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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Here's an all-too-common scenario:

A group of elementary or middle school students are unruly, disrespectful and underperforming academically and socially in the classroom. They do not appreciate the value of education. The teacher, despite good intentions and passion, is viewed as an adversarial or irrelevant authority figure. The students are unwilling to participate in tutoring or traditional mentoring programs.

Classroom teaching can best be accomplished -- and sometimes can only be accomplished -- if a student is willing to be taught. Tutoring and traditional mentoring programs are only effective if a student wants to take advantage of them. An alarming number of unmotivated, underperforming elementary and middle school children are not willing to do so.

In his book Dropping Out, Russell Rumberger lays out the societal consequences, including:

. . . poor academic performance in middle school and even elementary school can decrease a student’s motivation in high school, which can lead to failing courses and skipping school, . . . [and] dropping out.

Statistic Brain provides this information:

  • Total number of high school dropouts annually: 3,000,000
  • Dropouts in the largest 50 U.S. cities: 41 percent
  • U.S. crimes committed by high school dropouts: 75 percent
  • U.S. jobs for which a high school dropout is ineligible: 90 percent
  • Lifetime earning difference (high school graduate vs. dropout): $260,000
Illo of rows of small people using computers growing into larger people

So what can be done?

Focus, Commitment, Reinforcement, Effectiveness, Fun

The goal: Students who respect their teachers, schools, peers, and the learning process.
The key: Student motivation.

An effective student motivation strategy must include all of these five components:

1. Focus

Teachers must be ready, willing, and able to focus primarily on motivation. Many valuable supplemental educational and social programs are available. But classroom learning and supplemental programs will have greatly diminished value (or become completely valueless) if students are ambivalent or unwilling to participate. Unmotivated students are unlikely to embrace classroom learning or participate in tutoring, homework help, or traditional mentoring programs.

2. Time Commitment

Teachers and administrators are mindful and even protective of curriculum time. However, a strategy requiring only 15 minutes per week can provide an excellent return on time invested. And considering the amount of time wasted on disciplining unruly, unmotivated students, a 15-minute-per-week investment in motivation will result in a net increase in actual teaching time.

3. Reinforcement Through Repetition

The Energizer Bunny may keep going and going. However, a motivation strategy for elementary and middle school students requires repetitive reinforcement. Teachers must include this piece of the strategy if they hope to be effective.

4. Effective Motivators

Any successful motivation strategy requires an effective motivator. A story circulating around the internet tells of a father bringing his daughter to a school function. The daughter, afraid of being embarrassed by her father, pleaded, "Dad, whatever you do, don't sing." The father was Billy Joel. Whether or not this story is true, the sentiment is certainly believable. No matter who the parents or guardians are, their admonitions or offers of assistance are often disregarded.

If teachers and administrators are fortunate to have respectful, pliable students, a specific motivation strategy is unnecessary. However, in chronically unruly classrooms and/or those with unmotivated, underperforming students, the wishes of adult authority figures are disregarded. Unfortunately this often rises to the level of disrespect and defiance. However, academically accomplished high school students are powerful role models. By virtue of their being older, they are automatically "cool" and respected. They are viewed as older peers and are therefore easy to relate to -- particularly if they share common interests.

5. Fun for the Students

The not-so-secret ingredient for any motivational activity is making sure that it's fun. As we're about to see, video chatting (through Skype, Facetime, or other media) is fun. This is an activity that students look forward to participating in.

A Unique Motivational Program

These five components are at the core of a resource that I've developed for elementary and middle school teachers that also functions as a community service opportunity for high school students. The program, called On Giants' Shoulders, advocates a strategy for repetitively motivating underperforming elementary and middle school students to respect their teachers, peers, schools, and the learning process using 15-minute, once-per-week online chats with academically accomplished high school students who appreciate the value of education.

The students are paired according to interests (sports, music, art, dance, etc.). For example, a member of the high school football team is paired with a student who loves football. A group of three older/younger student pairs share a computer or tablet for the weekly online chat. With only five computers, 15 older/younger student pairs can be accommodated in 15 minutes, 30 student pairs in 30 minutes, etc.

The implementation process is simple. High school students start a branch of OGS in the same manner they would any other school club. The students are supervised by teachers or faculty members in each school, as is the case in any school activity.

Is 15 minutes per week really enough time?

The sole purpose of this program is to motivate students interacting with engaged older peers. As a result, the younger students will be more willing to put in the time required for more time-consuming activities, such as classroom learning, tutoring, homework help, or Big Brother/Big Sister type mentoring programs.

