This morning we spent our St. Gregory faculty spent an hour discussing Tony Wagner’s important chapter on motivation (in his book Global Achievement Gap).   I set up the discussion by providing a set of quotes from the chapter and questions for consideration, and then asked every participant to write in response.   Small groups then discussed these topics, and reported on them to provide a valuable group conversation. Below, after the Wagner quotes, are the notes from those reports: click on the “more” and scroll to see the “meat” of the meeting and this post.

First the quotes from Wagner, some of which are actually Wagner quoting others about kids today:

[Students today] don’t have less of a work ethic. They have a different work ethic.

These kids do amazing things when you build around what interests them.

Students are increasingly impatient with the lecture style of learning and the reliance on textbooks, and crave more class discussion… and to be connected to others.

Students want to be part of learning communities, with hubs and spokes of learners, rejecting the broadcast paradigm of television or the note-taker in a lecture hall.

Gamers learn differently.  Their game experience emphasizes independent problem solving and the rapid acquisition of technical skills, as opposed to sustained attention to the subtleties of Shakespeare or calculus.

There is much that they are willing to put up with in the school or workplace—not all the conditions I have outlined have to be in place for them to be engaged.  But one thing does, I believe: They have to be interactive producers, not isolated consumers.

Young people need to analyze and interpret new media, they need to produce and create; and they need to understand the ethical implications of their work and new technologies.

We need to ensure that schoolwork is not busy work or make-work but real, adult work that requires both analysis and creativity.

The overwhelming majority of students want learning to be active, not passive.   They want to be challenged to think and to solve problems that do not have easy solutions.  They want to know why they are being asked to learn something.  They want learning to be an end in itself—rather than a means to an end of boosting test scores or a stepping stone to the next stage of life.  They want more opportunities for creativity and self-expression.  They want adults to relate them on a more equal level.

The discussion questions:

  • Consider your points of agreement and disagreement.
  • Consider implications and applications for your teaching.
  • What support would you need from administrators, parents, students, colleagues to advance in these directions?


“Wagner allows very little of a role for listening, he seems to always want students active and talking, but they also need to learn to read, analyze, learn by listening – will these skills be lost in a Wagnerian schools?

“Students can’t really be creative without some kind of contemplation, and that takes adult intervention since students would stay “plugged-in” 24/7. We must ensure we provide students this kind of down-time, quiet time, if we want them to be creative.”

One group reported about efforts made in a foreign language classroom to shift considerably the approach to one of greater problem-solving, but found that students often resisted the effort, and sought more from teachers to explain to them, and provide the answers, and give them the information they needed. We discussed whether this is the product of their background and whether it can change over time.  One teacher said that this can be changed; she spoke of her experience asking 11th graders to change their approach to one of much greater critical thinking and problem-solving, which she says they resist over the course of 11th grade, and then demonstrate dramatically greater comfort with in 12th grade, when they have this background the previous year.

Another discussion point challenged Wagner’s “assumption that what kids prefer to do socially is what they want in the classroom,” saying they observe this to be inaccurate: students disconnect social and academic lives and are okay with that; they even come into school each fall happy to have a break from their norm and an alternate context for their learning.

It was said that teachers have to provide a lot of guidance and structure, students do need that, as we shift to problem-solving approaches.  “Curriculum should vary, has to be a broad experience for each child, both academic and extra-curricular.”

Several participants made the parallel points that in order to effectively build in learning for skills as well as content, we must have more time, and we would greatly benefit from year-round schooling.  “We have to do too much – cover content, be student-centered (which takes time), provide challenge course and other extra activities, work with colleagues, and more: where we will find the time for all this?”

Another topic concerned the AP tests.  Some worried that a shift to Wagnerian problem-solving and more generally to teaching that motivates conctemporary kids may result in a diminishment in students’ preparation for AP exams; this is an oft-heard concern and major concern that we need to not ever lose site of.  Another teacher countered, saying that there is plenty of reason to think, and evidence to support,  that if we teach AP courses in a way that is most effectively motivating, scores won’t decline, they will rise.

A fine colleague and I had a later discussion about the morning conversation, and she suggested that the conversation was valuable in the way it allowed our teachers to express the concerns and hesitations they had to moving too quickly or adopting these ideas wholesale.  I told her I hoped I demonstrated that I really respect these concerns and hesitations, and that I do very much recognize the challenges and obstacles to our adopting these ideas in whole swiftly.   This is very much about a process, about identifying a goal and a direction and a vision, and then finding the ways, step by step, with collaborative support, to move to that goal.   She added in a later email, which I am adding here because of the importance of this message:

Teachers can become frustrated, working very hard but feeling that they are not coming up to 21st century standards rapidly enough. They need to be reassured, and to assure themselves, that as long as they continue to progress toward those goals, as long as they all have a shared vision and point ourselves toward it, even if everything doesn’t change overnight, they are doing their jobs. Teaching is always about moving toward excellence, and no one knows better than a teacher that excellence as an educator is a moving target.

Personally, I also think that if we always put students first, caring about them as people as well as learners, we cannot help but move in the right direction as we learn every day what works for our students.