Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Creating Motivating Learning Environments: Teachers Matter

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Creating Motivating Learning Environments: Teachers Matter

Article excerpt

Teachers can influence students' motivation to achieve in school.

Listening to the conversations of middle level students can reveal much about what young adolescents think, feel, need, and want in their lives both in and outside school (Doda & Knowles, 2008). Listening to the conversations of middle level teachers often reveals significant concerns they have about why their students are not achieving or just do not seem to care. In my 17 years as a middle level teacher and teacher educator, I have rarely heard students' and teachers' conversations converge around common understandings and ideas. Now more than ever, in a climate of high-stakes accountability, educators need to better understand why young adolescents do and do not achieve. We need to find ways to merge students' and teachers' conversations. When teachers heed what middle level students say about their motivation to achieve, they can create more motivating learning environments. When teachers create motivating learning environments, students behave better and achieve at higher levels (Easton, 2008).

As a researcher, I have spent many hours interviewing middle level students to find out what makes them motivated, what makes them frustrated, and what truly excites them (Daniels, 2010). From them, I have learned the key attributes of motivating learning environments. I also frequently co-teach in middle level classrooms, and from these experiences I have gained a deeper understanding of what motivating learning environments look like. The intent of this article is to offer some specific suggestions from students about how teachers can create more motivating learning environments and to offer concrete ways teachers can incorporate these suggestions into their daily classroom practice. I share the voices of middle level students, who often say that they know motivation comes from within, but their teachers play a crucial role in calling forth and influencing that drive. According to middle level students, teachers do matter a lot; and there are many actions they can take to create motivating learning environments that positively influence students' behavior and achievement.

Who are young adolescents?

Young adolescents experience distinct social, emotional, physical, and cognitive changes that usually begin just as they enter the middle grades (Wilcox & Angelis, 2010). This means they must adjust to the developmental changes at the same time they are transitioning to a new environment. They undergo internal hormonal changes and external bodily changes as they experience growth spurts and enter puberty (Eccles & Wigfield, 1997). Their intellectual capabilities increase rapidly in complexity, and they crave opportunities to exercise more control over their lives (Lipka, 1997). They want to learn academic content through rich, challenging, and social activities (Shernoff & Vandell, 2007). As they enter the middle grades, many young adolescents struggle to cope with larger, unfamiliar settings (Vanlede, Little, & Card, 2006) and to form their individual identities at the same time they are becoming increasingly reliant on peer acceptance (Mizelle & Mullins, 1997).

Teachers need to keep in mind that the kids who sit in their classrooms with their hoods up and their heads down are not much different from the bright-eyed, engaged children who eagerly answer every question. They all have an idea about what they need in order to be engaged in or care about school, but some have developed better coping skills to function when they do not receive what they need. The students who lack those coping skills are often the ones who spend much of their time in detention or on suspension. Teachers cannot make their students motivated. They cannot force a young adolescent to care about Steinbeck, fractions, or the periodic table. What teachers can do is create motivating learning environments.

Motivating learning environments: Teachers matter

In my surveys of and interviews with middle level students, the most compelling thread in their comments is that teachers matter in terms of the relationships they do or do not build with students. …

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