Blogstitute: What Yoda can Teach You About Engagement and Motivation

July 8th, 2015

Well, it’s not really Yoda who is doing the teaching in today’s post, but the lesson remains the same: to keep your students motivated, you have to keep them engaged. Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins, authors of Reading Wellness, bring you a lesson in physics, Star Wars, and the art of making small adjustments to your teaching, that will have a big impact.

X-Wing Fighters, Superheroes, and the Difference Between Engagement and Motivation
By Kim Yaris and Jan Burkins

Always with you what cannot be done. . . . You must unlearn what you have learned.–Yoda

Randall Munroe—author, former NASA roboticist, and creator of a science and mathematics webcomic that has a cult following—volunteered to teach a weekend class at MIT on the physics of energy, which he talked about on NPR’s TED Radio Hour. The class was for interested high school students—students obviously motivated to learn science and math, since they were signing up for a weekend physics class. Midway through the lecture on the first day, as he was staring at students’ bored expressions during his explanation of how to calculate the joules of energy (x) required to move a five-kilogram weight, Munroe noticed that these highly interested students had checked out. Suddenly he realized that, even though these students were interested in physics, his explanation of the content had made it abstract and seemingly irrelevant to them.

In such a situation, with students leaning away and looking uninterested, it would have been easy for Munroe to default to blaming them for their lack of motivation. As we work in classrooms alongside teachers, literacy leaders, and administrators, it is not uncommon to hear educators talk about the low motivation levels of students. Inevitably, however, “unmotivated” students are being asked to sit through lessons that are heavy with teacher talk and light on engaging texts and reading experiences.

So what did Munroe do about his seemingly disengaged students in the weekend physics class? He asked a better question. Rather than talking about how to solve for x, which is completely abstract, Munroe told students that, using the formula for potential energy, they could figure out how much potential energy it took for Yoda to lift the X-wing fighter in a scene from The Empire Strikes Back.

Once Munroe told students that this X-wing problem was a relatively straightforward calculation—all you have to know is the mass of the X-wing, the distance Yoda lifted it, and the gravitational strength on Dagobah—the students were suddenly running ahead of him, figuring things out before he could even get to them. They immediately went to a Wikipedia article to find out the mass of the X-wing, and they used YouTube to estimate the distance it was lifted. Once Munroe asked a more engaging question, the seemingly unmotivated students were suddenly leaning into the math and science work, drawing from their energy, not the teacher’s. Munroe was able to watch them problem-solve as he gathered formative assessment data and scaffolded in ways that supported rather than supplanted their efforts.

In the end, of course, they learned a lot of science, because they were actively engaged in applying it in ways that were relevant to them. Since then, Munroe has made it his full-time job to draw comics that ask and answer interesting questions, making abstract mathematics and science relevant enough for people to engage themselves. Ask yourself, which text would you more likely engage with to learn about physics: this one:










Or this one?











This connection between student engagement and learning holds true beyond physics, of course. In fact, research from Gallup indicates that a 1 percent increase in student engagement is positively correlated with substantial increases in achievement scores.

Students are naturally curious and enthusiastic learners. If your students appear unmotivated, assume the best of them and look for ways to affect their motivation by making changes to the learning experience. For us, the bulk of the engagement work during a reading experience happens before the lesson, when we select a text. Text selection is to student engagement during reading instruction as interesting questions are to physics students.

Here are a few questions that may prove helpful as you explore ways to engage (vs. motivate) students:

  • Are the texts you are using too difficult for students, requiring extensive teacher talk to scaffold them?
  • Are you spending weeks and weeks on books that should take only a day or two to read and understand?
  • How can you show more than you tell? Can you use visual art, video clips, or other images to engage students?
  • How much actual reading do students do? Is extensive time spent on teacher explanations and/or student documentation?
  • How much of the reading instruction is about aspects of the text—genre, structure, form, theme—rather than about responses to and connections with the text?
  • How much say do students have in what they read? Where can you give students more choice?
  • How relevant are the texts for students? If the marginally relevant texts are required, how can you make them more relevant?
  • How much are students moving? Do they sit for one long period after another, with little or no opportunity to get their blood circulating?
  • Do students know that you think of them as motivated, smart, and capable?

Just as Randall Munroe discovered that a simple shift in questioning could make a profound difference in the tenor of his learning environment, shifting your focus from motivation to engagement can lead to similar responses from your students. Even minor adjustments can have a powerful effect on learning.

May the force be with you!

