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Interview: Deborah Stipek

Excerpts from an interview with Deborah Stipek, Dean of the School of Education, Stanford University

Taped October 5, 2002

We often think of motivation as being a quality of a person. There are people who are highly motivated, and there are people who are less motivated. But anyone who's seen a child in a different learning context move from one class to another, move from the regular class into the special ed class, you'll see dramatic differences sometimes in children's behavior. I have seen children who were quite passive, quite quiet in one classroom just come alive with energy in another. It makes me realize the degree to which the motivation is really in the context. It's the nature of the task that children are involved in. It's the quality of the relationships in the environment. It's the opportunities that the child has to bring him or herself to the activity to participate. That's where motivation lies. That's not to say that there are not individual differences, that children respond differently to different situations. But that context is very powerful, dramatically different sometimes.

Expecting success is absolutely critical. Children need to feel confident, and they need to feel competent. Nobody likes to engage in an activity that makes them feel incompetent. And there's no reason to try on something when you don't believe that you are going to succeed on it. So it's probably one of the most critical variables in motivation. And there are a number of ways you can promote expectations for success in your children, and there's a number of ways you can make them feel confident and competent about their ability to learn. There are some wonderful examples in the tapes. For example, children had opportunities to produce products that they could feel proud of, that they could stand back and look at. So the bridges, for example, was a wonderful activity – where it gives you a real sense of pride and satisfaction when you've created something that is a visual, especially if it's something that's very difficult, that you have to start from the beginning, and create and develop over a period of time. The other thing that I saw in those tapes was the children had a lot of opportunity to have some autonomy – so that they could really take ownership of their successes. When they did understand something, when they did solve a problem, they didn't do it because they were coached every minute of the way. They need to play around themselves. So when they really understood something they could feel a sense of accomplishment, a sense of pride in their own understanding. Another thing that I saw on the tapes was that children were able to venture their own opinions. They were able to participate, and they were able to contribute. There were a variety of ways, for example, in the discussion on race in the last tape – where every child got to participate and feel competent in that context. It wasn't just one or two children who were answering the questions. And one of the teachers at the very beginning pointed out it's important that children be able to have opportunities to use their own learning styles, to use their skills – and if you have tasks that are so narrowly defined that you have to do it exactly one way, then kids who don't have that particular skill and that particular way down very well, they're going to have difficulty with it. But if there's some room for them to change the task around a bit to make it work for them, then they can succeed, and then they can have a sense of competence and expect to succeed in the future.

If people don't expect to succeed on a task, they don't try.  There's no reason to try if you don't think you can do it. So it's critical that children feel that they can, in fact, attack an activity or attack a task and achieve it and finish it and feel successful.

One of the most important things is that the activities and the tasks that children get need to be ones that they can complete. If they're too difficult, then they're not going to experience success, and they're not going to be able to complete, and they know that, so they're not going to try very hard. Another thing they need to do is make sure that they're challenged, though, because we don't feel a sense of success. We don't feel our competencies learning, growing if we have tasks that are always too easy for us. So it's that "just right" level of challenge that is really important for children to have a sense of confidence and competence, because they can achieve, they can learn, they can succeed, but they have to put a little effort into it, so they really have a sense of pride and accomplishment when they finish.

Well, I think in the tapes there were some wonderful examples of ways in which the teachers provided students an opportunity to feel competence, to feel satisfaction and pride in what they were doing, which promotes high expectations for success. In one of the tapes they were building a bridge, so the children actually had a product that they could stand back and look at and take satisfaction in. And it was a difficult task, and I suspect that, although we didn't see the whole process, I suspect it took them a while to actually get it to work. So that increases the level of satisfaction and confidence in being able to do hard things. The other thing that most of the teachers did is give children a fair amount of autonomy, so that when they did succeed, they could take ownership of it. They could feel responsible for their success. You don't feel confident or competent if you succeed or learn something when somebody has guided you all the way at every single step. So you really don't feel like you had any say or any input into the process.

And nobody likes to be told exactly what to do, when to do it, and how to do it every minute of the day. You don't enjoy that, and kids don't either. They want to have some opportunity to make their own decisions. We saw a number of examples in the classrooms where kids had lots of space to bring themselves into the activity. One of the teachers who was doing the static electricity experiment actually articulated the importance of letting children figure things out on their own, try their own experiments, fail sometimes, but have some sense of autonomy and control over the situation. The teacher didn't say now do this, now do that, write down what you found. She basically gave them some materials, gave them a problem to solve, and let them figure out how to solve it. That's much more motivating than having everything structured for you.

