Updated: Jul 1, 2021
When fitting in at school means falling away
We just passed the halfway point of this surreal school year. This past 10 weeks saw us shifting from hybrid instruction to full remote instruction and back again. I was looking over a post I wrote a few months ago and noted my somewhat upbeat attitude. As a teacher, I have always experienced highs and lows; acknowledging and troubleshooting challenges is part of my job. This year has brought more pockets of discouragement than usual though, and lately I've been especially concerned about declining student engagement.
A blog post by a former colleague of mine led me to think more carefully about student motivation. She pointed to Daniel Pink's formulation in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, in which he lists competence, autonomy, and relatedness as needs that must be satisfied before we can be motivated and productive. Since humans are social animals, I suspect that "relatedness" is the most crucial need in Pink's list (at least for young people). Relatedness can mean active engagement with a task, goal, project, or process. It also means finding a place for ourselves in the social fabric that surrounds us.
Although I'm no expert on the teenage brain, I've certainly spent significant time puzzling over it. One crucial lesson I learned early in my teaching career is that most adolescents are compelled to do what they perceive as "normal." This has notable ramifications for educators. For example, when I struggled with student behaviors as a new teacher, I learned that chastising a whole class for misbehavior was almost always counterproductive. In addition to signaling to students that I had finally lost control, it also sent another clear message: "in this class, it is normal to behave badly and it's normal for me to behave that way." There are also some less intuitive effects. For example, awarding students for perfect attendance has been found to actually hurt school attendance. Researchers surmised that the award made recipients aware of the fact that something that they had first perceived as an expectation (going to school) was actually not something their peers were doing. Naturally, some of them adjusted their behavior to better match that of their peers.
As I was struggling through a difficult series of classes last week, I wondered what a student might perceive to be "normal" right now and how that might be defining their behavior. What does relatedness look like in our pandemic education landscape? I believe that most educators have been focusing on the most obvious aspect of relatedness: connection. It was clear when schools shut down last spring that students would be cut off from crucial social and supportive relationships. When school re-started this fall, we made an effort to use the tools at our disposal to create a connected experience for all students, even those learning exclusively from home. For me, this has meant lots of experimentation, creative use of new technology, and building time for connection into every lesson. Although most of us would say that our success has been limited, I know that our efforts have made some difference.
But relatedness isn't just connection- it is also the work that our brains do to gauge our social situations and keep us aligned with what is acceptable or "normal" as defined by the behavior of those around us. All of us are susceptible to these pressures, but adolescents are especially likely to make decisions based on the behavior of those around them (even when may be putting themselves at risk). These facts led me to think about our current, fractured school environment. During an algebra test last week, I had five students in the classroom taking the test with the rest of my class at home. I am able to monitor student screens (creepy I know!) and noticed something I've seen repeatedly on test days this year: some students were completely dormant and were not taking the test. I've had similar issues this year when asking students to work on independent assignment or assessment.
What are students perceiving as "normal" and how is that driving (or deflating) their motivation?
Some students have always resisted taking tests, etc. even during non-pandemic times. But this behavior is certainly more common now. My first response is, of course, frustration. It doesn't seem like too much to ask for students to work independently for part of a class so I can assess them (and my own teaching). After all, such a request was a normal part of life for students just a year ago. I am aware of difficult home study environments, poor Wi-Fi, and the other myriad problems that come with a pandemic and an economic recession. I'm sure some of what I'm seeing stems from these reasons and in those cases, my options for improving the situation are limited. But I believe motivation is also a large piece of the puzzle. Our students have advantages that students in other districts don't enjoy, such as their own school-issued Chromebook and years of experience using the Google Education Suite. Although internet availability is surely a barrier for some, it clearly isn't for those in my Google Meet whose idle screens I was snooping on. If students were truly motivated to make academic progress, it seems they would find a way to do so. I was trained to examine my own teacher actions first when facing problems like this. So I ask, am I providing enough supports? What else could I do to boost motivation and engagement? But even as I do this, I can't help but wonder if the way we are running school this year is at the center of the problem. What are students perceiving as "normal" and how is that driving (or deflating) their motivation?
