Positive Learning Attitudes are Central

Build Positive Learning Attitudes: a Key to Successful Teaching

In America, especially during the progressive education era and the “open education” years, building positive attitudes towards learning, motivating students, creating interest in learning, making learning relevant, and yes, even promoting the joy of learning were important aspects of educational planning, development and practice. The belief during these time periods was that building curiosity, expanding student interests, and making learning relevant and interesting would promote active student inquiry, build on a natural human inclination to learn, and help create an educational environment in which students would WANT to learn.

Unfortunately, this emphasis has been mostly lost, even negated, in the push for teaching “the basics”, often through worksheets and drills, and then with the more recent focus on passing high risk standardized tests, teaching skill based reading and math, and cutting back on “frills”, such as the arts and social studies. Today, it is hard to find schools where curiosity, interest in learning, being motivated to learn, and making learning joyful are as important as doing well on standardized tests, taking four years of English, or passing AP courses. These goals are also missing from any meaningful discussion about what we want to accomplish with our students, what we will assess, and what kind of learner we want to graduate.

Yet, if we really want to encourage students to learn, grow, succeed and achieve in a 21st century world, if we truly want them to be lifelong learners in a world of rapid change, social media, access to technology, and transformative job development, we will need to create a new and different kind of approach, one that puts curiosity, motivation, interest, and joy back into the learning equation. What primarily distinguishes our country from the rest of the world, what makes us unique, is not how well we take tests, but the unusual amount of curiosity, individual talent, creativity, ingenuity, and interest in learning and growing that comes from so many Americans and is developed in so many different ways. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were unusual not only because of their drive, but also because they were curious about how things worked and how they were able to learn about things they were passionately interested in. Bill Gates became interested in computers in part because the opportunity to work with computers was presented to him in high school outside of his regular courses. Steve Jobs created the diverse calligraphies found on the Apple computer because he took a calligraphy course that interested him after he had left the formal college world. Their natural leadership inclinations happened because they were curious about and interested in computers, and because they knew that, in order to keep pace with others, they needed to grow, adapt and change.

Unfortunately, due to the pressures to do well on standardized tests, to time spent on practicing for these tests, to the need to “get through” multiple topics required by coverage based standards, to the emphasis on getting more students to take AP courses, and so on, millions of children are lacking the kinds of positive learning experiences that support lifelong learning, increase curiosity, build individual talent, and make learning interesting, rewarding and just plain fun!

How do we promote a focus on developing the positive learning attitudes and values identified in this commentary? A good place for an individual teacher or a faculty to start is to first examine and explore the following questions: What motivated you in school? What did you enjoy doing? What interested you? What types of activities piqued your curiosity? Spurred you to continue learning and growing? My guess is that many teachers would say that they enjoyed learning because they were good and successful at it! They were rewarded for what they did. They did well on tests. They were encouraged to build on their strengths. They liked hands on activities and projects. They were given choices. Few would say that they enjoyed being reminded of their failures, that they liked taking multiple-choice tests or doing worksheets, that they liked reading textbooks, that they found enjoyment in doing an activity that they didn’t understand or was so far above their abilities that they had no chance at success. Most probably had mentors and supporters in times of difficulty. Most had at least a few teachers who encouraged them who were good at explaining difficult concepts or who helped them “learn how to learn”. The list of answers might be expanded through reading articles and books on how to build curiosity, motivation, individual talents, and interest in learning.

Once a list of answers is developed, then the following questions might be examined: What am I/are we currently doing that builds curiosity, interest, relevance, enjoyment, and the kinds of “learning to learn” skills and competencies that our students will need in the future? How do I/we implement and expand programs, approaches and activities in schools and classrooms that motivate and interest students in learning and create enjoyment?

Based on my own informal research and discussions of this topic with teachers and others, here are thirteen suggestions as food for thought:


1.    Reduce the emphasis on traditional testing as the key assessment tool, and focus on more “natural” and diverse assessment approaches such as essays and papers, reflective journals, oral presentations, and other demonstrations of their learning

2.    Create the expectation that effort makes a difference in learning. Help students understand that when someone works hard, they are more likely to succeed. Give students more opportunities to put effort into areas that interest them and that they enjoy.

3.    Include narratives on report cards that focus on individual strengths and interests.

4.    Where possible, instead of or in addition to reading textbooks, find and have students read and choose books that are interesting to them, that open them up to the world around them, that make them think!

