Fostering Student Motivation

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Episode 57: Fostering Student Motivation

Wednesday, Apr. 27, 2022

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Show Notes

Larry Ferlazzo

Fostering motivation is an important part of a teacher’s job. Larry Ferlazzo, veteran high school teacher and Education Week writer, shares his insights on how to motivate students. Learn what teachers most want you to know about student motivation and get tips on how to get your child to do their homework, chores and more.


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LaWanda Toney: Welcome to Notes from the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm LaWanda Toney.

Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland and you are listening to our new miniseries where we give teachers the mic to share their perspectives on big issues in education.

LaWanda Toney: Teaching has always been a challenging and sometimes underappreciated profession.

But this year, especially has been a tough one for the folks educating our children. So we're asking them, what do you wish families knew about your job and it's challenges?

Helen Westmoreland: And today, we are talking about a topic we know many parents have questions about, which is student motivation. So how do we get kids to care deeply about what's going on in school and put in a good effort.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah, Helen, it's an important question. And even more relevant lately as schools work to re-engage students after years of disruptive learning. In a 2021 Learning Heroes poll, one of parent's top concerns was their children losing their motivation or interest in learning. We're turning to a teacher to learn how we can help address this issue.

Helen Westmoreland: That's right, LaWanda and we are so grateful to have with us today, Mr. Larry Ferlazzo. Larry Ferlazzo has taught English and Social Studies at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, for 19 years. He's written or edited 12 books on education, writes a weekly teacher advice column for Education Week, and has a popular resource blog for educators. His guest columns and education policy issues regularly appear in the Washington Post and other media sites. He is a former community organizer, for nearly two decades, prior to becoming a teacher. Welcome to the show, Larry.

Larry Ferlazzo: Well, it's great to be here, thank you for the invitation.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, we're so happy to have you. So we'd like to start off just by learning a little bit more about folks professional journeys. So, what brought you to the classroom and what has your path looked like since then?

Larry Ferlazzo: Well, as you mentioned, I was a community organizer for 19 years prior to becoming a teacher. And in my organizing, I saw that people were learning leadership skills and developing self-confidence in their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, even seventies through the organizing process. And I thought, God, people's lives would be a lot better if they learned, some of these leadership skills and develop more self-confidence a little earlier.

So I decided to become a teacher. And try to begin to help create the conditions, where students could develop those skills and develop intrinsic motivation so that instead of us pushing the rope, they could pull it themselves. And yeah. it's been a great 19 years, practically all of it at Luther Burbank High School.

LaWanda Toney: So Larry, can you talk to us a little bit about what motivating students means to you?

Larry Ferlazzo: So I think the key thing with motivation is both as an organizer and as a teacher, I don't think I've ever actually motivated anybody, but I've helped to try to create the conditions where students can motivate themselves and try to focus on creating those conditions where intrinsic motivation can flourish. I'm not talking about extrinsic motivation. you know, you read the book, you'll get a gold star. Lots of research has shown that extrinsic motivation can work on trying to get people to do actions that don't require much higher order thinking skills.

Listen, I also got to say sometimes when you got to get a student to do stuff, you know, extrinsic is the way to go, right? I mean, I don't live in a fantasy world where.

Helen Westmoreland: All parents live in a world, where what's the level of bribe that like I can sleep with at night.

Larry Ferlazzo: Been there, done that. I'm a parent too, grandparent.

So, yes, extrinsic motivation has its place, but it also has to be kept in its place. Right? It's a supplement, not the main deal We get into problems, where we make extrinsic motivation the primary tool to try to encourage children or students to do things. And then that's the case, you can never take it away.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah. I definitely understand that, can we talk a little bit, just so that we can level set for our audiencewhat do you mean when you say extrinsic motivation versus intrinsic?

Larry Ferlazzo: Okay, extrinsic is when you do something to get something from someone else. You're motivated by, okay I want to, get the money. I want to be able to go out tonight.

Helen Westmoreland: TV time in my house

Larry Ferlazzo: Grades, grades are extrinsic motivation, you know?