Well, the main role of the teacher is to create activities and tasks that are engaging for kids; to create a situation that provides them some room, to give them some opportunity to have some autonomy, some control over how they engage in the activity;  to provide some scaffolding. In one of the classrooms the children were working on the egg membrane activity, and the teacher walked over to them and asked questions. She didn't tell. She asked. It's a very important distinction. She prompted and guided the children in exploring and inquiring on their own, so that when they got to the solution and they understood something, again they had a sense of satisfaction, because they brought themselves into it. So the teacher's role there was more of a coach, as a guide, not as someone who told them things that they wrote down.

One of the things you'd notice in the classrooms is that the activities were very active. The children were not passively sitting at desks just listening, or even just reading. They were actively involved in exploring. They had problems to solve. They had materials sometimes. Or sometimes it was just their voices. They were exploring in conversation. But they were actively involved in the activities and that's a critical quality of an engaging task. It doesn't necessarily have to be hands-on in the sense of manipulating materials – although we saw several examples of that in the egg membrane activity and children were looking at globes. So they were exploring, they were using materials, but in a couple of situations the kids were just talking to each other. They were exploring ideas – sharing ideas, and that's an active role of the child, and the teacher's task is to set up opportunities for children to engage in that kind of activity. And I just want to say one other thing about those classrooms that are really noteworthy.  When you walk in those classrooms, they're not quiet. There's a buzz. There's an energy. I like to call it controlled chaos. It's not really chaos; it's actually quite orderly if you look closely. And the students are very engaged in what they're doing. They're very focused on learning. But, there's a movement. They're not sitting still. They're moving around. They're sometimes talking at the same time. That's when you know kids are motivated is when you have that kind of buzz, that energy in a classroom.

There's one other quality of the activities that I thought were very nicely illustrated in the classrooms that we saw, and that is that the work was connected to the real world. In a number of cases the learning the children were doing was embedded in a task that was very much like the real world. So, for example, I don't know if it was a math lesson or an economics lesson, but apparently the kids were involved in creating a company and really having to deal with the real world kinds of experiences like inflation, and figure out how to make sense of that. They were working with eggs. They were building bridges. They were doing things that were not so divorced, so separate, so different from what they experience in the real world. That's something that motivates kids.

One quality of the learning activities that children in the classrooms we observed is that they were inquiring. They were actually, in many cases acting like scientists. They were learning like scientists. They had a question or a problem that was posed. They were trying to figure out hypotheses. They were figuring out themselves how they might test those hypotheses, and then they were looking at what the outcome was. So they had an experience that is very much like a scientific inquiry. And I think that people are more engaged and more excited about learning when they go through that inquiry process than when they're simply told things and have to write them down and learn them.

If you think about it, there was no failure in those classrooms. There was no real opportunity to fail. There were opportunities to not get it right. I mean, the bridge probably fell down a few times in those experiments, and kids disagreed with each other. And when they wrote their stories the student who was giving them feedback had suggestions. But it's not failure in the sense as, "Oh, I failed, it's over." It was enroute to learning or success. So it was a more normal process in which failure wasn't something that happened, it was just mistakes. It didn't work the first time, and I just stuck with it, or we stuck with it in our group until we got it right. So in many respects those classrooms just didn't have failure. I think another quality of the classrooms which was really outstanding, I thought, was the way students clearly had opportunities to learn from each other to get feedback that was critical from peers, and to feel comfortable with that. You don't know exactly what happened before, but the teacher had developed a culture of the classroom where another peer could give suggestions, and that was helpful. That wasn't failure – that was constructive feedback that could help you get it right the next time. Or there was dialogue; people could disagree with each other. And it wasn't a put-down; it was simply a natural process of learning and developing understanding.

I really liked the teacher who mentioned that she modeled not knowing things. You know, in a lot of classrooms kids feel like they're supposed to know the answers always, because the teacher always knows the answer. And sometimes teachers won't admit it when they don't know the answer. This teacher went out of her way to say, "I don't know the answer to that, but let me find out, or let's find out together." That's really important, because it gives students the message that it's okay not to know the answers. If you don't, you find it out.

