Student Projects on Motivation and Differentiation

K. C. Woods

EDU 230

Dr. Desautels


The Power of the Mind

Classroom Motto

To properly set myself on a mission in my educating of high school students, I have decided to create a classroom motto.  This motto will serve as a guide and a reminder of the environment that I want to create in the classroom:

Motivation influences the mind, the mind influences learning.

Allow me to elaborate on that motto a bit.  The first part of the motto is intended to show my dedication to being a motivator.  This quality is something that has come naturally to me, most likely through my experiences as a football player and now as a football coach.  I believe that it is my duty to motivate my students extrinsically so that they will, over time, develop their own intrinsic motivation toward their education.  The second part emphasizes the role that a motivated mind plays in the overall success of each and every student. A motivated mind is a tuned in mind and an active mind.  That motivated, focused, active mind will provide the prime opportunity for formation of knowledge and ideals.   



The Power of the Mind

            At this point, I would like to explain the reason and evidence for my focus on the power of the mind.  In all things that human beings partake in, the mind is involved.  It does not matter how petty or how complex the task or action, the mind must be keenly in-tuned to the objective or there can be no progress.  The mind can work for or against someone, which provides the monumental stage for motivation.  If the mind is properly directed in positive direction, then a person has taken the most crucial step toward success.  As I brainstorm this topic, I am reminded of so many pieces of evidence substantiating the premise of the enormity of the power of the mind.  Following his earth-shattering performance at the 2008 Biejing Olympic Games in which he won an Olympic record eight gold medals; Michael Phelps was quoted as saying “Nothing is impossible.  With so many people saying it couldn’t be done, all it takes is an imagination, and that’s something I learned and something that helped me.”[1]  In a moment in which Phelps could have immediately began talking about his physical ability, training regimen, or nutritional plan, Phelps decided, instead, to acknowledge the power of his imagination, his mind. 

            Unfortunately, the most prominent and compelling piece of evidence lies in a bitter story.  Psychologist Dr. Dudley Calvert detailed a true story about a Russian railway employee that accidentally locked himself in a refrigerator car.  Dr. Calvert recalls the notes that the employee made on the wall of the car.  These translated notes included, in this order, “I’m becoming colder,” “Still colder now,” “Nothing to do but wait…I am slowly freezing to death,” “Half asleep now, I can hardly write,” and lastly, “These may be my last words.”  That employee was found dead when the train reached its destination.  This is where the story takes an interesting turn.  It is documented that the temperature of the car was 56 degrees because the car’s freezing apparatus had been broken before the train ever departed.  There was plenty of air in the car, and there were no signs that he had suffocated.  In fact, there was no physical explanation found for his death.  Dr. Calvert says it best, “He was the victim of his own illusion.” Dr. Calvert concludes by stating that, “The power of the mind over the body can produce effects which seem almost magical.”[2]

            This story is so unbelievably telling of the impact that the human mind has on all human action, development, and interaction.  There should be no more motivation necessary for educators of any kind to buy into the idea that the best thing that they can do for each and every student is to find a way to activate and stimulate their minds in a positive manner.  Even above content knowledge, teachers must cherish and practice this ability over all other teacher skills or talents.  If this ability can be mastered, then educators could form a classroom environment that is so engaged that academic success is the only option.  This can only be done through finding a way to tap into each student’s psyche and figuring out what can drive them to desire the knowledge that the educator has to offer them.  Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation need to become cornerstones in the foundation of a solid classroom and teaching career, and most definitely have become the makeup of my classroom motto, which can be equated to my career mission.



