Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue, 29 Jan 2002 11:02:32 -0500 (EST)
Random Thought: On Motivation, IV: "The Chair"

The class had already done two of the four theme setting exercises for everything we were going to do in the class over the course of the semester. They had done what we titled, "Never Forget The Story." We had done the "It's Communication, Stupid" exercise. Now came the one they had been waiting for. It is the one that I always had thought was frivolus and has been slow to seeing its true meaning. It is a simple exercise. It has profound impacts. It is the one that always proves to be the most powerful. It is the one that comes up time and time and time again, as it should. It is the one the students always throw at me, as they should and I as want and as I expect. It is the one that the students mention most in their confidential letters. It is called, "The Chair." This is how it goes. This is how it went yesterday in one class.

The setting is simple. I ask that two communities join to form into seven clusters. The clusters sit around the edges of the room leaving a space in the center. Into that middle space of the classroom I slowly carry a chair, deliberately set it down, and catch their attention by saying, "Now we are at the third oeprating theme of the class. It is known as "The Chair."

Then, as I slowly, very slowly, walk around the center of the room, I slowly, very slowly, lay down the rules, spacing periods of my practiced silence between each statement of the rules. "There are rules. There are always rules...."

Holding my index finger high above my head, I say: "Rule number one: a respresentative from each cluster, one at a time, will come out to the center of the room. After we finish a cycle, a different representative from each cluster will come out....With me?...."

With two emphasizing fingers held high, I continued, "Rule number two: that person will introduce him/herself....

Three fingers shoot to the ceiling, "Rule number three: that person will sit on the chair, butt touching....

Rule number four: no one can sit on the chair the same way anyone else has sat on it. I'll repeat that. No one can sit on the chair the same way anyone else has sat on it.

Rule number five: since there are consequences to eveyrthing we do, there are always consequences, should anyone violate any of the just mentioned rules, his or her entire cluster must come to the center of the room, and sound and act vividly like a barnyard animal of our choice and to our satisfaction. Do you want me to repeat the rules.............."

There is a buzz of laughter, giggles, whispers as I go through the rules and repeat them and repeat them again. The students are turning to each other and talking and pointing and moving their hands animating how they might sit on the chair in ways no one else before them would think of. The hands shoot up and the questions begin.

"Do we decide which cluster goes in what order?"

"You heard the rules."

"Do we decide who is going to represent us each time?"

"You heard the rules."

"Can we move the chair?"

"You heard the rules."

"Do we have to follow the rules in the order you gave them?"

"You heard the rules."

"Since you said 'on' the chair instead of 'in' the chair, can we sit on any part of the chair?"

"You heard the rules."

"Can you repeat the rules?"

I repeat them still again. The exercise began in one class with a small-large miracle. Cowanna came out and started introducing herself as no one ever had in the years I have run this exercise. "I am Cowanna. I'm a freshman. I am from (her town) and I.....

"I didn't ask for a biography. All I...." I laughingly interupted.

She turned with a smile and cut me off. "You said we had to introduce ouselves and this is how I want to introduce myself. So, let me finish."

"Yes ma'am," I answered with an apologetic tone, a saluting nod of my head, and a silent scream, "Yes!!" First miracle.

Then there was Gary. He came out. "My name is Gary."

"Tell us more like Cowanna," someone shouted.

"Nope. It's my introduction. That is all I want to say."

Gary picked up the chair, pulled it to his rear end, and walked around. "Chicken! Let's have a chicken from you all," a few voices called out.

"Heck no. I'm within the rules. He said, 'sit on' the chair. He didn't say, 'sit down' on the chair. I decided to 'sit on' the chair while sitting 'up.'"

And I issued another silent "YES!!" Second miracle.

And then there was Heather. She came up, sat on the chair in her own unique way, went back to her cluster, sat down, and as a credscendo of "you didn't tell who you are," "broke the rules," "cow," "let's have some pigs," "a goat" rose, she introduced herself. She defended herself successfully by saying, "He didn't tell us the order we have to follow the rules or where I had to be when I introduced myself. Remember he told us earlier to listen to what the rules say and what they don't say. I decided to be different and decided to introduce myself after you saw how I sat in the chair and while I was sitting with my cluster. I followed the rules."

And, I screamed still another silent "YES!!!" Third miracle. And on and on went the exercise. The chair was moving. Students sat on it in all sorts of unique ways, too numberous to list. There was anticipation; there was applause; there was laughter; there was support of one cluster for another; there was excitement; there were smiles; there were shouts of approval; there was conferencing; there was encouragement. Well, you get the idea.