Competition typically is not very good in classrooms. The reason is that children usually aren't starting on equal footing. And when you have a competitive situation, somebody has to fail, somebody has to lose. And if it's always the same child with the same group of children it's very de-motivating and very discouraging. And that's very common in classrooms that it is the same group of kids or the same child sometime who win those competitions, who does better than the other kids. Where competition can be used productively and effectively is in collaborations where you have groups of kids that are heterogeneously grouped – where everyone has a fair chance of winning, and any child on a given day has an equal chance of winning or losing, and they're not always the loser or always the winner, because whether they'll win or they'll lose depends to some degree on the degree to which they collaborate with each other and can teach each other and take responsibility for each other's learning. So I think collaborative opportunities, heterogeneous grouping, competition among teams, can be very energizing for kids, especially if there's no opportunities for put-downs and for feeling badly if you don't win the competition. It can be done badly, and it can be done well. But that can be energizing for kids. One of the things that I was really struck by in the classrooms that we saw was to what degree children did collaborate with each other. And you really got a sense that these classrooms had a culture of community of learners – really wonderful communities of learners – where kids were sharing, collaborating, helping each other, being used as a resource for each other. And I didn't see any examples of children putting each other down or being less than supportive of other kids. You got a sense that this classroom was working together, that these kids were working together to learn together and to succeed together.

If you want to focus children on mastering, then you have to give them opportunities to not get it right the first time and to continue to work to be able to develop their competencies. Usually that first draft is not great, and it's the second, sometimes the third, sometimes the fourth draft that you could really take pride in, that you can really feel like you've accomplished something. The level of effort that a child puts into an activity influences the degree to which they have a sense of competence when they finish it.  And usually when an activity that requires a lot of effort, usually requires some revision, some changes, some, "Oh, this isn't working, let's try it a different way," it focuses students on learning, understanding, and ultimately mastering, rather than on getting it right all the time.

For students to expect to succeed, they need to experience success. They need to have tasks and activities that they are able to complete. Clearly, if you give students tasks that they can't do, they're not going to expect success. But they also need to be challenged a little bit. If they get tasks that are too easy for them, they may develop some sense of confidence, and they'll expect to succeed, but as soon as they encounter a little bit of difficulty, that confidence erodes immediately. It's paper thin. So they have to have opportunities to be challenged, to have a little bit of difficulty and to persist and overcome that difficulty. And it's in overcoming, it's in the persistence in overcoming the difficulty that you really develop a sense of competence and confidence that in the future, when you're challenged, when you're having a little bit of difficulty, you can make it if you hang in there.

One of the things teachers need to do is just choose their activities and choose their tasks very carefully. This is difficult when you have a classroom with children with very different achievement levels or skill levels. Having every child be a little bit challenged, but be able to succeed on the task is not so easy when you have some children who are as much as a grade level or two grade levels above or below the other children. That usually requires having tasks that are a little bit open ended, that children can come into and solve and, and deal with using the skills that they have. If there's only one way to do a task, then some kids are going to be able to get it and some kids aren't. But if there's a little bit of flexibility so that activity can be completed at different levels with different learning styles, then all children have an opportunity to succeed. The other thing that teachers can do is essentially scaffold. Sometimes, I'm sure we've all had an experience of asking a question and the person doesn't know the answer. But sometimes if you ask a few follow-up questions, give a few hints, they will be able to figure it out in the end. So the teacher there is not really giving the answer and telling the child to learn it, but is asking questions that guide the child to help prompt them, help them figure things out on their own with just a little bit of help.

There are a couple things that teachers can do to make tasks more interesting. One is to give children some control over the activity so that they're not told exactly what to do and how to do it. Give them some more room to bring themselves into the activity. And maybe even their own interests into the activity, their own styles. People enjoy working on things more when they feel like they have some control over it than they do when they feel like they're told exactly what to do and how to do it. So creating opportunities for children to have some opportunity to make choices in the learning situation and in the task. Another thing is to provide kids with opportunities to collaborate – to interact with each other. They like to do that. We saw many examples of that in the classrooms that we observed. In fact, I believe in almost every one, kids either worked in pairs or in small groups, or they were engaging in a whole group, but they were participating and talking to each other. So there was a sense of collaboration and involvement among peers. It wasn't the teacher talking, the student answering, the teacher talking, a student answering. It was a conversation or an active collaboration.

