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Mike Willmarth

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Without the use of negative consequences (punishments), how do we get unmotivated or oppositional students to follow classroom instructions?

I have an interest in having my middle school students use a particular organization system for their class materials. Having a uniform system allows peers to more readily help each other stay organized, allows parents to more easily check on their child’s progress, and allows the class to more efficiently move through our daily transitions. The question, how do I get all students on board without the use of if-then rewards or punishments? I know from my experience (12 years at middle school) that some students will be oppositional and some will be unmotivated. While these represent the exception, not the rule, they are often the students most in need of the organizational structure. Additionally, it is the parents of these students who most often need a simple to follow structure for supporting their child’s educational process.

[Some background that may help when considering your answers – I will be teaching five sections of eighth grade math with a total of approx. 160 students. The group is roughly 40% free and reduced, and about 50% ESL.]

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  • Jul 20 2012: As a student myself and as someone who often observes how his peers act, I'll do my best to answer this question.

    Right off the bat, I would try to motivate these oppositional and unmotivated students with rewards, and only use punishments in extreme circumstances. I say this because that's what some of my favorite and my friends' favorite teachers did. But as you said "without the use if-then rewards or punishments", this could be a problem.

    So, how I would handle them would make sure to maintain high energy, get them involved with hands-on activities as much as possible(I know you're teaching 8th grade math, but Pre-Alg and Alg offer up some interesting hands-on oppurtunities), maybe hint at some long-term future rewards, especially avoid dull and boring lesson plans/presentations, use repetition in sparing(Math requires some repetition but there's a fine line between hammering in a concept and causing insanity and discomfort), and ultimately, just make it as fun for them as possible.
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    Jul 20 2012: I have found it useful to be clear as to why the organizational system is important and particularly why it is in the student's best interest to use it. When I say their best interest, I mean not a reward the teacher has attached but rather a meaningful return to the behavior in the bigger picture.
    Some popular systems of classroom organization are obviously quite disconnected from anything students will ever see outside classrooms and are, therefore, a very hard sell. Rigid rules about how to discuss math with each other, rigid rules of turn-taking, and so forth are examples.
    There is a wonderful article by Alan Schoenfeld of UCBerkeley about the tendency in math classrooms to impose rigid structures that may convey an inauthentic and sometimes counter-productive image of mathematics as it is practiced in the field.
    In terms of my experience, I have asked an inner city middle school math class on the first day for a show of hands as to which think college is in their futures. Practically all hands will go up in response to this question.
    My response then is "Ah, then we need to run this as a serious college preparatory class."
    It is amazing how much buy in I have gotten from this for most of what we do. and I do run the class as a college preparatory class. It's not a gimmick.
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    Jul 20 2012: Unmotivated and oppositional students who have immunity from discipline and punishment will only follow classroom instructions if they believe there is a distinct possibility of some immediate gratification or pleasure for so doing. Sources of affordable gratification and pleasure are not abundant. Some suggestions: 1) Spare them from dull, boring presentations. 2) Grab their attention by displaying energy, exuberance and passion. 3) Hold their attention with humor, relevance and non-condescending tones. 4) Pace your presentation like a video game or a cartoon. Use short, sound bites and frequent changes in volume, posture, location, and demeanor. Keep them guessing. 5) Pray.
  • Jul 22 2012: also in my school history, and academic related subjects were not really interesting for us students, therefore most of the students would barely pass history or fail it. however there is a history teacher that i was lucky to have, that had 98% of students not only passing history but really understanding it (including myself). he would simply demand full silence, then narrate (reading from the book occasionally) what ever we had to learn, in a interesting way (include giving characters voices) in a language we all understood. and at about the last 50-40 minutes of class he would give us a lot of work/worksheets to complete before the bell rings. he would let us work with each other with a respectful level of noise, and would help everyone, and anyone with any questions. the results of this method = us wanting to attend his class, us finishing worksheets without too much help from a textbook, us completing tests(everyone) at a really fast paced without studying( me personally) and getting hundreds on tests considered to be hard. every one always had 90 or higher on tests/ and grades, even the troublemakers known throughout the school(including myself). he would use a little bit of tech by presenting interesting yet informative slides. the point is he made a uninteresting subject that i never liked, and believed to have no time for INTERESTING. without punishment and or rewards. also he was just as strict as the meanness teacher in school , but believed to be a cool person, and a good teacher. that motivated it us all (students). just tough you might wanted to know.!
  • Jul 22 2012: as a s student i think its very important for the teacher to teach the students why they are in the classroom learning that particular subject in the first place, in a language the students would comprehend. a student may be unmotivated to attend and excel in school, because they may not understand the WHY school, learning, and behaving are important. a lot of kids would prefer to stay home, BORED, and do nothing, than to attend school or do homework, while those who like school/learning will not only probably never miss a day, but stay in school a while longer in after school programs to keep learning (without force, or any reward, other than learning something new). to really understand the WHY school is important, ask yourself this, if i were to die soon, in about 4 years, as a student, will i still be motivated to go to school.? students/people tend to be motivated about things they feel are important, followed by 110% commitment. (like sports ..etc) sadly in today's world .one can debate on whether its better to go to school, or be home schooled instead. the current system uses punishment and rewards to in a way motivate and make students understand the importance of school (and their actions in school).- that would only take you so far. if you can find a way to teach (by conversating) the importance, and "awesomeness" of school WITHOUT rewards, (make them like you as a person/teacher, and make them like your class) Students will find it within themselves to be on time, participate, and excel in your class simply because they like it, and feel like being good student. example- students may not care when hurting their peers, but they may feel bad when hurting their own mothers (not because of punishment). apply this to school/ your class, and students will care when arriving late, or missing a homework assignment, or not being focus in class (cause they might miss something) not cause of punishment and or rewards.
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    Jul 22 2012: 12 years in middle school you must be the biggest one in your class.

