The Secret to Winning the Hearts and Minds of your Students

Everyone has a favorite teacher.

My favorite teacher was a man named "Doc" Spaulding, who was thankfully my 6th grade teacher. Thankfully, because 6th grade was without a doubt the worst year of my young life. In between school bells, my mother and I were in the process of removing my father from the equation (it's complicated), and suffice to say my socially immature brain would manifest my amorphous dread in any way it could. In some magical way, "Doc" had the empathy to read my complex social cues, and the wisdom to understand how he could focus that energy in a way that would prove to be constructive, rather than the inevitable alternative. I owe a lot to Doc. 

I've thought about that pivotal year for a long time, and after being an educator for a time, I've grown to more genuinely appreciate what "Doc" was able to do for me. And, in taking a step back from the empathetic gymnastics I'm sure he had to do, I've thought more about how educators can make a more concerted effort to influence the behavior of their students. 

Lately, I've been reading a book called "Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products", which is a book that has one foot in psychology and the other in product development. It's a great handbook for anyone looking to think more critically about what they're selling and why they're selling it. It's not designed for educators, but if definitely got me thinking about education. Specifically, how educators influence their students.

I started with two simple questions: 

1. "How do educators get their students to do stuff?"

2. "Why do students do what they're teachers ask them to do?"

Which brings me to one of my key takeaways from Nir Eyal's book, BJ Fogg's Behavior Model. BJ Fogg's Behavior Model (FBM) is essentially a formula for determining how likely you are to influence someone's behavior.

B = mat

The behavior model breaks this determination down into four variables: Behavior, motivation, ability, and the trigger.

Behavior

In this equation, "B" stands for behavior. This is the behavior that you would like your students to acquire. Examples of influenceable behaviors may include handing their homework in on time, take better notes, or communicate more effectively with their classmates. 

Motivation

Motivation is defined as "the reason or reasons one has for acting or behaving in a particular way" and is what the "m" in Fogg's equation stands for. Additionally I would like to add that in Nir's book, he differentiates between two different types of motivation. Students are intrinsically motivated to learn music theory because they love to play an instrument. Whereas students are extrinsically motivated to study for their music theory test, because if they don't pass then they might have to go to summer school. I believe it's important to differentiate between the two if you're planning on taking a closer look at your instruction.

In my opening story, "Doc" may have known that he could influence my behavior by redirecting my intrinsic need for stability and control through the sciences (which later became my passion). Then again, he may have also capitalized on my expressed desire to support my mother through the ordeal by using that extrinsic motivator to influence my behavior in a constructive way; be strong, be confident, have honor, do the right thing. Which unbenounced to him were qualities that my mother also valued.

Ability

Ability or the "a" in Fogg's equation is something that should always be top of mind for educators, and was often my first consideration while writing my lesson plans. Sure, the pacing guide says this is the next topic and/or activity, but are my students able to take that step? Most of the time that self interrogation would be met with "Well... some of them are", which is where differentiation and questioning comes in... but, that's a topic for another day. 

For the sake of BJ Fogg's Behavior Model, "ability" simply means, how able is the customer (or in this case, student) to complete the task or adopt the behavior that I would like them to adopt. An example of how an educator might think of this might be, "I would like Dylan to turn his homework in on time more often, but he is forgetful. Therefore he might be more likely (or able) to turn his homework in on time if he was more capable of remembering."

Trigger

Finally, the last variable in Fogg's equation is the "Trigger". In a nutshell, the trigger is the thing that cue's the student to activate the behavior. Like motivators, triggers can be internal or external. For example, an external trigger that might cue students to start taking notes might be to simply say, "write this down in your notebooks, because it's definitely going to be on the test." Similarly, an internal trigger for this action might be due to your relationship with the student, they take the notes because they feel guilty when they don't.

Truth be told, I took a lot of time getting to know my students, all 120+ of them. I knew their names after the first week, and I made a concerted effort to understand who they were and who they wanted to become over the course of the school year. I like to think my students were more often susceptible to moral internal triggers than the external ones I tried to incorporate into my instruction. 

Let's tie this all together

I'm a firm believer in examples, so I'm going ground all of this in an example or two in a series of deliberate questions that you can ask yourself. And, in summarizing the hypothetical answers to these questions I'll be able to come up with a concise framework for how I might approach influencing the student behavior.

1. (B) What behavior do I seek to influence?

  • I would like Dylan to hand his homework in on time.
  • I would like Dylan to take notes more frequently.
  • I would like Dylan to come to class on time.

2. (m) What intrinsically and/or extrinsically motivates the student to do or not do these things?

  • Dylan is intrinsically motivated to hand his homework in on time, but he is forgetful.
  • Dylan is intrinsically motivated to take notes, but often forgets his notebook and/or pencil.
  • Dylan is somewhat intrinsically motivated, but he likes to talk to his friends in the hallway.

3. (a) How able is the student to adopt the desired behavior?

  • Dylan may adopt a new behavior if he is reminded.
  • Dylan is likely to take notes if he was prepared when he needed to be.
  • Dylan is physically capable of getting to class on time, he might be able to adopt a new behavior.

4. (t) What internal/external trigger(s) exist or could exist to cue the behavior I seek to influence?

  • I might create an automated text message reminder that goes out to students and/or parents around 5pm using a service like Classdojo or Remind. (external trigger)

  • I could keep a box of pencils on my desk with name on them; but, to make sure I don't run out, he can't take them with him. I will seat Dylan near my desk so he can see the pencils marked with his name, so he can grab one when he needs it. (external trigger)

  •  I could stand near the door before class starts and make eye contact with Dylan down the hallway. (external trigger)

Behavior management is one of those things that we talk about all the time as educators, but what does it really mean?  How do you manage something that you don't have an understanding of, and even if you do understand the behavior of your students, how do you influence that behavior over time? These are all questions that I asked myself constantly during my tenure in the classroom. Luckily for me, "Doc" Spaulding understood how to manage my behavior, and I'm eternally grateful for his patience and his persistence.

So, what behaviors do you seek to inspire in your students? Let me know in the comments section. And if you liked this post, please share it on social media. Additionally, If you would like to pick up Nir's book, or check out BJ Fogg's Behavior model, then click the links below!

Thanks for reading!