"...to be accepted and valued by others, and to be given increasing responsibility within our "tribe".  Pre-adolescents and adolescents will do just about anything to gain and/or maintain the acceptance of the peer group.  Those who are at-risk for embarrassment in front of the group, or damage to their self concept will do what is necessary to protect that social or personal image.  If the youngster feels separated from peers or the school, resentment, retreat, rebellion, or retaliation can be expected.  Students will not put forth their best effort for teachers who point out their shortcomings (Do you put out your best efforts for those who berate your performance or treat you poorly?).

    Bring the "Golden Rule" to class (Paraphrased: Treat others as you would like to be treated).  Treat all youngsters with respect at all times.  As Mark Twain said: "I am a fool, but I am God's fool, and all God's work must be contemplated with respect."  In the words of some of my former students: "God don't make trash." (Although if s/he doesn't make mistakes, I sometimes wonder if s/he has some bad days or was working working with a hangover.  I would sometimes think of Nathan Hale, an American Revolutionary War hero, and modify his words somewhat: "If I have but one life to give for my country...let it be James in the second row."Take the time to form a relationship with the youngster.  Kids who like and respect their teachers are more likely to work for them (Some fella named McIntyre did research on this subject).  Give youngsters "the time of day" (congenial interaction).  Find out about their lives and interests.  Develop a sense of community in your classroom.  Promote teamwork and esprit de corp.  Arrange for special efforts to be made to include alienated and unpopular kids in the activities and governance of the school (e.g., clubs, conflict resolution mediators, student council representatives, peer tutors, helper to younger kids, etc.).

Defend our schools

Tell the youngster (respectfully) that "For centuries and all over the world, societies have set up schools.  They realized the importance of educating their young so that when the kids grew up, they would know how to be successful.  In our country, experts have gotten together to decide what's really important for our citizens to know.  That's what we teachers teach.  Kids all over the nation who are your age are learning the same thing.  Now here's my concern: Wise people for a thousand years have seen the need for education...and those people were kids who grew up and said 'Yep, our parents and teachers were right...we need to educate our children.'.  Then their kids grew up and said the same thing.  Then their kids!  Now you, at age __, have decided that school isn't valuable.  Do you think you're really in a position in life right now to know that?  Think about those millions of people who for thousands of years have said: 'We care about our kids so much that we want to be sure they are ready to become intelligent citizens who can get a good job and raise good kids.'  I really want you to question your decision to be a failure in life.  Our world needs you too much to lose you.  What do you think about your view versus the views of the millions who have come before you?"

Talk about their future

        State/Ask the following: "Your grades and what you know will determine what you will do for a living.  It will determine how much money you make, the nice things you can buy, and where you will live.  It will determine who you work with on your job.  Do you want to work with the best and brightest, or do you want to serve them?...Do you want to be their peer or their gopher?  Right now, you're going to live in a shabby house, drive a banged up old car, and hang out with others who are underemployed...all because they didn't think ahead.  You've still got a chance to make your future better.  I hope you'll take this chance to be able to do nice things for your grandchildren who will be able to be proud of their granddad/mom has accomplished in his/her life."

Bond with them

    State the following: "I wanted to speak with you today because I'd like to see you become a success in life.  Right now you're making a decision to have a lousy adult life.  So I just want to be sure that when you have no money, an old beat up car spewing out oil and smoke, and a run down apartment in a bad area of town, you'll think back to this day and say that it was your fault, not mine.  However, if you ever do decide to have a good life, I'm here to help you."

Use surprise to get their attention (but then become supportive quickly)

(In a loud voice, say:) "SLAM!" (Then in an excited, but lower volume voice, say:) "Did you hear that?  You know what that was? (Now in your usual voice, say:)  Another career door just closed on you, because you didn't try to learn something that is necessary for certain jobs.  Each and every time you're not doing your very best, job opportunities close on you.  The only way to keep the remaining doors open is to start applying yourself to your academics, and improving your ability to get along with your supervisiors...like me.   The more doors that close on you, the less happy and wealthy you'll be, the less desireable you'll be to ladies/guys, and the lousier your life in general will be.  I'd like to help you keep those remaining doors open...and maybe even kick down a few of those ones that closed on you.  I'm always here whenever you decide to turn things around.
(Use this approach as a way to convince the student to re-engage.  Don't use it as a condescending put-down.)

Appeal to their patriotism

State the following (If you're in the U.S.  If from another country, I'm sure that you can devise something of a similar nature):  "You saw what those terrorists did to our country.  If our country is going to survive, we need well educated citizens who can make us strong.  We need you to apply yourself so that someday you've got the brains to become part of a group that tracks down these nutzoids, or just contributes to our government or economy so that we can continue to have a place that values freedom.  We need you."  (I can guess that some folks won't like this one.  I happen to feel that it is honest and correct.)

Important Questions to Consider
Do you know your student's instructional level? (If s/he were motivated to show it)  Are you able to identify this student's learning preferences (hands-on, video, etc.) and learning style (auditory, visual, global, inductive, etc) so that you can teach to his/her strengths?  If not, what will you do to seek out this information?

Individualizing materials for different levels of ability?

Artwork by Mark Parish

Click here for a listing of suggestions for motivating unmotivated students

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Author: Tom McIntyre at www.BehaviorAdvisor.com

Dr. Mac conducts workshops on motivating unmotivated learners. Contact him for more information.