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May 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 8

In the Netherlands / Reclaiming Kids' Motivation

When teachers use responsive instruction and the attunement strategy, they become attuned to students' perceptions and motivations. They can then enhance students' faith in their own competence and control.

When a student who is usually inactive during seatwork begins to concentrate, persist in a task, and ask good questions, teachers express surprise. "I see him differently" or "I have a feeling that I can really do something for him again," they respond. What has happened to restore their belief in student competence?
These are teachers who use the attunement strategy. They attempt to understand the motivation behind persistent off-task behavior and to work with these students on their own terms. In other words, the teachers attune their perception of the task to the student's perception.
If a student has a history of failure, he or she may be hampered by feelings of incompetence and the expectation of further failure. A teacher who understands this can encourage the student to recognize this unproductive perception of the task at hand. The teacher challenges the student to regain control of the problem-solving process. To do this, the teacher must propose certain goals and achievement expectations and consider the time and support needed. Consider the following example.

Tuning in to Sam

Ms. Smith, a 4th grade math teacher, presents the lesson for the day—a unit on adding fractions. After she assigns her students a page of addition problems to solve with paper and pencil, she notices that 9-year-old Sam seems reluctant to go to work. She sits next to him and asks him in a friendly way: "I see you have a problem getting started, Sam. Can you tell me what you're supposed to do today?"
Sam shakes his head and avoids making eye contact. She then asks him if he has ever completed a similar task. Sam shrugs and mutters that he doesn't know how to add up the fractions.
Ms. Smith is not dissuaded, however: "You think these sums are difficult and you expect you won't succeed?"
Sam nods his assent. His teacher asks him to look in his notebook for similar work he did two days ago. He immediately recognizes the similarity with today's assignment, smiles, and says he remembers how to figure out the sums.
After Sam explains what the task is all about, Ms. Smith asks him to estimate how many problems he will be able to solve correctly in the time allowed. "Twenty out of thirty, at least if I may use my abacus," Sam says, after thinking for a while.
His teacher accepts this estimate and agrees to let him use the abacus. She says she is confident that he will manage.
Sam works busily for about 20 minutes. When he has completed the task, he shows it to his teacher. She asks him whether he has checked his work. He nods and she checks it again. Sam added up 22 columns correctly.
His teacher compliments him on his good estimate and asks how he succeeded in such a difficult task. "Because I am able to do it and worked so hard," Sam says proudly. His teacher fully agrees with him.

Reclaiming Sam's Competence

By taking time to talk to Sam and by sitting next to him and maintaining eye contact, Sam's teacher shows that she has high expectations for him and supports his growing competence. By giving positive feedback, Sam's teacher confirms that his ability and effort contributed to his success. Above all, by inviting Sam to make his concerns explicit, she challenges him to set his own achievement goals. She has tuned in to Sam's perception of the problem and made him responsible for solving it.
By being sensitive to Sam's motivation, his teacher engages in what we call responsive instruction (Castelijns 1996), the heart of the attunement strategy. The approach holds that all pupils—even underachievers—are critical thinkers and have motives for their behavior. In this psychological sense, pupils are full partners of teachers. In responsive instruction, teachers (a) show that they are available to offer support; (b) support students' competence; and (c) reclaim students' autonomy, encouraging them to think and make decisions along with the teacher.
We developed the attunement strategy and its responsive instruction approach with the help of teams of teachers in the Netherlands. Now, teams in about 15 percent of our elementary schools (about 1,200 teachers in all) have adopted the approach. The strategy is also used in all teacher training colleges in the Netherlands and in a course for school psychologists. The staffs of all school psychological services in the Netherlands practice responsive instruction. In addition, in a small sample of British and German schools, educators have implemented the strategy (Hastings 1996, Van Werkhoven 1996).
Responsive Instruction is generally applicable with one precondition: A teacher must maintain fairly good discipline during classroom seatwork, leaving time for the short conversations.

Undermining Motivation

After learning about the attunement strategy, the teachers we worked with were interested in examining how they may have contributed to the persistent off-task behavior of their students. One reason pupils may not do their best is that they experience the education process as prescriptive and controlled.
Although prescription and control may be effective (Slavin et al. 1989), the practice inevitably suggests that pupils are "responding systems." This ignores evidence of the proactive character of human development, learning, and behavior (Bruner and Haste 1987) and the need for self-determination (Deci and Ryan 1985).
In fact, children take an active part in their own development and, in a way, choose their own behavior; they think, estimate, judge, and evaluate—in the classroom as elsewhere. They are actors in the education process, not the objects of education. If problems arise, teachers must ask for students' opinions and for the reasons behind opinions. Without this information and their pupils' cooperation, teachers cannot succeed.
First, we must recognize that human behavior is motivated by universal needs. Deci and Chandler (1986) believe that schools often lack understanding of the concept of human motivation. The authors formulate three basic psychological needs, which together provide the intrinsic motivation necessary for development and learning: the need for autonomy, competence, and relations. These are permanent needs. Students who easily cope at school can easily satisfy them. For the underachievers, however, the picture is quite different.
Continuous, competitive testing in school portrays underachievers as academically incompetent. In the pupil's eyes, this incompetence is confirmed by the teacher's low expectations, which the pupil comes to accept as the truth. Thus, the prophecies are self-fulfilling (Jussim 1986, Weinstein 1989).
Further, underachievers are increasingly dependent on their teachers' help, patience, interest, and expertise, and on the time the teacher has available. Both of these conditions—perceived incompetence and dependency—may become a burden in the classroom, hurting the child's relationship with both teacher and classmates.
A paradoxical situation then arises. Children go to school to learn, and they want to learn. When children do not meet expectations, educators sometimes feel embarrassed. Unintentionally, however, the school robs children of the basic motivation to participate—the opportunity to take responsibility for their own development and learning.

