Reviewed by Karen Bloom
As a teacher, student, educational consultant, professor, speaker, and writer in the field of education, Barbara R. Blackburn speaks from a wealth of knowledge and experience. This professional wisdom shines through the pages of her new book, Motivating Struggling Learners: 10 Ways to Build Student Success.
Dr. Blackburn begins by defining extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and then shares with her readers a brilliant organizer that allows readers to find a specific strategy, listed by chapter, that they are looking for. She also lists different issues that a learner might be struggling with and offers us advice about what to do in that situation.
At the end of each chapter we find a short concluding paragraph and a highlighted box entitled “Points to Ponder” where Blackburn gives us sentence starters (such as “I’d like to try…” and “I need…”) to summarize and solidify the information that we learned by reading the chapter.
Though some of the suggestions are obvious, Blackburn makes them clear and doable by offering specific teacher actions and strategies to make them achievable. For example, when building relationships with students, have high expectations, create a positive atmosphere, and be a good listener. In the praise and positive feedback chapter, we see specific examples of encouragement and praise to try with students.
A focus on ownership and empowerment
Giving students ownership and helping them feel empowered greatly increases their motivation. Some of the book’s fabulous techniques for self-reflection are simple exit slips, reworking tests, and goal setting/review. The chapter on growth mindset vs. fixed mindset offers six strategies for developing the growth mindset in your classroom:
- build a learning-oriented mindset,
- focus on process as well as product,
- emphasize mastery and learning,
- reinforce effort,
- decrease learned helplessness, and
- provide multiple opportunities for success.
An “effective effort” rubric helps students self-reflect on whether they are showing a fixed mindset, mixed mindset, or growth mindset. I look forward to trying this with my seventh graders very soon.
Specific actions for communicating high expectations include some instructional recommendations like clearly communicating those expectations and using appropriate leveled materials. Blackburn includes two fabulous rubrics for cooperative learning – one simpler than the other. They both seem easy to understand and adapt for use in our own classrooms.
Engagement and motivation
The heart of the book, the chapter on engagement, clearly explains what an engaging and motivating classroom looks like. Blackburn lists six principles (in the acronym ENGAGE) to engage struggling students: (1) excite the brain, (2) nudge with uncertainty, (3) grow from strengths, (4) activate understanding, (5) group for collaboration, and (6) elicit involvement. Throughout the chapter each of these is explained thoroughly, and many examples of ways to do each of these is described to the reader.
The last three chapters, about scaffolding for success, resilience, and diverse groups of students, all continue to offer fantastic ideas and suggestions for increasing the motivation of students in our classrooms.
I highly recommend this book for educators looking to improve the level of engagement of the students in their classes. Even if you try only one or two of the tips or techniques offered by Dr. Blackburn in this book, your students will benefit and your teaching practice will be positively affected.
Karen Bloom is a life-long learner and teacher. She currently teaches math at Piedmont Middle School in Piedmont, California, where she co-advises Safe Space Club and Safe School Ambassadors and a lunch time Chill Zone, and is also a part time math coach . Her passion is for getting to know her students and colleagues as people and then helping them get from where they are to where they want to be.