            Before we are able to go any farther in our discussion of how we can use our knowledge about the power of the mind and motivation to reach each student, we must first understand the concept that makes up that reaching of every learner.   Marilee Sprenger offers her definition of differentiation as, “the teaching method that speaks to the brain-based teaching principle: Every brain is unique.”[3]  When we address the first part of Sprenger’s definition, we are exposed to the way in which this idea is utilized merely in classroom instruction and methods.  This is elaborated by Verna Eaton in this way, “Differentiated instruction is an approach to planning so that one lesson is taught to the entire class while meeting the individual needs of each child.”[4] 

            The key here is to understand that novelty fuels adolescent learning.  Novelty represents our ability to be innovative, creative, and unique in the way the classroom, and each lesson operates.  Novelty best envelopes the goals and purpose of differentiation, and is the direct route to achieving it. 

 For this to be successful, differentiation must take place in the content, process, and product portion of each lesson.  For the content portion of the lesson, educators must be various in the ways that they present the required content.  Teachers must find information related to content that sparks interest in their students based on individual variations in preference.  The process portion of differentiation in the teaching method is probably the area that allows for the most creativity by the teacher.  This is where the teacher gets to decide how they want to present the content.  Again, this needs to be various in an attempt to reach all students.  One way to do this is to provide the students options and leave it to their choice on how they would like to learn the content.  These options can consist of reading, group work, individual work, listening, viewing a video or PowerPoint, or participating in hands on activities.  Now, obviously it is not possible to allow each student to choose from one of these for each and every lesson, but it is possible to find the most beneficial combination of these tactics for your classroom based on the students that make it up.  Students must also be able to express the knowledge that they have obtained in a way that allows for their best demonstration of their success.  This is the product portion of the differentiated instruction method.  It is up to the educator to figure out the way in which certain students are best assessed for the retaining of content. 

            Teaching this way best allows for the possibility and probability of teaching to the whole brain.   Renate and Geoffrey Caine and Sam Crowell describe for us the functions of the left, middle, and right brains.  They offer the premise that each individual favors one of those areas of the brain, or in other words, they are dominant in one of the areas.  The authors talk about what it means to be dominant in each of the three brain sections.  They describe left-brain dominant learners as being very sequential, and do best with details, organization, and order.  The right-brain dominant individuals are much more concerned with the larger picture rather than the details.  These individuals are very visual-spatially inclined, and are usually more emotional and relationship-oriented.  These right-brain learners will want to be more creative, exploratory, and hands on, and will probably do best in a group setting.  Then there are those individuals that are not dominant in either side of the brain, but tend to show a balance of preferences to each side.  These individuals are middle-brain dominant individuals.[5]  Being able to identify and tap into this information allows educators to differentiate to the most significant degree.

Through this idea of differentiated instruction, the inclusion of all students is more apt to be accomplished.  Differentiation allows for adjusted expectations per student based on individual capability, and then setting up a hierarchy of content to best promote each individual’s success. 

I take you back to now to Sprenger’s definition of differentiation.  The second part of the definition stated that, “Each brain is unique.”[6]  As crucial as that is to the idea of differentiated instruction in the lessons, it is even more crucial at the basis of all knowledge attainment, the mind.  No matter how excellent the teachers, how interesting the content, or how various the instruction, the education a student receives cannot peak unless they’re minds are stimulated through some sort of motivation.  We discussed earlier about the power of the mind, and we need to talk about the beneficial effects of directing that power in the right direction to not only maximize knowledge gained, but to also keep our students on the right track.

Differentiated Motivation for the Classroom

I start this differentiated motivation piece with the utilization possibilities in the classroom.  There will be occasions in which we come across students that are intrinsically motivated about their education, and strive to accomplish their own goals in the classroom.  For those students, not much effort in the way of motivation is required from the teacher, but what is required is the teacher’s ability to keep them inclined to that drive, and to encourage their growth as leaders through allowing them to assist in the motivating of their classmates.  For as many students there are like that, however, there are even more that are not driven when it comes to their education.  This is where educators must work to come up with various techniques that will create a confidence in each individual student’s mindset, which will give them the determination they need to pursue wholeheartedly, their education, knowing that they are believed in working for something that is desirable.  For some, this could be as simple as constantly reminding them that they are more than capable of achieving an education, and emphasizing why that education will so beneficial to them.  For others, much more various and drastic motivation techniques will be needed to provoke their mind toward a positive outcome in the classroom.  This can be done through many extrinsic motivators, but the most successful techniques seem to be in positive reinforcement, such as praise, prizes, or awards.  No matter what level of dedication and variation is necessary for the successful engagement of each student’s mind, and directing of that engagement toward a positive goal, the educator must attempt to put all practices to use.


