Success in any endeavor is directly proportional to how well the people who are involved in it get along with each other.“    —Dr. William Glassier

Feeling like you’re part of a group of people who actually want each other to do well changes everything.“  — Nadeen M., student

As every teacher knows, the difference between a student’s success and failure in school is often directly tied to motivation.  In general, unsuccessful students do poorly because they are unmotivated. Even successful students may be motivated for the wrong reasons, going through the motions of doing school, gaming the system; their goal is to accumulate good grades, and learning is often incidental for them.

Many of the factors that contribute to these motivational problems —  social pressures outside of school, their personal histories of success and failure in school, the stresses of poverty, being told what to by adults all day (they are teenagers, after all), family issues — are completely out of our control.

Even worse, because our primary goal is for students to become internally motivated to grow personally and intellectually, we are confronted with an inescapable paradox:  We cannot make our students become self-directed learners.  Any extrinsic rewards we use to cajole or entice them to rely on their intrinsic drive are doomed to sabotage that drive.

What can we do?  Since we cannot make it happen from the outside, this most fundamental transition, the acquisition of a sense of agency, must occur from the inside out.  And here we have a most powerful tool at our disposal. There is one factor, perhaps the most critical in shaping student motivation, which is often invisible because it is everywhere.  It is the classroom culture, and, like fish in the sea, we and our students are unaware of the water in which we swim.

We are all cultural creatures, but our students, who are actively forming their adult identities, are especially so.  If a student finds himself in a classroom culture that is riddled with cynicism or apathy or mean-spirited selfishness, he is prone to internalize and act on those attributes.  If, on the other hand, the classroom culture is energetic, compassionate, and engaging, he will tend to conform to those norms.

We cannot, as teachers, force any student to become a responsible, self-directed learner, but we can work to create a classroom culture that supports and cultivates those traits. When a student feels as much pride in what he is doing in his biology or history class as he does on his basketball team, we know the right culture has been established.  The goals of the group have become his internal goals as well.

So what do we as teachers need to focus on to create this culture?  We need to be mindful of a set of transitions that must occur simultaneously.  The biggest change is one of purpose. We are dismantling the Curriculum Transfer Model and replacing it with the Student Growth Model.  Our priorities as teachers therefore shift from successfully delivering the content to facilitating our students’ intellectual and personal growth.  Our focus moves from teaching to learning. We are changing our classroom structures to be more responsive to individual student needs, more inclusive, and more socially engaging.

We are giving our students voice, the power to make decisions for themselves and for others, the freedom necessary to steer their own learning process.  We are challenging unsuccessful students to move from a fixed to a growth mindset, so that they can become tenacious, self-directed learners. We are working to help them cultivate the attributes of success.

We want our students to learn and to grow into their full potential.  The structures described in this book—study groups, learning contracts, student self-evaluation, and so forth — provide essential scaffolding for that purpose, but none of these strategies can be successful unless they are built on the foundation of an appropriate classroom culture.  The internal motivation that propels students’ growth grows out of that culture.