It's really important for children to have opportunities to develop their own passions, their own interests. And clearly we have a curriculum. There is a body of material, of knowledge that we want children to master. But, to make school really engaging and exciting for kids we also have to be alert to what those passions, and enthusiasms, and interests are. and when we can – and we can't always do it – try to work them in and give them opportunities to explore and develop them. And sometimes they can be worked in – into the predetermined curriculum and instructional program.

Teachers need to make sure that students learn to support each other, and I think it was clear the teachers were successful at that in the classrooms that we observed. Kids helped each other. They served as a resource for each other. I saw no examples of kids putting each other down or making fun of each other for making mistakes or not getting it right or not getting it the first time. Teachers can create a culture in their classroom of a community of learners, of people who are all together trying to understand something or some things. And they're responsible for each other's learning. They're not only responsible for their own learning, but they're responsible for the other kids who are collaborating with them.

There are a variety of ways in which teachers allowed students to succeed and to feel a sense of mastery and a sense of competence. In one case, the children were building a bridge. So they could stand back and see a product that they had produced over some time and with some effort. They also allowed students some opportunities to bring their own learning styles to the activity. I think the first teacher actually articulated this, that it was important to give enough room for children in an activity to bring their own style of learning to it – so they could play to their strengths, rather than being in a situation where they didn't have exactly the right skill that was required for the way that the task had been structured. They wouldn't be able to do it.

I think often in our concern for kids' self-esteem, their sense of confidence and competence, we're afraid to let them fail. We want to make sure that they always succeed, when in fact that's not real life. And kids who develop a sense of competence only on the basis of constant success don't have very robust confidence. It's fragile confidence. And when children like that encounter difficulty they sometimes fall apart. So what's important is not that they succeed all the time, but that they are challenged, have opportunities to fail, and find out that if they stick with it, they will succeed eventually. That way, when they encounter difficulties in life, they're not going to give up easily. They're going to have learned that sometimes success requires some effort and some persistence. And sometimes it can be a challenge. That's the kind of self-confidence, robust self-confidence that stands up to challenges that we really want to promote in our children.

Teachers' own enthusiasm is absolutely critical. If they're not interested in the topic, then the children won't be interested in the topic. It's amazing how children will pick up their queues from the level of energy and enthusiasm that the teacher has. So it's really important to let children know that you think this is a cool experiment, too. That you're learning from it. Or to share the experiences that you've had of learning, even if they're not directly related to the particular activity or task at hand – to show them that you get excited about learning, that it's cool and it's fun.

I think one of the ways in which I've seen a pendulum swing is from a belief that children need to construct everything on their own; that they're only motivated in a kind of free-for-all where the teacher's role is to put materials out, give children activities, and then let them somehow construct an understanding of static electricity, or membranes. What we observed in the classrooms that we saw was not a free-for-all. It was not children constructing completely on their own. It was structured. The teacher had a very active role. She was teaching; not in a didactic way.  The teachers were not telling them things that they had to memorize or giving them rules that they had to apply. But the teacher was guiding, prompting, giving hints, and in a variety of ways, helping them construct that knowledge. So it was a very nice balance between children constructing their understanding, but under the guidance in a very carefully structured task. So the teacher had a very important role – not a passive role – but not a didactic, all-controlling role.

The neat thing about motivation theory is that everything that applies to kids also applies to grown-ups. It applies to teachers. It applies to administrators. If we want teachers to motivate students, then we have to create schools that are motivating to teachers. We have to create schools where teachers have opportunities to feel competent and to be able to expect success and to have the supports they need to be able to be confident and be successful. We have to have schools in which teachers have some sense of control and autonomy, where they have some room to play around and not be told exactly what to do, when to do it and how to do it – just the way kids are not going to be motivated when they're told what to do, and how to do it, and when to do it. Schools need to be organized to provide opportunities for collaboration, because teachers enjoy that and learn from it just the way kids do. Schools need to provide scaffolding for teachers so that they have opportunities to develop competencies and to be successful. So really, I think what I would say is – take all of the principles that we've learned about creating a classroom that is engaging and motivating for children and think about how schools can be organized to provide all of the same things for teachers.


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