Differentiated Motivation for Life

Most crucial to the development of each and every student is the foundation of motivation towards integrity.  This will be the basis upon which students can then be motivated toward content mastery.  We, as educators, cannot miss out on the fact that the most important thing we can affect in our students is not the subject materials they learn, but rather their way of life.   If the youth of this world are not directed and driven in a positive manner toward themselves and others, and are not guided by ethics and morals, then there prove to be little success in the classroom, I assure, but more importantly, these young people will not have the life opportunities that are so valuable and limited today.

             Not long ago, I attended a presentation highlighted by Erica Minor, author of Right to be Hostile, and renowned analyst of America’s prison system and the paths that lead there.  Although the entire talk was mind-grabbing, I found myself especially entranced when she began talking about, what she called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”[7]   Through her keen intellect on the subject, it got me thinking about the reasons that funds for incarceration and prisons are ballooning, while state funds for public education is decreasing and teachers are being cut from employment at a radical rate.  Essentially, this boils down to the fact that something in the schools is failing too many young people, and that is resulting in the increase of juvenile delinquents separated from school, rather than productive members of the student body. 

I believe that this phenomenon can be directly correlated to the lack of motivation toward a positive direction.  Too often educators are bogged down in the routine of the school day, standard completion, and curriculum, and do not devote enough time and effort into promoting confidence, integrity, respectfulness, and charity to the youth of this world. Consequently, these students are exposed to all of the rigors of their age and of their environment, as well as a demandingly chaotic society, without the tools they need to prosper.  This is leading directly to the behavioral issues that drive these kids farther into the margins of society. 

As these discipline issues begin to come about in schools, the ramifications are detrimental to the student’s ability to develop, both as students and as human beings.  Too often, a kid is placed in suspension, detention, and expulsion, or in other words excluded from the people that can possibly help them and given up on by the higher-ups of their environment.  Once alienated from a nurturing environment, it is all too likely that those youths will end up committing more drastic offenses, eventually leading to run-ins with the legal system.  At this point, these young people are so distant from the reach of what they lacked so much from the beginning, a constant routine, in a nurturing environment, of positive motivation toward being a good person.  

Given that information, it is so clear that, in this day and age, educators must seek to tap into the best methods of motivating each and every student.  For each individual, this could mean something entirely different, which is why teachers have their work cut out for them in getting to know their students and coming to the conclusion of the best motivating techniques for each.  Given the consequences, however, I believe that we have no choice but to put that work in.

 Emotional Engagement

As we begin to motivate our students in our classrooms, we must understand what it then takes to keep them driven and headed in the right direction developmentally.  By engaging students emotionally, cognitively, and socially, not only are we keeping them at a prime level for educational growth, but also helping them to develop in those three areas. 

First, we have to engage our students emotionally.  Emotions have been found, over the years, to be extremely correlated to learning.  This is because emotions and learning are structurally connected in the brain.[8]  Basically, the brain is set-off by emotion, and will immediately turn its attention to the emotion.  If the emotion is negative, such as anxiousness, depression, or anger, the brain will most likely disengage and prevent learning.  Excitement and joy are the best avenues to promoting learning through emotion.  If educators can continue to make their content and classrooms exciting, captivating, and beneficial, then they have elevated the level to which their students will attain knowledge and development.  It is crucial to the success of this method that a teacher’s technique in doing this constantly remains adaptable and competitive to negative emotional factors on adolescents. 