    Ok lets narrow the problem down. 160 students. The 50% ESL will group together and follow the rules through peer pressure. 40% means maybe half are girls who normally follow directions. 20% boys which, I'm guessing here, 15% are controllable. So we are looking at about 8 students that need further guidance.

    No rewards and no punishment are the rules.

    Of the eight perhaps three would be interested in sports. That becomes a carrot. Discuss sports with them and the importance of team work. Relate that team work to the class being a team and how the class playbook (your system) is important to the outcome / success of the team. Down to five.

    Now you have a managable group .. you are going to have to do the homework here. Can they afford the binder? What is their home life like? Do they hang with some of the others in class? Have a girlfriend in class? Play music? Are they social? Shy? Like computer games? What is their academic history? Look at disciplinary history?

    Your looking for a key. A door. A interest. If they like music .. art .. science ... show them the value of math through the golden number. PHI 1.618 and its relationship to all things. Look at last years math scores ... maybe they did not get it there and feel lost.

    In some cases there is a fine line between those who do not get it and those who got it and are bored to tears.

    Your notebook would work great in a flipped classroom.

    What is free and reduced .... new terms to me.

    Out of space. All the best. Bob.
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    Jul 22 2012: Tanka -

    I don't expect that all students will pick up the system at the same pace and I'm ready to work with those who take somewhat longer. My main goal in posing the question was to explore ways to motivate the students who initially push back without resorting to rewards or punishments.
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    Jul 22 2012: Easy - don't have classrooms. The model is in error.
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      Jul 22 2012: Mitch -

      Mitch - While that may be a good solution long-term, as I explained to another respondent the system in which my students and I work is one that requires students to show a given level of mastery in a set of skills that neither they or I select. Students who do not show the required level of mastery will still be moved on to the next course in the sequence, however they may be required to concurrently take a support class to help them acquire mastery in the previous set of skills. This support class comes at the expense of taking an elective which they would probably find more interesting. I want to help them acquire mastery of the required skills on the first go around so that they don't miss out on the elective choices later.
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        Jul 22 2012: If they have no interest, you cannot inject it without inducing comorbid damage.
        Teaching is essentially a passive role. Activity needs to be there on the part of the student.

        Punishment is for pleasure - if you are wired that way.

        The only alternative is to catch teh student's attention somehow.