After everyone had had his or her turn, we debriefed. "Why do you think we did this exercise?" I asked.

And out from the proverbial mouths of babes came pearls of wisdom and meaning:

"We're seeing the basic rules of how to do the projects."

"We made the decisions on how to sit on the chair."

"I never thought I would do what I did."

"We made the choices, not you."

"Challenge. And, it was okay to challenge you."

"We laughed with each other."

"We could be creative and imaginative."

"There's more than one way to do something."

"There was a lot of support in this room."

"We weren't competing 'to the death.'"

"When we asked you a question, we had to decide because all you said was 'you heard the rules."

"No way was right or wrong, just different."

"All the ways were good. None was bad, just different."

"It was fun and that made it easier to learn."

"Curious to see what people would come up with."

"I didn't think I could be that imaginative."

"Weren't afraid to take a chance."

"I wasn't afraid of looking stupid."

"As someone did something different it opened the way for the rest of us of play on that."

"Cowanna caught you and you agreed she did."

"What didn't you see or hear?" I asked.

"You didn't tell us to do it your way."

"You didn't crush Cowanna just because she did something you didn't think about."

"You were willing to learn from us."

"I heard a lot of what you didn't say, what the rules didn't say we couldn't do."

"So," I said. "when you do any of your projects or anything in this class, remember the chair. There is no right or wrong way as long as, Michelle?"

"'re within the rules."

"There is no better or worse way as long as, Michelle?

"'re within the rules."

"There is more than one way to do a project as long as, Michelle?

"'re within the rules."

"You can challenge me and do projects in the way I didn't of doing as long as, Michelle?"

"'re within the rules."

So, whenever you do a project, please don't waste you time thinking about, dreaming about, or even asking each other, class?

"What does he want?"

"If you ask me, 'Is this okay?' I'm going to ask, Michelle?

" it within the rules?"

"If you ask me, 'Doc, what do you want?" I'm going to answer, Michelle?

"Remember the Chair."

"Look at 'The words for the day," as I pointed to the board: 'No one puts limits on you but yourself.' Now you know our third operating theme of the class: REMEMBER THE CHAIR!"

So I think after going back to my office after this class, I started thinking. This is what I think was going on in that class that is key to planning motivation. There must be two general, guiding principles: First, know our students for whom they each really are. Too many of us know, or, at least, think we know, a lot in general about them and very little in particular about each of them. That's why I ask the students to journal daily and I read their entries weekly; that's why we all complete the statement "I feel....." on the blackboard as soon as we enter the classroom. Yesterday, words like: tired, sleepy, alive, excited, stressed, sad, energetic, blessed, unattractive, content, hungry, clean peppered the board. Second, like Escalante, we shouldn't focus on controlling students, on trying to do something we can't do in the first place. I have found that the more we tell students what to do, when to do it, and how to do it, the more they will mutter and resent. You'll get more with sweetened whispers of persuasion and encourage and love than with soured shouts and threats of coercion or manipulation. Our challenge is to provide a balance of a general framework of rules and freedom, that is, freedom and choice within a boundary of rules. I always tell my students to listen to the rules, but listen more intently to what the rules don't say. Freedom is a motivation when it is a "freedom to" rather than a "freedom from," that is a positive movement toward achievement. An art major hands in her journal in the form of a one page image. She works on it each day and has it completed by the time the journals have to be handed in. She is engaged in visual journaling; she is within the rules.

So don't focus on making students do something, focus on figuring how to get students to want to do something. I think were are seven criteria at work in "The Chair" and in the projects to come for doing this:

1. Students will do to the extent they think what they're doing is important, purposeful, valuable, meaningful.

2. Students will do to the extent they feel that are involved, that the class is there for them, that they are involved in the decisions and choices.

3. Students will do when they feel they are moving forward; when what they are doing is challenging and has possibilities for success.

4. students will do when they feel safe, when they are safe from feeling embarassed, stupid, incompetent, unprepared, etc.

5. students will do when they feel they're loved, valued, have a sense of belonging, listened to, sincerely listened to, included.

6. students will do when they feel enabled, when the classroom facilitates rather than hinders.

7. students will do when they no longer feel isolate, alone, strange; when they bond, form friendships with others.

Now, you ask, "what about grades, those 'extrinsic motivators?" Tomorrow my thoughts on that.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
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