Curiosity: A strategy for encouraging students to attend

When I was in high school I had an English teacher who used a very simple strategy to interest and motivate students.  It didn’t take much time or effort on his part and was just a simple thing, but it was enough to get me to want to attend his class every single day.  What did he do?  He simply put up a new thought-provoking quote, in large letters, in the same place, on the same side chalkboard every day.

He never referred to the quote. (I suspect that intuitively he knew that doing so might produce counterwill.) He never asked our opinions or started a discussion and most often the quote was not related in the least to the lessons of English Literature that he was teaching.  Sometimes it was a lyric from a song of the day, sometimes it was the words of a famous person from history and sometimes it was simply a line or two taken from the newspaper or TV news broadcast of the previous day.  He always noted the source beneath the quote.  That was 40 years ago and I still remember his effectiveness at “inviting” us to, not only think for ourselves, but also simply show up for his classes and therefore learn the required material he was teaching.

When I became a teacher myself several years later, I began to use his idea and continued to do so throughout my entire teaching career.  I developed the habit to always put something on the board each morning.  Although when I was teaching intermediate grades, I often used quotes as Mr. Hlady had done, I also posted riddles or cartoons (made large on a xerox machine), pieces of art work, lightweight 3-D objects (like a small bird nest, some fall leaves or several interesting flags) that could be successfully taped down, and also simple messages related to the events of the day or season.  Sometimes we would discuss what I had put there and other times, just like Mr. Hlady, I would allow the students to simply absorb whatever they chose from what I provided.

As I moved to lower and lower grades, I had to be more creative in my approach as Kindergarten and Grade One students naturally have limited or no reading skills.  Just as I suspect Mr. Hlady found, I discovered that my students were interested to get to their desks or the carpet gathering area each morning so as to find out what was on the board.  This naturally meant that many discipline problems were avoided altogether as students became internally motivated to get to their seats.  With grade one, when getting down to the real business of learning to read well was essentially the main teaching focus for the entire year, I found that I could extend my students reading ability enormously through this pleasant activity.  I taught the procedure of looking to the front board after first being seated each morning.  After the first week, children were motivated to independently read whatever was on the board and so it was easy to give (review/introduce) a phonics lesson in a real life situation, whenever an individual child might ask me for some reading help.  Students became invested in listening to the quick lesson I was offering because they were genuinely motivated to read whatever was on the board.  They all wanted to be in on the fun!

These days, with SMART Boards, youtube and the Internet, it is even easier for teachers to find bits and pieces to spark the interest of their students in the same way that Mr. Hlady did all those years ago.  In fact, what prompted me to reflect on Mr. Hlady and write this post today was a desire to share with you an example of just one youtube video that might be offered in a high school math class or art class—either as something connected directly to a lesson, or not. As is so often the way,  I stumbled upon this little gem quite by accident when looking for something entirely different.

I hope, as a Discipline without Stress teacher, you might be motivated yourself to start a new teaching habit of promoting student curiosity, thus lessening the likelihood of classroom discipline problems first thing in the morning.  (Apparently that’s the typical Japanese model of teaching, as explained here by Dr. Marshall in one of his e-zine articles (Look down for Section #3.)

I think this might grab the attention of most students and make a great start to a class!

Doodling in Math Class: Infinity Elephants

  1. I have implemented your philosophy for years in my first grade classroom with phenomenal results. My question is what can I do when PBIS is implemented in my school and now the children’s motivation is beginning to shift from doing something because it’s the right thing to do vs. achieving an external reward. This goes against everything that I believe in and try to instill in my students; however, the aide in my room has now started to give out these “external rewards” during class time. I am just sick inside knowing that all of the work that I do with the children can be undone by these acts. Please help!

  2. I periodically receive emails from teachers informing me that their school is implementing PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports). This program gives rewards for expected behaviors—which the teachers do not believe is a good practice. Teacher have been using Discipline Without Stress and are wary of PBIS that focuses on external motivation—especially since the teachers have been so successful with their current system that uses internal motivation to have students want to behave responsibly and put forth effort in their learning. Sophisticated teachers understand that external maniulators change motivation. Once a reward is given to do what is expected, one never knows if the motivation for a future action will be to do the right thing or to get the reward.

    PBIS was established by the Office of Special Education Programs in the U.S. Department of Education. It was developed as an alternative to aversive interventions that were used with students with severe disabilities who engaged in extreme forms of self-injury and aggression. Educational “leaders” projected that if this external approach works on students with special needs that it should also work with all students. Than, as is so often the case in top-down educational practices, the approach was mandated in many communities and states.

    PBIS is based in B.F. Skinner’s positive reinforcement approach, commonly referred to as “behaviorism.” (Skinner worked on rodents and other species and projected that the same “reinforcement” approach would work on humans. Neuroscientists never use his approach because it completely rejects any kind of internal motivation.)

    An integral part of PBIS is based on using rules. But rules are meant to control, not inspire. If a rule is broken, the natural tendency is to enforce it. Without even realizing it, teachers who depend on rules soon become cops enforcing rules. Teachers generally do not enter the teaching profession to become police, but that is what they become when teaching is based on rues. (See the short video.) In addition, establishing rules to have teachers reward students is counterproductive to the goals of the system—a critical factor the developers of the approach do not realize. Rewards aim at obedience. But obedience does not create desire. Rules do not foster values of character education such as responsibility, integrity, honesty, empathy, or perseverance.

    So what should a teacher do if PBIS is mandated? The first step would be to ask for a waiver from the administration. The case would be presented by asking whether the school’s administration would be willing to allow the teacher to use her/his professional judgment to continue using a non-manipulate and noncoercive (using rewards to control) approach that is very successful.

    In all of my studies of PBIS, I have not seen anything that mandates the teacher to do the rewarding. Have a class meeting. Put the problem on the table and let the students determine the criteria to be used for any reward. Then have the students choose on a rotating basis which students will do the rewarding. The students will soon discover that rewarding for appropriate behavior is unfair because no one can reward all students who deserve the reward. In addition, rather than collaborating for learning, students start to compete with each other for the most rewards.

    Then have another class meeting and suggest that those who are mature enough not to be given rewards for doing the right thing are now using adult values. Inform those who feel that they are not mature enough to act responsibly without a reward that their desires will be honored. Peer influence will take over. PBIS will soon lose its attractiveness.

    Keep in mind a few thoughts: (1) Experience shows that rewards punish those who believe they have deserved the reward but did not receive one. (2) Rewards change motivation. (3) Rewarding young people for appropriate behavior fosters narcissism by having youth ask (without even realizing it), “If I do what you want me to do, what will you give me?”

    PBIS is based on a misguided approach of external agents to promote those characteristics necessary for a democratic society. Finally, how effective is the PBIS approach of using an outside agent to foster motivation when no one else is around to give a reward?