Motivating Students to Success

I was first introduced to attribution theory when I took a class from Madeline Hunter back in the mid-80s. The concept that we tend to attribute our successes or failures to reasons that fall within four categories – task difficulty, luck, innate ability/talent, and effort – was intriguing. I still remember Dr. Hunter emphasizing that in working with students, effort was key, as it is the one attribute over which individuals have control. If a student tries hard to succeed and then fails, he or she begin to blame his or her lack of success on one of the other three categories – e.g., “it’s too hard for me,” “I wasn’t lucky enough to get a good teacher,” or “I’m just not good in math.” Her point: We as educators must do all we can do to ensure that student effort is met with success.

I was delighted to find that Debbie Silver expanded on this theory in her book Fall Down 7 Times, Get up 8; Teaching Kids to Succeed. In the book, Silver explores how educators often unknowingly impact what students believe about their successes or failures. Beginning in the early 1970s, parents and teachers were often told that the best way to build student self-esteem was to “make every kid feel like a winner.” The supposition was that if we helped kids feel good about themselves regardless of their accomplishments, their positive perceptions would translate into better school work. However, effusive praise for work that does not result from significant effort has little positive effect on behavior. It may seem incongruous, but many theorists believe inappropriate praise can do more harm than good.

Debbie will be speaking twice at Ignite ’14. During the Middle Level Viewpoint on Friday, February 7 at 3:45 PM, she will explore what schools must do to ensure that students become the independent, resilient learners they need to be in order to succeed in today’s globalized, digital, Common Core world. Attendees will leave with a better understanding of internal motivation, along with myriad ideas for helping students become lifelong learners.

On Saturday the 8th at 2:15, she will present “The Power of Words—It Is About What You Say!” with a focus on giving feedback that promotes student growth. As a preview of her presentations, enjoy Silver’s article “Freedom to Fall (and Get Up and Succeed)” from the January issue of Principal Leadership.

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