Master Teaching

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Relevance & Respect

togetherIn trainings, when asked their impressions of learner-centered teaching, teachers have often mentioned group work and interaction. However, learner-centered teaching is much less about getting students talking and much more about meeting learners’ needs (which may include interaction).

Scrivener ties learner-centered teaching to motivation and describes it this way:

As a student, I can be working in a group or pair—I can be talking and doing things—and yet find that the subject matter is of no interest or relevance to me, and I find myself doing things simply because I have been told to do them. It doesn’t matter whether I’m listening to my teacher talk about making a pot, watching my teacher make a pot, or trying to make a pot myself; if I don’t want to make a pot and have no interest or wish to have a pot, I’m very unlikely to learn much from the experience. It doesn’t feel like the class is centred on my interests, needs, wishes or skills. [1]

Getting students lost in learning has a prerequisite—that the learning is relevant to them. We’ve all heard this before and realize that interesting topics or up-to-date examples are more motivating than the same old same old. We also know that relevance goes deeper. The examples below show how. What would you add?

From their Perspectives

A teacher of advanced placement (AP) high school English in the U.S. explains all that goes into updating her summer reading list.

My summer reading list is all non-fiction because that is the focus of my class. Advanced Placement is a College Board course and has its own skills and objectives, separate from the state or district. There is an AP Exam in May that gives students a chance to earn college credit. So, the books I choose are non-fiction for that reason.  I try to choose books that I believe will be interesting to the students. Also, I have mostly minority students, so I have tried to include books written by people from diverse backgrounds. I also choose some books that I believe will encourage and inspire students. I like stories of people who have overcome difficulties and been successful. A lot of the books are on other AP teachers’ lists, so that’s how I choose some. The assignment is to read a book and then answer [a list of] questions. So, I keep in mind the questions too as I choose books for the list. 

We might argue that as AP students, they’re obviously motivated. But how motivated would they be if this teacher based her choices solely on her interests or what they should read rather than considering their perspectives? (Her list and questions students answer are linked in Further Exploration below.)

On Their Ground

I’ve known numerous teachers in China, whether technologically savvy or not, who have learned the ins and outs of WeChat, a popular social media platform. Some of my colleagues use WeChat this way:

  • posting and clarifying homework assignments
  • posting supplementary materials
  • answering questions and providing one-on-one help
  • arranging group work
  • collecting audio or visual assignments.
  • encouraging learner ownership by having students record and report on homework and outside of class learning
  • engaging in personal communication with students

In part, WeChat is a helpful tool. My colleagues are also looking for ways to engage students on their ground by bringing their social media world into the classroom.

The Need for Respect

In a workshop with some experienced primary school teachers, we looked at a technique that was new to all of us—Social Emotional Learning. They readily engaged in our discussion even on an emotional level as some shared regret that they were never taught to identify and manage their emotions. Then, as we looked at Colossians 3:12-17 in tandem with the topic, other teachers spoke with humble conviction about needing to welcome not only their colleagues but also their students into our body. These self-motivated teachers obviously got lost in learning. In the process, they inspired me to consider how fostering an atmosphere of esteem could influence students’ attitudes toward learning.

The Need to Belong

These days in my home country, it seems that societal trends come and go faster than clothing styles, and even they can be a problem if I’m misappropriating styles from another culture. Sometimes I want to dig in my heels, but then a conversation with a public school teacher replays in my mind. Her compassionate response to district policies governing pronoun and bathroom usage makes me wonder how my words and demeanor could draw people in rather than pushing them out. I wonder how a few simple changes to my attitude might satisfy a student’s need for connection and open doors to learning and even love.


[1] Jim Scrivener, Classroom Management Techniques, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 108.

Further exploration

What’s your perspective?

We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.

  • Do you agree that making learning relevant increases students’ motivation? What would you change or add to this post?
  • How do you invite your students into your school or classroom “family”? What effect does this have on their motivation?
  • Do you have students who need to feel like they belong? How could you draw them in?

Post Author

Melissa K. Smith

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This entry was posted on December 4, 2019 by in Melissa K. Smith, motivation, teacher attitudes, teaching as relationships.

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