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, that's an interesting way to look at it.

Larry Ferlazzo: Right. So, okay. Whereas intrinsic is where the motivation comes internally., I mean, it's not always a clear cut. But generally an intrinsic it's where we are motivated to do things on, on our own. And, and researchers have identified four key elements that reinforce intrinsic motivation.

If we feel like we have a sense of autonomy, that, that generally helps cultivate a feeling of intrinsic motivation. So, that's where choices can come in. And we're not talking about a choice, well, you can do this assignment or you can get an F? We're not talking about those kinds of choices or we're not saying, okay, well, you can clean your room now, or, or if you don't, you'll get grounded for the weekend. There are different sort of categories of choices.

There's organizational choice, in the classroom or students might have a voice in where they might sit or who they want to have in their small learning group. Or procedural choice, is where they might have in the classroom, they have a list of different homework assignments in which ones they want to do, a book, a poster, a skit, answer this question, answer that question. Those are, those are two obvious choices and those can also be applied in the home, as well. Right. What days do you feel like you want to wash, be responsible for washing the dishes?

There's also a third choice which researchers think particularly helps promote autonomy is cognitive choice, where we basically ask students or children to come up with their own ideas, right. And say, okay.

Helen Westmoreland: The room is messy. What do you think we should do?

Larry Ferlazzo: Right, exactly. Right. Those are the kinds of things that could be applicable in the classroom or in the home.

Helen Westmoreland: Let me follow up with that a little bit. You mentioned earlier at the top of the show too creating conditions to help students be motivated. Could you give some of those conditions in this research, through your lens of like some of the choices you make as a teacher. What's going on behind the scenes? How this shows up in your classroom, in terms of thinking of how you maximize those conditions to help students feel engaged?

Larry Ferlazzo: One way is providing lots of choices, another key quality in promoting intrinsic motivation is relevance. Is what I am asking students to do, do they see it as relevant to their lives and their dreams? So a key part of that is trying to develop relationships with students to find out what their dreams are and what their interests are. One of the questions I always ask students in anonymous evaluations at the end of each semester is, do you think Mr. Ferlazzo views you as just another student or does he seem to be concerned about your life outside of a class?

And that's the only way they really find out about relevance, so it doesn't necessarily mean that I dramatically changed the content of what I teach, but I can help frame it in a way that students are more likely to see it as relevant to their lives. Not always. And I'm going to say, I mean, I have lots of misses, right, but all we can do is, you know, is, is try. I think another element that researchers have found important for intrinsic motivation, they call relatedness, is what I am being asked to do, will it help me develop further a relationship with someone I like or respect.

Larry Ferlazzo: So that's where, small group work really helps, having relationship with students. So, students want to please the teacher or the parent. If they feel like they like them. Another thing is competence. People want to feel like they're competent. There's a thing called the progress principle, where researchers have found that the best way that people here have found to be motivated is every day they make some progress, each day. So, you gotta create a situation where people are more likely to be successful. You do that by providing the scaffolds that are needed. You do that by giving good feedback. People may be familiar with this idea of a growth mindset and Carol Dweck, that instead of saying, oh, Johnny, you're so smart, say, oh, you did a really good piece of work on that essay. I saw that you rewrote it twice, reinforcing those specific things, because if you don't, what people have found is if someone is constantly, told they're very, very smart, but then we all fail, right. I mean, we're all going to fail. So what's been reinforced is that they are supposedly smart. So they just always do great work. Their continual trying to do better or working hard is not reinforced and they tend to feel more discouraged. Right. As opposed to, I mean, like, like for example, my granddaughter, she's a perfect example of this.

I mean, she had some real challenges in school, but what we we reinforced a lot was she just kept at it.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah. you have my wheels turning everywhere, cause I'm thinking about all the things that we do as parents and also things that are happening in the classroom. So my son is in the third grade and he goes to a Montessori school. So there's choices, every day. They make a lot of their own choices, and so that carries on here. He's always asking, well, why can't I do this? Or can I change the schedule to do this? Because at school I get to choose, and he'll tell me I don't go to a traditional school. So I shouldn't have to do things traditionally.

