The Aspen Institute Business & Society Program recently asked me to write a blog entry on educational innovation.   You can check out my thoughts on that topic at:


A new school year has begun.   I hope your classes are all off to a great start.  

One of the discussions that I have with myself at the beginning of every new school year is about my role as a motivator for my students.   Over the years, I have had a number of conversations with college professors who adamantly assert that student motivation is not their responsibility.  Their feelings certainly have some validity:   “These students are adults.  By this time, it is their responsibility to provide their own motivation.   If they don’t want to learn the material, then they should not be in my class.   In fact, I am not sure they should be in college if they are not interested.   I am not going to treat them like third graders who have to be coaxed into learning arithmetic, geography, and the like.  I am here to explain the materials and help them understand the complexities but I am not a cheerleader.   That is not my job.   When a student signs up for my class, they are saying that they are willing to do the work necessary because they want to learn the material.   It is not my responsibility to be a motivator.”  

In an ideal world, I might well agree with that philosophy.   In that world, students would walk into class ready to learn and constantly beg to be pushed further.  

At least in my class, it is not an ideal world.   My students are very bright but they have a number of other classes as well as job interviews and a wide array of extracurricular activities.  The fact that I actually want them to learn and understand the material can get lost in the helter-skelter existence of a college student.  

And, to tell the truth, every college teacher is a motivator in some way simply by their mere presence in the classroom.   Some teachers might motivate students to stretch themselves beyond their abilities.   Others might encourage the students to do little or no work.   Teachers cannot disassociate themselves from motivation.   Instead, they can decide how they want that motivation to impact the students and their work.  

I always believe that two different types of motivation are available for college professors.   I refer to the first as the “football coach.”   The professor walks into the room and starts pushing students onward.    “I want everyone to learn this material; therefore, I am going to tell you exactly what I want you to do and will expect you to do it.   I have designed every step that I want you to follow and I will push you to do them all and do them well because I want to see great results.”   Picture a football coach like Bear Bryant of the University of Alabama or Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers.   By pushing with enthusiasm and conviction, they motivated their players to greatness.

The “football coach” version of motivation can be very successful.   Think back to all the great teachers you have known over the years and I would expect some, possibly many, to have followed this strategy.   The teacher provides the ambition and the energy and views poor grades as losses to be avoided.   The word that I often associate with the football coach-teacher is “demanding.”   They demand the best from their students and push them forward to achieve that goal. 

Why are there not more college teachers who adopt the football coach approach?   It is a lot of work and takes a considerable amount of energy and some students resist being pushed along even if it is for their own good.  

The other type of classroom motivation that I see is the “scout leader” approach.    This person has a lot of patience and will work carefully with students for hours to make sure they understand the material.   However, the scout leader wants the education to be student-centered.   The goal is for the student to do the work because the student has come to see its importance and not because of being forced.    The scout leader views the role of the teacher as one of guidance.    “If you want to learn this material, I will be glad to help you in every way I can.   I’ll show you why the material is important but the decision to actually do the work has to be with you as the student.    It is your life.   I can show you how to start a fire but, after that, you have to decide whether you want to practice enough to actually be able to start a fire.”

Once again, if you think about the great teachers you have known over the years, almost certainly some have been scout leaders.    They will often be described as “kind” and “caring.”   They are patient guides who enable a student to be successful if that is what the student chooses to do.   There is often a love of learning that is conveyed from teacher to student.

Okay, here are a few questions to ponder.  

--If you were a student in college once again, which type of motivation would you prefer?   Did you like professors who pushed you toward success or professors who guided and enabled you but left the decisions about what path to take up to you?
--In your building, who is the best football coach teacher and who is the best scout leader teacher?   It is good to have role models who can show you how a particular approach can be used to achieve success.
--If I asked your students whether you are more like a football coach or more like a scout leader, what would they tell me?   Self-assess.   What kind of motivator are you?
--How satisfied are you with your motivational strategy?   Is it working as you would like?   Are you getting the results that you want?    That is the ultimate question.   If the results are not what you want, how can you tweak your motivation?   Do you need to push more or guide more?   How do you motivate?

Interesting questions to consider by any teacher.

When I talk about motivation at presentations, someone in the audience will invariably ask me whether I am a football coach or a scout leader.   My response is always the same because I have thought about this for many years.   Teachers in college have very limited time to accomplish their goals.   In a normal semester, I am only with my students for 150 minutes per week for about 14 weeks.  I have to get my students up and running very quickly.  

I start out each new semester as a football coach.   I tell the students exactly what I want them to do and demand that they comply.   I want my students always well prepared for class so I require preparation.   I want my students to develop stronger critical thinking skills so I prepare tough questions that I require them to work in order to reach logical solutions.

However, almost from the first day, I begin to slide over toward the scout leader model.   I want the students to become more responsibility for their own learning.   I only want to be a football coach for the first few weeks.   Gradually, I move into more of a guidance model.   The transition cannot be too quick or the students will become confused.   However, with practice, the pushing and demanding can morph into guiding and enabling.  

For me, teacher-centered education is okay to get the group started well but needs to become student-centered education by the last part of the semester.   I want each student to get off to a great start and that is easier for me to do as a football coach.   By the end of the semester, I want the students getting actively into their own education—not because I demand it but because that is what they want to do.  

But that is just how I like to work.   You have to decide for yourself whether you are suited for the “football coach” model or the “scout leader” model or possibly something in-between.   If any person is going to walk into a classroom as a teacher, some level of motivation (either for good or bad) is going to take place.    You ought to consider what type of motivation is best for you and for your students.

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