5.    Focus primarily on student strengths and student success. For each student, consider “the glass as half full” rather than “the glass as half empty”. Encourage students as much as possible. Understand that not all students will be strong in all areas, and that it is important to help each student find his or her strengths and interests and to build on them.

Also, see “failure” as an opportunity for student growth. Make it clear to students that not doing well is a cause for looking inside yourself to see how you can do something better (and that you will do the same). Give students more specific feedback, along with opportunities to redo their work and improve it. Provide mentors and tutors and other help and support for students who need it.

6.    Be willing to “slow down the learning process”. Focus learning on what you think is important. Figure out ways to teach an idea differently, and work on something for a longer period than you normally do if your students are not “getting it”. Figure out alternative ways to teach something if your approach isn’t working.

7.    Focus a good deal of your teaching on “learning how to learn” skill development. Read up on how to teach study skills, learning to learn skills, research skills, inquiry skills. Make sure that your students grow both in terms of content they learn and the “learning to learn” skills they need to develop in order to learn well in the future.

8.    Make “asking questions” central to your teaching and to your learning environment and school culture. Write course descriptions around key questions. Use essential questions to focus units, or have students develop essential questions as the focus for learning. As you teach, encourage students to ask clarifying and elaborative questions. Make it clear to students that no question is too small or too silly. Build open time for students to ask questions on the topics they are studying. Use “wait time” when you are asking for questions. Teach students study strategies such as SQ3R[i] that encourage students to turn statements (such as text headings) into questions.

9.    Give students more choices and options – in the classroom, by offering many electives, through multiple extra-curricular options. Choices/options should give students opportunities to develop and expand their interests, see connections and relevance in what they are learning, and expand their talents.

10.Use inquiry strategies, research skill building activities, interactive learning and projects as critical parts of teaching. Incorporate more interest based projects into your curriculum.

11.Where possible, make learning experiences more “authentic”. For example, consider how learning about the American Revolution might be tied to a current event happening in the world. Visit the area surrounding the school to demonstrate how math might be used for everyday activity. Through surveys, encourage students to provide feedback on whether they feel that their learning is interesting, motivating, and relevant, and whether they are being encouraged to develop their talents and interests. Conduct student surveys to determine what types of school and classroom activities are most motivating and interesting. Create activities and experiences that enable students to get outside the school and learn from the outside world and perform community service.

12.Create more ways to integrate learning across the curriculum and consider ways to redesign the curriculum. Use themes to create more interdisciplinary units. Connect separate subject areas, such as by teaching American history and literature in tandem so that history topics and specific literature that touch on similar time periods or themes are taught at the same time. When redesigning or renewing the curriculum, examine whether curriculum materials or programs have a significant component built around developing curiosity, motivation, relevance and interest.

13.See yourself as helping students build “pathways to adult success”. How can your subject, your grade level, your school contribute to making these pathways smoother? How can you provide students with a concrete understanding of their future options? Can you take field trips to different places of business? Colleges and universities? Bring in speakers?


In sum, a focus on how to create positive attitudes such as curiosity, interest, motivation and relevance leads to a very different way of thinking about school and classroom missions, outcomes, the learning environment, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. For example, instead of a focus on standardized tests passed by everyone, a portfolio assessment approach helps students focus on their individual strengths and reflect on what they have learned. Teachers concentrate on building student strengths rather than dwelling on their failures. Students are provided with opportunities to improve their work before they are graded. More choices and options are given to students in the form of classroom choices, electives, and enrichment activities. Some learning, such as research projects, is built around student interests. Many types of questions become more central to the learning experience. “Learning to learn” skills become a critical part of the classroom experience. There are more opportunities for students to make connections to the outside world in order to raise expectations and build motivation.

 These ideas are just some of the starting points for your own discussion on how to develop positive attitudes towards learning and build the individual curiosity, skills, talents, and interests that will propel our students towards a better life, towards continued learning, and towards “pathways to student success” in a 21st century world. While this way of thinking might lead to a wide variety of suggestions and ideas, please remember: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”.



[i] SQ3R is a study guide model that is focused around:

Surveying what you are reading;

Questions: Turn chapter and section headings, titles, subheadings into questions;

Read for the answers to each question;

Recite your answers after each section – orally ask yourself the questions and summarize your answers;

Review what you have learned.