Larry Ferlazzo: Oh man. He's in third grade, you're going to have a long number of years.

LaWanda Toney: So last year, he didn't understand why he needed to learn multiplication and like the tables and the facts, he wanted to go straight to division. I just want to divide my cousins divide, they're older than me. I want to do fourth grade, you do division. It was like, how do I motivate him to stop worrying about division and you can't do division until you multiply.

I didn't know how to explain, why you need to, you just need to do it. It's just a part of third grade, like I don't know. So what happened was I finally said. I'm going to let you divide. And so we started doing division and he started getting stuck and then he's like, I don't know what to do here. And I was like, you don't know what to do here, because you don't know your multiplication facts. So then, he motivated himself to learn the multiplication facts, but who knew, that was the thing, like all trial and error.

Helen Westmoreland: LaWanda always busts off these great parenting tips for others on the show. And I'm like, Ooh, I’ll take notes of that.

Larry Ferlazzo: Well, that's what, that's what I was saying. This is effective parenting, that it’s an effective teaching that teachers and parents have done for years. And researchers provide a little more of a framework for what we do.

Helen Westmoreland: So I want to recap those because I think it's an important takeaway for folks. So I think I heard you say choices, relatedness, relevance, and the fourth one you mentioned was?

Larry Ferlazzo: Competence. If people feel like they need to feel like they're being set up for success, that they have the skills, the scaffolding, the support, they need to be able to do it. I mean, I know there's this, this almost this cult about. You know, we learn to learn from failures and all that sort of stuff. And really, you can learn some stuff from failures. I think we learn a lot more from when we do stuff right. We're going to do that so many times on our own. I don't know if we, as parents or teachers really need to create more opportunities for students and our children to fail, because they can do that quite well on their own, and they will.

Helen Westmoreland: I want to, pick up on one of those, because I feel like I've heard it over and over again from, you know, my friends who are, who've got kids and, and, and teachers to some level to that, particularly over the past couple of years, the relevance piece, has felt really hard.

I feel like I've heard from a number of folks. Like, I just can't get my kid to care about X..

What's your advice for parents who are really digging into that piece of the motivation puzzle?

Larry Ferlazzo: I think the strategy that I try to take is really pushing students on trying to find out what their long-term goals are. What do they want to accomplish? We do an exercise where students have to say what they want people to say about them 20 years from now. And then say, okay, well, what then, will help you get there. If you do this or don't, you know, or don't do this, which is more likely to create options for you if you don't know, maybe you don't know where you want to be. Okay, then you probably don't want to close off options, keep them open.

Some kids maybe they're not going to do really well and they'll learn that they need it for the next class, you know? I mean, and then they realized that, well, they should've done better. And maybe they can go back to their teacher to see if they can, you know, retake the class when they realize that it's important enough for them. We've all had that experience in our lives, when we don't think something's that important, we don't want to do it. And then later we realize that we should have, and I think one of the things that parents can do, and I know I have not done much of it. I try and do that with my grandkids, but telling stories, telling family stories, histories of when people, whether it's us, our grandparents, or uncles, our great grandparents, our great, great grandparents telling family stories that reinforce some of the qualities that we want to see developed in our kids or our students. And that also helps students develop a sense of identity. And self-esteem when they realize they are a part of that, they have a legacy, and I think, I think that's something that we all could do more of.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah.

LaWanda Toney: Absolutely. I think that's a great point. Can we shift gears just a little bit and talk about COVID in the pandemic and what impact that had on student motivation from your eyes?

Larry Ferlazzo: Well, I think for the students who faced the most challenges, motivation, and otherwise. I think we lost them. And at least in the high school, I think we lost him permanently. I mean, I think 4 to 8% of our students are just gone and they're not coming back. They dropped out and that's it. The only thing that really kept him in school was coming to school and that relatedness part. And then when that was gone, so were they.

I think for another not unsubstantial portion of our students, that they reached down and found their own motivation. I've asked many students, what they feel they lost and what they gained, during the pandemic, especially during a distance learning part? And many have told me that they found that they had a large, a reservoir of motivation that they were able to find.