        If the system insists that all are to be there for the sake of a grade .. hack the computer and fake it.
      • Jul 22 2012: Whe Mike propose is a Monterory type of learning. It is the preferred teaching method on students with physical or intellectual limitations. The ystem proves to be effective also on students with low academic performance.
  • Jul 21 2012: i'm an ignorant on this topic but this strategy works for my working teams. Competence-Game-Objective strategy. Divide the group in small groups with similar affinities. Establish competence between teams and place them to compete for a prize, even a $7 pizza can do the trick. Establish the rules of the game from the biguining and do not change them. In case of middle school students give them the rules on a paper to formalize them. Analize each group weaknesses and take time to talk with each group separatelly and encourage them to improve their performances. On subsequent games, mix the winning team into other groups and use the lead-by-example strategy.
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    Jul 21 2012: IN MY VIEW:
    The question is based on assumption of a standardized education system which gives standard output. Its best to accept the fact that different students may have different interests. If we can focus on identifying those interests we can avoid negative consequences as well as bring about positive outcome.
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      Jul 21 2012: Tanka,

      In an ideal learning setting we would have the flexibility to allow each student to pursue her or his interests. Unfortunately, the system in which my students and I work is one that requires students to show a given level of mastery in a set of skills that neither they or I select. Students who do not show the required level of mastery will still be moved on to the next course in the sequence, however they may be required to concurrently take a support class to help them acquire mastery in the previous set of skills. This support class comes at the expense of taking an elective which they would probably find more interesting. Given these conditions, it is my goal to help as many as possible acquire mastery of the required skills during the initial class.
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        Jul 22 2012: If you wish to accomplish this for all student at a specific time period I think it will be difficult. Even in respect to a perfect system there has been or will be exceptions. One way would be to take psychological approach in identifying problems in learning of students to find the root cause if not reward and punishment seems a natural approach in today's context of teaching and learning.
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    Jul 21 2012: Fritzie - good points. The system I am considering is one for organizing student work as well as returned assessments. I would like the whole class using the same binder system so that we can most effectively support one another as well as most efficiently use our class time. (I'm trying something new and would like all the students to use it initially so that we can collectively see if it has the benefits I envision.)

    Can you give me the name of the Schoenfeld article?
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      Jul 21 2012: I will try to track down the article. I read it maybe ten years ago.

      As you mention a binder system, one issue for middle-schoolers is that it becomes extremely confusing and physically burdensome to growing adolescents when every teacher requires either a dedicated notebook for her class or a different system of organizing the binder. Each teacher sees what is ideal for his class, but ideally all teachers would consider the big picture of what the student experiences from six or more teachers all with different prefered systems.

      Sometimes students may be oppositional but sometimes there is a solid practical reason why they throw up their hands.

      You might check with your colleagues about how many different systems students are expected to adopt for different classes.
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      Jul 21 2012: Mike, here is a link to Schoenfeld's website at UCBerkeley, which includes a variety of downloadable articles. His work is consistently interesting and insightful. http://gse.berkeley.edu/faculty/AHSchoenfeld/AHSchoenfeld.html#Publications
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    Jul 20 2012: Through inspiration?
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    Jul 19 2012: Could you share what the specific system of organization is that you require? I ask because I, like you, have taught lots of adolescents and use neither rewards nor punishments in the traditional sense. I would like to try to help you.
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    Jul 19 2012: Repetition just keep repeating yourself they may get a little upset or not get it but enough repetition and they will get it.

    And learn how to repeat yourself over and over as if you are saying it for the first time.
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      Jul 20 2012: I dunno...some would find that so maddening as to simply tune it all out wholesale. Even when the technique is cleverly disguised in synonym, adage, metaphor, allegory, parable...the reduced result will always be the same, unrewarding to those actually listening. It's a tough one, considering you cannot split up the audience into more appropriate listener types, can only employ a single delivery for all.
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        Jul 20 2012: Repetition just keep repeating yourself they may get a little upset or not get it but enough repetition and they will get it.

        And learn how to repeat yourself over and over as if you are saying it for the first time.