The Dance: Navigating the A, B, C’s of Student Motivation With Technology

Several years ago, I was speaking with a colleague while the two of us were chaperoning a dance in the gym at our high school. My friend, like me, was a middle-aged, Generation X teacher with 10-15 years of classroom experience. He shook his head incredulously and remarked that, at any given moment, over half of the students weren’t even dancing, but rather sitting on the bleachers and playing with their cellphones. Even some of the dancers were looking at their phones, which made for some clumsy accidents.

While I try not to join the sort of grumpy teacher conversations in which veterans take turns bemoaning the behaviors of kids nowadays, I think my friend was on to something: Technology has changed the way young people interact socially. What my friend and I observed at that dance has been described by Hartman, Moskal, and Dzuiban (2005) as social swarming or smart mobs (p. 69). This is a phenomenon that all teachers should be aware of. If we choose to ignore it, we do so at our own peril.

The authors went on to describe a research project they conducted at a major university, in which they characterized differences in attitudes about classroom technology between Baby Boomers, Generation X students (which, by the way, would include me), and the Net Generation of students who are currently in school. Although there were predictable differences between each generation’s perceptions about technology, the authors concluded that all three generations agreed on the attributes of a good teacher (Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban, p. 76). Not surprisingly, several of the most important factors concerned social interaction.

A: The Affective Domain

For example, the authors found that students from all generations believed “…that excellent instructors … [s]how respect and concern for their students” (Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban, p. 76). Of course, the first of Greene’s A, B, & C’s of student motivation is the affective domain–in other words, a key component of student motivation stems from the emotions elicited by their teacher in the classroom environment (Greene, 2013). It isn’t enough, by the way, for the teacher to respect his or her students; this respect must be demonstrated to the students. They have to be convinced that the teacher cares about their well-being and their learning.

B: The Behavioral Domain

What does genuine respect for students look like in a 21st century classroom? Well, for one thing, teachers should face the reality that students are now attached to their tech tools, including phones and wireless internet devices, almost constantly. A quick Google search, for example, now allows a student to quickly find the right answer to almost every detail- or fact-oriented question a teacher could ever ask. Some teachers might dream of tackling this reality head-on by taking away their students’ internet devices. I have to admit that I had this attitude as recently as five years ago.

However, I started to realize that strict enforcement of student technology use inside my classroom was becoming a behavioral battle that wasn’t worth fighting. The en masse confiscation of student tech devices is now inconsistent with the structure of a modern learning environment. Rather, we teachers should strive to ask our students the sorts of real-world, critical-thinking questions that cannot be answered with a quick Google search. We shouldn’t do this in order to make the learning more difficult. We should do it to make the learning more real.

C: The Cognitive Domain

Hartman, Moskal, & Dzuiban (2005) also concluded that students appreciate teachers who “facilitate student learning” (p. 76). I hear so many teachers complain that many of their students aren’t performing well on assessments, or that their grades are too low, or that they can’t keep up with the pacing calendar. When problems like this crop up, or when students seem unmotivated or disengaged from their learning, teachers shouldn’t be afraid to modify the curriculum. Think like the deejay at the dance: When the dance floor is empty, change the music.

The trick is that many teachers, particularly novice ones, don’t always feel that they have permission to modify their lessons, assignments, or pacing. I know when I was first starting out in the classroom, I was scared to deviate too much from the curriculum that the veteran teachers in my department had given me. What I failed to consider was that effective teachers don’t access their students’ cognitive domains simply by pulling the next worksheet out of a file cabinet. Rather, we keep our students engaged by crafting learning tasks that lie within Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development–that magical place where students stretch their thinking just a little beyond what they are currently capable of accomplishing (Greene, 2013).

Of course, consistently hitting every student’s zone of proximal development during every lesson is practically impossible. Everyone learns at a different pace, and in different ways, so getting all of the students to learn at the same time can be even more challenging than getting them all to dance together! The key is to structure a learning environment in which technology allows students enough choices so that they can find engagement and motivation to tackle learning that is truly challenging to them.


Greene, K. (2013, September 9). Overview of social learning theory [Video file]. Retrieved from

Hartman, J., Moskal, P., & Dzuiban, C. (2005). Preparing the academy of today for the learner of tomorrow. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation (pp. 66-80). Louisville, CO: Educause.


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