A Rational Withdrawal

The concept of "the inactive learner" (Torgesen 1977)—a child who, based on previous disappointing experiences, no longer makes use of his or her cognitive capacities—is consistent with this cognitive-motivational approach to learning. Inactive learners avoid experiences of incompetence by withdrawing and looking for something else to do. In light of a pupil's primary motivational needs, this behavior is rational, although the effects may be disturbing for teachers and classmates. From the child's perspective, effort does not pay.
In contrast, the teacher's perspective is businesslike, directed toward realizing learning objectives, using curriculum materials, and making optimal use of the time available. The teacher will give pupils with problems extra or adapted instruction, but expects all pupils to stay on task and persist.
Although the inactive learner's perspective is no less realistic or justified than the teacher's perspective, the two are incompatible. The teacher is the only person who can break through this deadlock, namely by acquainting himself or herself with the pupil's perception and attuning his or her own perspective to it.

For Teachers, Feedback and Reflection

In training teachers in our strategy, we use guided video feedback on interactions with students who are off-task. A teacher watches the videos with a colleague—preferably someone who has had some experience with the strategy. The two colleagues reflect on the teacher's approach to individual pupils and on each pupil's subsequent behavior. They then apply what they've learned from their reflections, engaging in brief conversations with their pupils as they check on their work and offer individual help where necessary. (The pupil's task should be of average difficulty.)
Using training manuals as guides, teachers evaluate how effectively they have controlled behavior during seatwork. Based on the manual's suggestions, they may change their behavior in one or more ways. They apply these new approaches for two or three weeks, then repeat the videotaping and reflection process. To implement the strategy properly, teachers must make a conscious choice and a personal commitment to the strategy, which is flexible enough to allow for individual adaptations. During the feedback sessions, teachers set their own goals for change.

What Research Showed

In a series of studies from 1988 to 1994, several groups of teachers implemented this strategy under different conditions. The studies included students from white middle-class and lower-class families. We compared the teachers and students with one another and with controls. We assessed their progress with repeated measurements. Van Werkhoven (1996) studied implementation by 14 teachers in special schools for learning disabled children (each class included about 15 children, aged 8-10). Castelijns (1996) reported on implementation in two situations: by 143 teachers in 16 regular primary schools (about 24 children, aged 7-11, in each class); and by 20 kindergarten teachers, each of whom taught an average of 27 five- and six-year-olds.
In addition to quantitative methods of data collection, we used qualitative open methods, such as questionnaires, learner reports, journals, interviews, and observations. We attempted to monitor as many aspects of implementation as possible and to make the results of the several sources of data converge (triangulation). To analyze the results, we used familiar statistical techniques—analyses of variance/path analyses and multilevel analysis.
Our studies yielded two basic findings. First, they showed a significant statistical connection between responsive instruction and on-task behavior, as well as a positive change in teachers' perception of their pupils. In addition, as teachers became aware of their low expectations of pupils, they experienced a shock of recognition. They expressed surprise at their own results as pupils became active learners again.
The studies also showed that colleagues' support and the sharing of experiences are important factors in the strategy's success. And, finally, the study had an interesting spin-off. Based on their video observations or their desire to succeed with the strategy—or both—many teachers altered their teaching styles (for example, the length and intensity of their statements) and the way they managed and organized their classrooms.
It is difficult to judge the effectiveness of this approach in a purely scientific way because so many variables enter in—the nature and length of counseling and teachers' individual educational theories, for example. What is clear, however, is that the teachers trained in the strategy are enthusiastic over the results. And the results have a reciprocal effect: Both teacher and student gain increased control over the educational process.

Bruner, J., and H. Haste. (1987). Making Sense. London: Routledge.

Castelijns, J.H.M. (1996). "Responsive Instruction for Young Children: A Study of How Teachers Can Help Easily Distracted Children Become More Attentive." Emotional and Behavioral Difficulties 1, 1: 22-33.

Deci, E.L., and C.L. Chandler. (1986). "The Importance of Motivation for the Future of the LD Field." Journal of Learning Disabilities 19, 587-594.

Deci, E.L., and R.M. Ryan. (1985). Intrinsic Motivation and Self-determination in Human Behavior. New York: Plenum Press.

Hastings, N.J. (1996). "Classroom Motivation." In Effective Primary Teaching, edited by P. Croll and N. Hastings. London: Fulton.

Jussim, L. (1986). "Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: A Theoretical and Integrative Review." Psychological Review 93, 429-445.

Slavin, R.E., N.L. Karweit, and H.A. Madden, eds. (1989). Effective Programs for Students At-Risk. Boston: Allen and Bacon.

Torgesen, J.K. (1977). "The Role of Non-specific Factors in the Task Performance of Learning Disabled Children: A Theoretical Assessment." Journal of Learning Disabilities 10, 27-34.

Van Werkhoven, W. (1996). "Improving Instruction and Enhancing Motivation." In Advances in Motivation, edited by T. Gjesme and R. Nygard. Oslo: Scandinavian University Press.

Weinstein, R.S. (1989). "Perceptions of Classroom Processes and Student Motivation." In Motivation in Education 3, edited by C. Ames and R. Ames. San Diego: Academic Press.

Luc Stevens has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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