Thinking back to pre-pandemic times, I imagine a day when I've assigned a math test we have been preparing for. Students are all in the same room and they can see one another working on the test. The space is quiet and full of people doing math. Even if they are unenthused or unprepared, students can observe that their peers are working and mostly taking the assessment seriously. I've watched this subtle social pressure encourage even the most reluctant student to turn their attention to the task at hand.
This year, students working from home receive none of the input I just described. It is easier than ever for them to disregard an assignment or ignore our claims that it is important. After all, they have little evidence from their environment (likely their bedrooms) that it is normal to engage in academic work. In some ways, our students are behaving as chronically absent students do when they appear in class after a long hiatus. They are thoroughly disconnected from the norms and expectations of our community- and it shows.
We take for granted the productive stimulus that students glean from watching one another operate in an academic environment where effort and attention are valued and normal.
I have other recent evidence of students adjusting their behavior to match the perceived conduct of their peers. At the beginning of the year, most teachers requested or required students to use their cameras during our Google Meets. But when few students actually kept their cameras on, those who followed instructions quickly learned that they were going against the grain and turned their cameras off too. Now only a tiny minority of students use the cameras during Google Meets and most teachers have given up asking. Students also slowly learned that it was "normal" to join classes remotely even when they were scheduled to attend classes in-person. The number of students that do this continues to increase.
I believe there is some value in acknowledging the profound motivational impact of sequestering students from their peers the way we have this year. We take for granted the productive stimulus that students glean from watching one another operate in an academic environment where effort and attention are valued and normal. This perception of "normal" carries even more weight for adolescents than it does for adults.
So what can be done to improve student "relatedness" and a sense of positive norms? I believe that as long as hybrid/remote instruction is necessary, "remote retreat" is going to have a pernicious effect on our students' progress. But doubling down on a few of the standard best practices for building excellent classroom culture can still make an impact:
Checking in with students each day and giving them a chance to connect with each other early in the class helps build a supportive culture. I've been opening almost every class this year with what I call a "soft" warm up. It's usually a Nearpod collaborative board where I pose a silly question for students to respond to. It's one of the best things I've done this year and I'll probably continue to do it in the future. While this alone doesn't really build norms around academic habits, I've come to believe that you can't have those without a group identity to layer them on top of.
As always, we need to work to explicitly establish classroom norms. I often use the word "we" when talking about expectations and the reasons behind the work we are doing. Positive narration (in which I point out when students are doing well as it's happening) can help amplify a norm you are working on.
In some cases, norms may need to be established at a building level. For example, norms around the use of cameras during Meets could be difficult to enforce in an isolated classroom. The same goes for students abusing our hybrid schedule.
Even when teaching remotely, we still have a (sometimes scary) power to "make the weather" in the classroom. Sharing excellent student work each class period can build a sense of normalcy around completing learning activities and tasks. Asking students to share their screens is another empowering way to do this. Tools like Nearpod provide further options (I share student "draw it" screens frequently and I like how I can choose to hide names when I need to).
My internal "weather" can be pretty stormy, especially when students are not engaging the way I want them too. I try to stay positive and not bring attention to low participation rates for fear of normalizing them. I make use of the private chat feature in GoGuardian to contact students directly if I wish to correct a behavior or offer a support.
Just as a negative culture can color your classroom, it can creep into staff culture as well. I try not to publicly complain about disengagement but instead focus on anything positive I can do to help the situation (even though I often feel like my options are limited). I haven't been perfect on this; adults are disconnected too and the need to vent pent-up frustration is sometimes irresistible.
I believe that teachers have enormous power as leaders in the classroom and we need to embrace responsibility for classroom culture. However, I also believe that it is disingenuous to ignore the limits of this power in our current, exceptional times. It is essential that we make returning to our school routines safely a national priority before remote retreat becomes the new normal.