We Need To Change The Verb: Adolescents Want To Be Engaged Not Managed

Whenever I am at a family reunion, social gathering with friends, church picnic, or any other event with individuals who are not educators I inevitably get the sympathetic tones, the poor yous, and the how do you do its? Easy! There are so many benefits to working with youth. Keeps me young. I get to see the brand new styles first hand. I get to hear the new slang as it emerges. I get tutorials on the newest social media. I get to hear the fresh, unedited ideas for creating promising futures in our world. Unfortunately, some adults, sometimes unintentionally, take on the approach that adolescents need to be disciplined, managed, or otherwise shaped. The expectation that a room full of well-mannered compliant students equates effective education or engaged pupils is faulty thinking on many levels. Certainly, we can all agree that we don’t want our students in poorly managed classrooms where off task behavior, disrespect, and spitballs abound. When we try to manage our students; however, we often find ourselves spending too much time focusing on negative behaviors, nuisance devices, and noncompliance, and too little time on the learning we want all students to acquire in their time with us.

So what do we do? Let’s change the verb. Instead of managing our students, let’s focus on engaging them. Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines the verb manage with phrases such as “to handle or direct,” “to make compliant,” “to alter for a purpose.” Our youth naturally will resist being handled, controlled, or altered. Imagine the energy in our classrooms if we instead looked to the synonyms of engage which include: absorb, engross, fascinate, grip, immerse, interest, intrigue, and involve. The recent proliferation of adolescent motivation and engagement research gives us practical advice on how to create engaging environments where learning is central every day. The work of Dweck (2006); Guthrie (2008); Pink (2009) and others, provide us with sound principles for creating an environment where students feel safe and free to academically stretch themselves.

Principle #1 Once they get it, you’ve got ‘em

In Engaging Adolescents in Reading, Guthrie (2008) clearly illustrates that the goals students and instructors set related to reading have to foster intrinsic motivation. Students need to read for meaning and when they do, they comprehend and are engaged. Conversely, if we coerce students into reading through quizzes, study guides, or teacher directed whole class discussion, students will read only for the score, the answer, or the hopes of giving an answer that pleases their instructor. Pink (2009) argues further that this environment based on external measures and instructor created goals can lead to unethical behaviors including cheating, skimming and scanning (as a short cut, not as an efficient review strategy), or outright defiance and disengagement.

We can increase motivation for our students by centering text instruction on metacognition. When students consciously think about their thinking and reflect as they read, they become acutely aware of their strengths and areas where thoughts are getting them off task or confusing the comprehension. Teaching students to annotate text (write their thinking in the margin or on a post it note) and then reflect on which thoughts lead to deeper reading and comprehension, students can negotiate the metacognition skills they should strengthen. It also gives them flexibility to use visualizing when painting a picture in their mind will clarify confusion, or to question the author when reading an editorial. Students begin to recognize that making their own predictions and hypotheses while they read scientific texts and adjusting those predictions as they go truly does give them an insight into the discipline of science—making, testing, and adjusting hypotheses.

This strategy is especially beneficial in fostering an environment that embraces questioning. For example, if students are sent home with a reading assignment and reading guide, but are given permission to record questions if they are unable to generate answers to the teacher created questions, they are more likely to engage in the reading. Students feel comfortable recognizing when they get confused by the text or content and are rewarded with their questions when they come to class. By reducing the anxiety students feel when they don’t “get it” the first time, we foster deep and repeated reading for knowledge acquisition.

Principle #2 Engage doesn’t necessarily mean entertain

I will admit that as I would hear and read about the necessity for teachers to engage adolescents by making our content relevant, my colleagues and I would gripe that it really isn’t our job to do a song and dance for our students. And I really can’t think of ways to connect Of Mice and Men to Lady Gaga. If we wanted to be entertainers we would instead have entered the circus, stand up comedy, or acting. When we stopped lamenting and started really listening; however, we learned that relevance means connecting the new learning to what they already know. And that engage doesn’t mean entertain, it means facilitating learning where students are “in the zone” as Nancy Atwell (2007) refers to, or that state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) where students lose all track of time.

When I let go of the need to be funny (which I am not), uber creative (which can come and go), or contemporary (which would be comical), I suddenly had the time and freedom of thought to consider connections that can be made to what my students already know and have experienced. I considered how I could create a relevant and current essential question or big idea (Burke, 2010) as the foundation to my unit. Elie Wiesel has said “the opposite of love isn’t hate, its indifference.” As we read Night in my English 10 class, students explored, debated, and reflected on Wiesel’s quotation. They considered it as they looked to current genocide, as well as their independent reading choice, a book related somehow to the Holocaust or WWII in Europe. This frame for our exploration of memoir, historical fiction, and non-fiction was engaging for my students. Especially when given the opportunity to consider the themes of love, hate, and indifference in our community, school, and even our own class.