Emotional states are quick to spread throughout peers, consequently affecting the attitude of the classroom.  This is why it is to the upmost benefit of the educator and their students to continually come together in a manner that nurtures a positive emotional environment.

Cognitive Engagement

Novelty is so crucial to cognitive engagement, as the seeking of such uniqueness and freshness in anything has been found to be biologically engrained in the human brain.  It becomes so prevalent here to find key innovations in teaching style and content.  Differentiation takes center stage at this point, and every fresh addition to an educator’s repertoire is beneficial to the overall learning environment.  To better attain this novelty, an educator must understand that, with the developing of adolescents, especially through puberty, they will become increasingly curious and competitive.  This information can be utilized by an educator to ensure that they provide their students with appropriate challenges and interesting questions.

To best ensure cognitive engagement, educators must strive to understand what it takes to properly nurture and maintain the mind.  This comes through understanding some of the factors that can work against proper cognitive development.  One of the biggest items that work against the mind’s ability is stress.  An anxious or bothered individual struggles to maintain a level of mindfulness that leads to growth and knowledge.  These individuals are far too preoccupied with anxiousness, anger, or worry.  Educators can combat this by equipping their students with some stress coping skills.  Teaching the students how to recognize the stressors interfering with their productivity, identify why these items bother them, seek appropriate assistance, and work towards a desirable change, can prove to go a long way in the protecting of a student’s cognitive development.  On another note, it helps to know that lack of sleep, nutrition, and exercise can slow cognitive development as well.  We must educate our students on this, and provide help for them in any way that we can in our classroom, if they are not properly able to address these issues away from school.

Social Engagement

            Perhaps the most important area of influence on high school aged students is that of social engagement.  At this stage of their lives, peers outrank all.  It is so crucial to their sense of self that they maintain an upstanding image in the presence and opinions of their peers.  Humiliation and alienation are so detrimental to the mindset of adolescent individuals, and it is important for an educator to know this.  Each individual student comes from a different out-of-school environment and has had different experiences, which can lead to prejudice, judgment, and discrimination.  We will lose a student’s focus, effort, and desire if he or she is experiencing negative feedback from their peers for any reason.  This is why it is so crucial to strive for a classroom environment of diversity embracement.  If we get to know our students and nurture the environment in which they get to know each other, we can have a hand in the way that they form and appreciate relationships, even with those that are different from themselves.   This is the key to providing each student with a safe and enriched learning environment.


            One of the best tools an educator can equip themselves with is the ability to reflect.  It is in reflection that the only path to improving ourselves, as teachers, lies.  We must learn to take the time to think back on all of the tactics we used in our classroom and our teaching, and figuring out what had a positive impact and what did not.  It is only fair to our students that we examine the way that we attempted to embrace them; embrace our diversity; nurture the environment; differentiate the content, process, and product; motivate them academically and socio-morally; engage them; and help them develop cognitively, emotionally, and socially.  The better we become at reflecting on our own performance in these categories, the more inclusive our classrooms can become, and in turn, the better of our students will be for having us as their educators.



[1] Shapiro, Rich. Daily News. “Michael Phelps says ‘nothing is impossible’ after winning eighth gold.” August 17, 2008.

[2] McAlindon, Dr. Harold R. Reflections on Human Potential: ‘You Can if You Believe You Can.’ Success Unlimited, 1978.

[3] Sprenger, Marilee. Differentiation through Learning Styles and Memory, 2nd Edition. Corwin Press. California, 2008.

[4] Eaton, Verna. “Differentiated Instruction.” Verna Eaton, 1996.

[5] Caine, R.; Caine, G.; & Crowell, S. “Are You Left-, Right-, or Middle-Brained?” 1999.

[6] Sprenger, Marilee. Differentiation through Learning Styles and Memory, 2nd Edition. Corwin Press. California, 2008.

[7] Erica Minor presentation at Marian University.

[8] Ch. 2: Brain-Based Learning (Pp. 16-26).

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