Benefits for elementary students and schools

  • Stimulates motivation
  • Teaches communication skills
  • Encourages respect for teachers and school
  • Encourages respect for the learning process
  • Provides recognition for success and attempts to succeed
  • Counters low self-expectations
  • Reduces time wasted disciplining students
  • Teaches computer skills
  • Fun and exciting
  • Minimal time commitment
  • Easy to implement

Benefits for high school students and schools

  • Teaches leadership
  • Teaches responsibility
  • Provides a valuable community service
  • Provides a resume-worthy activity when applying to colleges and future employment
  • Provides potential positive coverage of the school or students by local television, radio, and other news media
  • Provides a dynamic new relationship between the partnered schools
  • Minimal time commitment
  • Easy to implement

On Giants' Shoulders is a nonprofit organization -- there are never fees or costs of any kind. Implementation forms, instructional videos, and emailed answers to specific questions are available through the site.

Of course, this isn't the only answer for engaging and motivating underperforming, unruly, and disinterested elementary and middle school students. We'd love to hear your strategies, too. Please share in the comments section below.

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nfarlow's picture

This sounds like a great program. I wish there was something like this for high schoolers!

John Harris's picture

Here I was thinking this would give strategies on how to motivate middle school kids, and it turns out to be an ad for OGS. It's a beat program, but the technological infrastructure at many of the school's that have the lowest attrition rates is subpar at best. I don't have computers in my classroom. I encourage my students to bring their phones so they can do research online. But many of them don't have a phone. If they can't work with a program outside of school, it doesn't help. I agree that this is probably a good motivational tool for some, it's 15 minutes one day a week. I'd rather take minutes out of everyday to do a team building activity or energizer. Most of those don't cosy money, and you don't have students who are unmotivated 4 days a week.

Chelsea Dale's picture
Chelsea Dale
Founder and President, On Giants' Shoulders

Hello John Harris,

I am glad you commented because I can clear up some misconceptions. OGS is completely free. There are never any charges, fees or costs by OGS at any time. Everyone involved with our program volunteers their time because we are passionate about this issue. It is unfortunate that your school does not have computers in your classroom, but many schools in underserved areas do have computers in the classroom or computer labs elsewhere in the school. The phones that state some of your students have would work as well. Three students as a group use one computer, laptop or tablet (or even a phone) at the same time so it is not necessary for everyone to have a device. You may be able to have 4 students at a time using one device. If the chats are done consecutively rather than simultaneously you would be able to accommodate up to 36 students in 45 minutes. We believe that one day per week is sufficient for the goals of our program, but you certainly could incorporate what the students experienced from their chat into the every day team building/energizer you mentioned.

Rose's picture

This sounds great. I am wondering if you have any research data to support that the program is successful. If so, can you share that with me?

Chelsea Dale's picture
Chelsea Dale
Founder and President, On Giants' Shoulders


Thank you for the question. We are considering performing outcome studies. An evidence basis of the concepts behind our model can be found on our website.

Megan Davis's picture

As a middle school educator, one of the biggest challenges I face is motivating my students. I really enjoyed reading the various strategies you mentioned. I cannot wait to incorporate these in my classroom and hopefully this will improve student motivation in all of my classes. Awesome blog!

Muddy's picture

Hahahahaha, guess you all missed this one: "pliable students" Hahahahaha. And there it is!

If you don't get pliable students that can be manipulated, coerced, and dominated, you are stuck, stuck, stuck. Those poor headstrong kids!

Wwwwwake up to the fact that the only way to join the revolution is to quit being a cog in the system: quit quit quit. Do something you really like, your passion (and I got news for you, it ain't "helping the children") or join another kind of school, the school of the future, where children own their school day, decide what to do, who to do it with, and who they need to help them do what they want to do (often not adults). It's a reality now and will be the only way in the future.

Drop out! Join in! You won't be quitting, you'll be solving the problem. You'll really do right by children.

Leona Hinton's picture

I totally love this brilliant program!
Probably, 15 minutes is not enough but it's definitely a good starting point.

Samuel Dashwood's picture

Seems to me that--at its core--this is a student mentoring program that matches kids based on interests. Given how much younger grades tend to look up to higher grades, this is a good opportunity to introduce them to potential role models. You won't save the world, but you might open some eyes to what's possible.

I can see this as part of a larger framework supporting the students.

Lionel Duffield's picture
Lionel Duffield
Sales and marketing manager for last 20 years

Great article Chelsea....

There is also one more program named studybooster that allows students to create study goals, invite sponsors and earn after completion of the goal. It's totally free. And it's working now in Australia.

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