Principle # 3 Leave the carrots and sticks, candy and suspensions out of the classroom.

Bestselling author Daniel Pink challenges our conventional wisdom when it comes to motivating people in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us (2009). We have been conditioned (pun intended) to believe that motivation comes from either rewards or punishments. However, Pink points out that in a situation where baseline rewards are met, carrots and sticks can actually cause harm. In the business world, baseline rewards mean that an individual’s salary, benefits, schedule, and perks are all fair or just above fair market value. For the sake of this context, let’s assume in the classroom these include fair grading policies, a comfortable learning environment, and a “perk” now and then—perhaps a field trip or a late work pass. In the classrooms where educators focus on points, praise, stickers, and Snickers to coerce performance, or degrade, give detentions, and take away points when they are not coerced, students will inevitably turn to behaviors we don’t want in any learning environment.

I remember reading Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards (1999) years ago and thinking, Hogwash! My students LOVE their participation points during large group discussion. I have so many hands in the air. As they give quality thoughts, I tally a point. We can go like this all hour. Well, to prove Mr. Kohn wrong, I left my tally board in my office one day and started our whole class discussion of The Crucible just like the last time. I knew they would have a lot to say. After all, we get to talk about Parris’ real motivations today. So with enthusiasm I asked my first engaging question. And to my horror, not one hand when up in the air! I waited. I had learned that I must increase my wait time. Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock. Still none. When I asked them to level with me and tell me why the big change, I heard, “Where’s your clipboard?” “Don’t we get participation points?” When I said, “No. . .we don’t need that today. Let’s just discuss. Let’s savor the richness of the scandal!” My students responded, a bit too naturally, with indignation.

In order to avoid the unintended consequences that come with rewards and punishments, we need to de-emphasize grades and points as well as focus on effective feedback. The way that I found to take the stress off of grades and place it appropriately back on learning was to begin entering grades in my online grade book under the categories of essential learnings instead of the traditional categories of homework, speeches, quizzes, and tests. This allowed students to see and measure progress within each goal area. In addition, I implemented self-reflection as a regular practice in class; giving my own grade and feedback only after students had graded themselves. Dweck (2006) advises us that in addition to increasing timely feedback we need to make sure we are giving appropriate feedback, the kind that will lead to growth. She proposes we focus on effort, process, and specific references to our essential learnings. She warns us to avoid focus on product, generic feedback or comparisons to other students in the class.

I have forced myself to resist the quick feedback to my students who come up to me the day before a major paper is due and say, “Will you read this? Is this good?” Instead of “Yep, looks good,” I say, “How do you feel about it?” “Are you proud of the effort you’ve put into it?” After their response, I say, “I look forward to reading it when I collect all of them tomorrow.” Many go back and work even harder for another day. They begin to move from the mindset of “Is it good enough?” to “Is it my best work?”

Principle #4 Go ahead. Hand over the controls

One of the most powerful changes I have made after steeping myself in adolescent literacy research, specifically when it comes to engagement, is letting go of control. I like to run a tight ship. I like to maximize learning time. I like to know what each student is doing, thinking, writing, reading, at each moment in my classroom. These qualities are not necessarily bad. In fact, they allow me to set and maintain high expectations for all my students. Unfortunately, these attributes also at times made the classroom about me, not about the students.

Thankfully, I have learned that my students natural inclination is to seek independence and resist constraints. So instead of fighting that, why not embrace it. Let students have independence. I work with my students, as their coach and ally. We can instead ignite, intrigue, and involve our students. This takes trial and error, practice, and refinement and I am not suggesting that classes be free-for-alls. Students need our expectations, our guidance, and to know we are in their corner. Even, and especially, the students who claim to ‘not care’, refuse to do any work, or are cantankerous. Breaking through those barriers will reveal the young curious child who truly does want to learn. By building relationships with my students and helping them navigate their zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978) or ‘just right challenge’ I have been able to let go of control and be their guide on the side.

So what do you say? Will you join me in making this verb change? No more managing. Let’s instead engage.


Atwell, N. (2007). The reading zone: How to help kids become skilled, passionate, habitual, critical readers. New York: Scholastic, Inc.

Burke, J. (2010) What’s the big idea: question-driven units to motivate reading, writing, and thinking. Portsmouth, NH. Heinemann, Inc.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random
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Guthrie, J. T. (2008). Engaging adolescents in reading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Kohn, A. (1999) Punished by rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes New York: Houghton Mifflin, Inc.

Pink, D. (2009) Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York: Riverhead Books, member of Penguin Group, Inc.

Schmoker, M. (2011). Focus: Elevating the essentials to radically improve student learning.
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Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M.
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