Wednesday, 24 September 2014


I decided to become a teacher at age five. I waffled a bit in Grade 11, primarily because a friend said, “Who decides what they are going to do with their life at five?!” but by Christmas of my Grade 12 year, I was focused once more. My initial decision was influenced by my mother, a Grade Two teacher who made teaching look like the most amazing career in the world. As an eighteen-year-old, it appealed because it seemed like a good match for my skill set: I loved reading, writing, learning, talking, entertaining, solving problems, and people. I also knew from observing my parents, both educators, that it would never be boring. And I was right. For more than thirty years I have been totally engaged in the career chosen by my five-year-old self.

Recently I’ve been reading the September issue of Educational Leadership, entitled Motivation Matters. Daniel Pink, the lead interview in the journal and author of Drive and To Sell is Human, might say that I found “a problem that I wanted to solve” (Scherer, p. 9) in my chosen career. Pink goes on to say that “satisfaction with one’s work often depends on hitching one’s desires to a cause larger than oneself.” (Pink & Azzam, p.16) Have you ever heard a better description of public education?

The journal definitely led to musings about the role of motivation in my career. As is usual, thinking about teaching took me to considering learning and learners. As I read my way through the journal, a pattern began to emerge. In article after article, my sticky notes all related to connections I was making to assessment for learning. Leafing through the magazine and stopping at the pink and orange stickies, you would find excerpts like these:

To secure real engagement, be clear on what you’re aiming for. (Robyn Jackson and Allison Zmuda, p. 20)

In the language of assessment, we would say that the learning destination must be clearly defined, both for ourselves as teachers and for the learners. We believe students can hit any target they know about and that stays still for them (Stiggins, 2004). Add to this success criteria clearly demonstrating what quality looks like and you have the beginnings of engagement.

A learning goal is, “I want to master algebra.” A performance goal is, “I want to get an A in algebra.” The research shows that reaching performance goals doesn’t necessarily mean that you have hit a learning goal. If people are single-mindedly focused on performance goals - and they achieve them - it doesn’t mean they’ve learned anything, improved their capabilities, or mastered something complex. The kid is less likely to retain what she learned to get the A, less likely to persist when the going gets tough, and less likely to understand why algebra is important in the first place. (Daniel Pink, p. 14)

This quote reminds us that students need to know not only where they are going, but why it is important. It is up to us as teachers to present the curriculum in ways that reveal the why, that reveal the big ideas that make the curriculum important and worth the effort of learning. Engagement is enhanced when we can see value in what we are doing.

The power of self-assessment and goal setting as motivators that drive learners forward is also reflected in this excerpt. Learners who understand what is being learned and what quality looks like, through the modeling of their teacher and the conversations about learning that happen in the classroom, are learners who can set goals for themselves and, even more importantly, are learners who own their own learning. This, for me, is engagement.

So it’s important that students have a clear picture of any academic goal and of where they are at any moment in relation to that goal. Only timely, descriptive feedback helps kids get that picture. (Rick Wormeli, p. 30)

In the past year I had the privilege of working alongside students and teachers, Kindergarten to Grade 8, in weeklong writing residencies. Part of this process was the giving of feedback, celebrating and describing in a public conference all of the things each writer was doing well. Listening to even the youngest writers begin to use the language I was using in describing their own and classmates’ writing showed the power of descriptive feedback. Watching self-conscious young adolescents smile as they received feedback describing all of the things they had done from our list of What Good Writers Do and then seeing them go back to their table to willingly revise - truly willingly - because they wanted to make it better for their readers was for me, engagement with a capital E.

If we want to obtain the most benefit from our close reading instruction, we’ll need to help students connect the dots. (Nancy Boyles, p. 37)

That is what teaching is all about - helping students connect the dots. Engagement is what happens for learners when the dots are connected. A clear learning destination, descriptions of quality, descriptive feedback, and the ability and opportunity to collect and describe your own evidence - these are strategies that help students connect the dots and make sense of what they are learning. And to own it.

That’s what I mean by fun and play - we’re actually talking about flow and engagement. The trouble with the word ‘play’ is that it seems to connote a lack of rigor. We want things to be rigorous, certainly in our education system. But it’s possible for things that seem, on the surface, to be play to be absolutely rigorous. (Daniel Pink, p. 16)

Boyles, N. 2014. Close Reading Without Tears. Educational Leadership Vol.  
    72 No 1, pp. 32-37.

Jackson, R. & Zmuda, A. 2014. 4 (Secret) Keys to Student Engagement. Educational Leadership Vol.72 No 1, pp. 19-24.

Pink, D. & Azzam, A. 2014. Motivated to Learn: A Conversation with Daniel Pink. Educational Leadership Vol.72 No 1, pp. 12-17.

Scherer, M. Getting Motivated…to Motivate. 2014. Educational Leadership Vol.72 No 1, p. 9.

Stiggins, R. 2004. Student-Involved Assessment for Learning. 4th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Wormeli, R. Motivating Young Adolescents. 2014. Educational Leadership Vol.72 No 1, pp. 26-31.