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute,Classroom practice,Content Areas

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Julie Clay  |  July 8th, 2015 at 8:34 am

    This post is a great reminder as I lesson plan for this coming year. The question regarding how much students are moving is a question I have really tried to address in the past few years. It can be tough to find activities that involve tactile/kinesthetic learners in a language arts classroom, but I have tried to think outside the box to find ways for students to move around especially when I teach on a block schedule. Text graffiti ( and carousel activities have been successful in my room. They are very adaptable and certainly increase the level of engagement. Also, student choice of texts (when possible) makes a huge difference in motivation and interest. It is a great way to differentiate instruction.

  • 2. Sarah  |  July 8th, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    Yay, Yoda! I am all about engagement and I try to spend as little time as possible in front of the classroom. I aim to have be students doing the work as much as I can. I like to sit beside them as they work and help guide them down the path. This doesn’t always work though. I find that after a few years of playing the “game of school” and performing for the teacher, students are sometimes reluctant and occasionally resistant to being engaged. They want to know why they just can’t have a worksheet or some other brainless activity. Their brains are happy being disengaged. Additionally, other teachers and administrators are not always supportive. “You are crazy!” they tell me. “More direct instruction,” my principal said to me in a meeting. Come on! We are in an education revolution here! We need to prepare these kids for LIFE, not redundancy! So, this year, I will continue to be something of a maverick, I guess. It’s good to know I am not truly alone.

  • 3. Rachelle  |  July 9th, 2015 at 9:06 am

    These are great questions to ask for all subject areas, not just reading! I love how the example described in the blog used pop culture to hook students. One of my goals for this year is to use more songs and YouTube videos to practice things like close reading, making inferences, and talking about word choice. I saw an idea recently of giving kids a survey at the beginning of the year asking them what TV shows, songs, etc they’re interested in so you have ideas of things you can use throughout the year to keep their attention. Thanks, too, to Julie for sharing the text graffiti idea!

  • 4. Kelly Mogk  |  July 9th, 2015 at 8:09 pm

    Love this, and agree so much with Sarah! Sometimes we have to push forward and cut through the wilderness so others can see the path ahead. I find that really taking time to know my students at the beginning of the year helps me to find new ways to engage them when the learning might otherwise be dull.
    I really appreciate how Munroe changed tactics mid-lesson when he realized that his learners were zoning out. I have definitely had my fair share of those moments, some that I realized too late! My focus now is to be aware in the moment and pick up on the cues my students are sharing with me. Afterall, it’s their learning, not my lesson planning, that really matters in the end. 🙂

  • 5. Teresa  |  July 9th, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    This was another great post. There has been more than one occasion that I have looked across the classroom to see glazed-over eyes. That lead me to search for ways to improve. Over the past few years I have included more student choice in the texts they read and have seen students much more engaged and motivated. This has encouraged me to try offering them even more. The questions are excellent when planning a lesson. One area that I need to improve would be student movement. The questions could remind me of how important this can be.

  • 6. Cheryl  |  July 11th, 2015 at 8:15 am

    I really like the reminders in this post. It is sometimes hard to remember that students often do not share our same enthusiasm for the material we are teaching. I love the list of questions to consider when planning. Nothing is more discouraging as a teacher than to realize you’ve lost your audience!!! Rachelle I love your idea about surveying the students ahead of time so you can prepare an arsenal of high-interest resources to fall back on. I think sometimes, just acknowledging that we’ve become aware of their disengagement and asking them right there on the spot for some suggestions to reconnect everyone can be helpful too. I believe students appreciate our honesty if we can admit we’ve lost them and need their help getting us all back to a better level of involvement! Julie, thanks for the ideas! Sarah, keep on keeping on!!! It’s frustrating to think that administrators value direct instruction as a means of LIFE skills for kids. How much direct instruction are teachers receiving on the job??? It seems to me most LIFE experiences involve digging in to figure out how to make a situation work out best — the very essence of this entire post and its comments =)

  • 7. Diane Anderson  |  July 13th, 2015 at 7:25 pm

    That’s a great list of questions to keep in front of you when planning. We as teachers need to be guided by questions like these. We need to have discussions around these questions with administrators and colleagues. They could guide us in creating our school atmosphere, as well as lessons.

  • 8. Tracy Mailloux  |  July 19th, 2015 at 8:32 am

    Thanks for great reminders about the importance of choosing text that keeps kids engaged. The NASA example is a good one! And thank you Julie Clay for including a link to another resource.

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