Students seeing their guardians and parents coping with this kind of adversity was also very inspirational for the students. And also many of my students had to take jobs to help support their families, or they had to become tutors for their younger siblings. They gained a lot of skills and a lot of resilience out of this, but also another good portion of students clearly lost motivation. I think those, many of them have regained it this year.

I think we sell our young people short by feeling they can bounce back from this. Clearly there are a lot of issues around social, emotional wellbeing that we see. And I think that became more transparent during COVID. And our school and many other schools are trying to step up to provide that kind of support.

Helen Westmoreland: I want to go back to something you alluded to, and I think as, something a lot of parents feel this where's the line on. You shared for some students they're not motivated, and in order to see relevance, they might need to fail the class and then come back. Right. When it is relevant to them.

I think of so many parents in the line of caring more than their child, about the grade, about the completion rate and, where's the line. I'm curious, particularly given your background, Larry in organizing of where that responsibility, particularly as kids get older lies?

Larry Ferlazzo: Well, I know as an organizer, it was always a dangerous sign, when it seemed like I was more invested in making something happen, than the community members who had raised the issue were. That was always a danger sign. And I think it's different with kids. We can't just not let them do anything they don't want to do. I mean, they are not adults. We have responsibilities. I don't know if it's a clear line For example, you want to give them the option to quit something. I would try to push them to say, well, why don't you stay with it for this amount of time, then make the decision if you want to quit or not. So not necessarily buying into their first initial senses of despair or frustration. But acknowledging it and giving them an out in the future. I mean we want our kids to be happy. And when they're not happy, we want to try to do something that make, help them make them happy. But we got to balance that sometimes with is that the life lesson we want to teach?

Helen Westmoreland: It's harder when they're teenagers, right. I'm like mine is three, like I'm pretty clear, like that's okay?

Larry Ferlazzo: Right, right, right. I don't think there is a clear playbook for parenting. And, lots of kids have turned out really well, with lots of different parenting strategies, but these are just some things to keep in mind.

Helen Westmoreland: One of the things that I notice, when I read the comments, on education stories or articles, is that it seems to me there's a pretty widely held perception by many families and community members, that we're having a motivation crisis, not just in the pandemic, but we have a crisis of motivation with our young people. Do you buy into that? Do educators that you are talking to feel we are in a crisis around student motivation or is that sort of a misplaced worry?

Larry Ferlazzo: Well, I think there's a growing recognition that motivation is a key element of a successful education being a successful teacher. I don't know if motivation is a bigger problem than it's ever been, but I think there's more recognition now that it is an issue and it's an issue in a fairly large number of our students. I don't necessarily think it's any of a bigger problem than it has been in the past, we just know it's there now.

Helen Westmoreland: Yeah. Yeah, Larry. I could probably talk to you all night. It's late here on the east coast. This has been a great conversation and we're so thankful for you being on the show.

Before we go, we want to give you the last opportunity, of everything we've talked about tonight. Is there anything in particular, you really want our listeners to grab a hold of?

Larry Ferlazzo: The key thing to keep in mind in terms of motivation is it's not like we can motivate people, but we can create the conditions. And I think if we do try to do the shortcuts, Fred Ross, Sr, who was a legendary organizer, he said, well, shortcuts tend to lead to detours, that tend to lead to dead ends. So, you know, we can try to avoid those shortcuts, which is what I think extrinsic motivation is we're more likely to have long-term success for us, for our kids, for our students.

Helen Westmoreland: That's a good takeaway. And if folks want to read more of the great things that you've written, Larry, or get any more information on some of the things you've shared today, any Twitter handles websites, any place you want to encourage our listeners to go to learn more?

Larry Ferlazzo: I'm on Twitter. I have a blog. I've written three books on student motivation. There's plenty of stuff to look for your books. It’s great talking with you.

Helen Westmoreland: Thanks for coming.

LaWanda Toney:  And to those of you listening in at home, thank you for joining us. For more resources related to today's episode. Check out