Asilomar #1: Motivation

Session Title

“Tell Me Something That is Going to Work: How To Motivate Students!”


Timothy Kanold. President, National Council of Supervisors of Mathematics.


I relaxed my stance on exclamation points in presentation titles and was pleasantly rewarded with a maximum of sober introspection and a minimum of canned inspiration.

Kanold, if nothing else, asked a battery of good, tough questions, starting with:

  • What is your area of no-talent? (A: Running.)
  • When did you decide it was an area of no-talent? (A: High school, mile three of a nineteen mile run with the cross country team)

And then the big crossover:

  • Can all kids learn math?
  • Whose responsibility is it to be motivated?

We discussed these questions with seatmates and there was a lot of discomfort throughout both, a vast difference between what people wanted to say and what they felt comfortable saying.

I asked TMAO’s miserable icebreaker, “What percentage of the responsibility for student achievement rests on the teacher?” From the guy on my left and the girl on my right came the same response: 50%.

50% in spite of our advantages in age, education, confidence, and salary. I don’t think I have much use for that figure.

Kanold talked about how easy motivation is for math teachers. Kids are pressed into it. Math is required for graduation. He noted, however, that graduation is a lousy stick to get kids motivated since a lot of kids just don’t care about graduation.

His recommended motivational strategies:

  • meaning and context sparks motivation, connecting these things as much as possible to their experience.
  • assign work that is worthy of their effort, as in, not #1 – 50 (odd).
  • communication and engagement reign supreme
  • congruent and comprehensive assessment, emphasizing a “menu” style assessment which sounded somewhat familiar.

He asked us, finally, to agree or disagree with three outlooks on student achievement:

  • What we’re doing here is important.
  • You can do it.
  • I’m not going to give up on you – even if you give up on yourself.

I want to work in a school where those affirm those statements are promoted and those who waver and demure are marginalized so they can do no more harm.

Presentation Notes

PowerPoint. Low word count, especially compared to later presenters. Early projector malfunctions attest to the need for good preparation and backup plans.


  • “Think like an elective.”
  • “Make a place that’s so compelling I want to be here.”
  • Song of the Day: “Jedi Mind Trick,” Lupe Fiasco

For Your Consideration:

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I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. The 50% answer says “I don’t know” the same way that answering “about a week” says you have no idea how long something will take.

    It’s tough to take responsibility for someone else’s actions — even if they are younger, less educated, less confident, and not being paid even a pittance for their time. When you ask a manager in a business to take that kind of responsibility, you also give them the power to hire and fire. Of course, the best managers don’t use that power to get performance from their team, but neither do they have to take all comers.

    Being responsible for someone else’s actions feels like a risk, and certainly like a lot of work. As has been discussed here and over at TMAO’s place, there aren’t really any rewards for stepping up to that level. So where does that leave us?