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As regular readers know, I try – and write about – the many different strategies I use to try and help my students to motivate themselves, along with periodically throwing a does of extrinsic motivation into the mix.

A third of my attempts fail miserably, another third work for awhile before they fall flat and – when I’m looking through rose-colored glasses – I think a third of them work for a reasonable amount of time.

I often write about the immediate and short-term failures, and will make a lengthy compilation list of those in a future post.

I also write about my efforts that seem to work, though not as often because they occur less frequently than my misfirings.

One that may have some staying power – fingers-crossed – is a strategy I wrote about in December –HERE’S A NEW “INDIVIDUALIZED” HOMEWORK STRATEGY I’M TRYING WITH MY ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNER STUDENTS. That one seems to be continuing to work fairly well.

Today, I was prompted by an NPR interview to “repackage” one I’ve tried in previous years – with mixed success.

The NPR show was titled Yale professor teaches influence and she says it’s your superpower. There’s a lot of good stuff in it, but here’s the part that really caught by attention:

The magic question is, what would it take?…The magic question is magic because, first of all, it’s respectful. This is a way that you want to be influenced by someone. So even when you teach it to other people and they’re using it with you, you ask each other, what would it take? – and – ah, the magic question. But you tell each other it feels good. The magic question is magic because you get creative and surprising answers that you never would have expected. And thirdly, it’s magic because when they tell you, here’s the roadmap to success, they are implicitly committing to supporting that outcome.

That part is accompanied by an interesting anecdote that you can read there in its entirety.

It reminded me of something similar I had tried one time as a classroom management strategy a few years ago as a last resort, and wrote about in A Look Back: “How To Turn A Negative Consequence Into A Positive Classroom Management Strategy.” 

But the NPR story got me thinking about using it in a more positive context.

So, here is what I did:

Our school happens to have just begun state English testing this week, and is starting with my students.  The test is relatively useless but, since my students are -in-and-out of class, I have them all working independently, and it gives me a chance to have individual meetings with them.

So, one-at-a-time, I called students up to meet with me in my “office” (my desk in the front corner with a stool where students can sit).  I began with those who have been facing challenges.

For each student, I began by drawing a line across a sheet of paper, with a “0” on one end and a “100” on the other.  I explained that the “0” would signify they were putting no effort into learning English and the “100” would indicate they were doing everything possible to learn it.  I then gave them the paper and asked them to make a mark where they thought they fell on the line.

Every student marked almost exactly where I would have said they were based on my observations.

I then asked them about their future hopes and dreams, and we discussed how learning English was going to be critical for them achieving those goals.

Next, I put a mark on the line that was perhaps thirty-or-forty points higher than they had said they were presently at, and asked what the NPR show had labeled as the “magic question” – “What would it take for them to get there?”

Before they had a chance to respond, though, I gave my own example.  I explained that, in terms of exercise, I was at the same spot on the line as they were in learning English.  I need to get higher, so I am always trying to think of ways to motivate myself – sometimes I reward myself with a food treat after I work out, or I think about the positive reinforcement I get from my wife and kids after I do it.  The real question is what can we think of to motivate ourselves to do something when we really don’t want to do it?

Framing the issue as something all of us face, as opposed to just something they were facing, seemed to make a big difference.  I could see on many of their faces that it helped them move from feeling like it was a personal shortcoming and deficit to recognizing it was a universal problem.

The “magic question” can still be a tough one to answer, though, but the students I spoke to didn’t have any problem responding to it.  One said she really wanted to be able to tell her father in Mexico that she had “A’s” in class, so we laid-out a very feasible plan of what she had to do to get that grade.  Another said he would like the support of extra tutoring from our bilingual aide, and that was easy to arrange.

After we had the conversation about learning English, I then asked each student to put a mark on the line about where they would assess their behavior and class leadership.  Again, every student indicated they were the place I would have observed.  I asked the magic question again, and here was where students had problems coming up something and needed to hear ideas from me.  I shared several, including implementing a Sticky-Note strategy I’ve used (see “MR. FERLAZZO, I NEED MY POST-IT, TOO”); creating a “secret sign,” like a tap on the shoulder, I would give to a student when they need to tone-it-down (instead of calling out their name); and offering the possibility of giving an “Outstanding” instead of “Satisfactory” citizenship grade.  We were able to work out mutually acceptable plans.

Who knows if this is going to be one of those strategies that immediately fails, has short-term success, or will have a reasonable “shelf-life”?

But it’s worth a shot.

I’m adding this post to Best Posts On “Motivating” Students.

And, of course, feedback is always welcome and appreciated.