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Choice Equals Power: How to Motivate Students to Learn

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“Everyone is interested in something, it just may not be the thing we want them to be interested in,” said Larry Ferlazzo, an English and Social Studies teacher at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, California in a recent conversation with Steve Hargadon on the Future of Education. Ferlazzo exemplifies the hardworking public school teacher balancing the demands of high stakes testing with everything else he wants his students to learn. He’s spent a lot of time researching the science of learning and has written several books, the most recent called Self-Driven Learning: Teaching Strategies for Student Motivation.

“One of the key elements of helping students develop more intrinsic motivation is developing relationships, knowing what students are genuinely interested in and being able to connect with that,” Ferlazzo said. He had a student with a long history of academic under-performance. When Ferlazzo asked the class to write a persuasive essay about the most challenging natural disaster in history, the student refused. But when Ferlazzo told him he could write persuasively on why the Raiders are the best football team, he got to work. His success on the assignment inspired him to write another persuasive essay for extra credit and to proudly show his mom his work.

“Unfortunately, often times in our schools, the standardization of both testing and lessons do not leave time for trying to help students develop that inner capacity,” Ferlazzo said. “It’s more let’s get through the chapters, whether it’s connected to students’ lives and their vision, or not.” Ferlazzo kept his eye on the goal of writing persuasively and was able to show flexibility that gave the student space to learn on his own terms.


Ferlazzo’s school is Title I; all the students qualify for free and reduced lunch. Some of his students don’t know where they will be sleeping each night and life outside of school can feel out of control to many of them. Ferlazzo recognizes the external challenges his students face, but still tries to give them authentic choices within the classroom to help them develop intrinsic motivation to learn.


“Clearly the more power students have, the better, assuming they are in a position to use it and they have good judgment when they use it,” Ferlazzo said. He’s a realist and is interested in solutions that work in the world as it exists today, not how they might work in a fantasy school that doesn’t exist yet. In his class, some easy ways to give students genuine choice include discussing the seating chart, allowing them to help decide how misbehavior should be punished or inviting input on the cafeteria menu.

“For a lot of our students, having them just involved in deciding what kind of homework to get is a good first step for developing a sense of power,” Ferlazzo said. And when they are given that opportunity to make the learning experience their own they care more. Ferlazzo challenges his students to think about why learning to read and write is important in their lives as they envision it. His students keep “life skills notebooks” to think through how what they learn in school connects to their experience of life.


Any public school teacher will say that tests loom large in the classroom. No Child Left Behind tied school funding to test scores in math and English Language Arts, subjects that have increasingly dominated classroom time. Preparing students for tests that matter for their advancement and future success is important, but Ferlazzo points to studies showing prolonged focus on test prep produces a short term bump in scores accompanied by a long term deterioration in achievement. Ferlazzo finds that approach unethical and a disservice to his students.

He still does test prep, but for only a handful of classes. Instead, he focuses on giving his students strategies to deal with high stakes, high stress situations in the future. “The reality of it is these are high stakes for all of us, and students can develop skills or knowledge about how to be focused in high stakes situations that they can apply to job interviews in the future and other high stakes situations,” Ferlazzo said.

Ten minutes before the test, Ferlazzo has his students write about a successful ancestor because research shows recalling a personal success can help increase motivation. He also has students talk to one another about something that interests them because it activates the brain, helping them to be a little more “on.” He also advocates that his students take the tests in a familiar place, somewhere comfortable. His students take the exam in the English classroom with him as their proctor.


Helping students to think about how they learn and to assess themselves is the Ferlazzo's big goal. “We want students to be able to see it in their self-interest to be thinking about their thinking when we’re not around, when they’re not even going to get graded on their meta-cognition and awareness,” he said. If students can do that, they will not only be more motivated, but they will have a deeper skill to take with them beyond the classroom.

This version of personalized learning is quite different from the data-driven computer-based learning dominating education conversations today. Ferlazzo is all for data, but he doesn’t think tech-based data collectors are assessing some of the most critical data points. He’s thinking about the quality of student questions, whether they are relating topics to other things they’ve learned, and if they can effectively help a peer learn. Helping students to identify personal learning styles, tricks to improve research and studying and an awareness of how he or she learners, is much more personalized than any data report spit out by a computer.

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