Five Shifts that Lead Kids from Apathy to Ambition

This month, I have spoken to thousands of teachers and parents, as schools kick off another year. One phrase I have heard as much as any other is:

“I just wish we could get these students to be more ambitious.”

Ironically, while so many faculty, staff, coaches and parents desire this outcome, we are often the culprits that prevent it from happening.

What do I mean by this?

I have written in the past about an idea that’s been the topic of teacher training for the past few years. In a word, it is “metacognition.” Metacognition (thinking about thinking) is the “secret to and the driving motivation behind all effective learning,” says the National Academy of Sciences. It is all about the teacher or leader transferring the ownership of what’s happening to the student. Instead of prescribing each step of the process, it means enabling them to figure it out themselves. But, alas, most adults in this generation don’t want to take that risk. It wouldn’t be safe for the students and it wouldn’t make us look good. The truth is, however, “students learn better when they ‘own’ the work themselves.”

The Equation

Consider this fact: People are never more incentivized to care for something than when that “something” belongs to them. If it’s something they paid for, somehow the value goes up—their cell phone, their car, their clothes, their learning. Now transfer this concept to a classroom, where a project is assigned. The more a student “owns” their learning, the more they learn. By encouraging students to own their learning:

  • We decrease apathy in the young person.
  • We increase ambition for learning and growth.

What hinders metacognition? An over-functioning teacher or parent who is the only one doing the metacognition and owning the issue:

  • EX: Mom asks her child to do a chore, but he doesn’t do it or doesn’t do it well, so she steps in and does it herself. The son assumes it’s Mom’s problem.
  • EX: A teacher who loves to instruct, so he consumes most of the class time talking. In the end, students grow lethargic and disengaged.

We live in a day when adults are consumed with child safety and insuring our kids get the best advantages possible. So, we control everything. Kids are in supervised activities most days. While this makes us feel better, it often decreases their “ownership” and certainly diminishes their ambition.

Make These Shifts in Your Leadership:

1. Don’t think CONTROL, think CONNECT.

Control is a myth. What’s more, the more we seek to control the environment, the less kids own what’s happening. Instead, seek connection with students and engage them at the heart level. This is how trust and ambition are built.

2. Don’t think TELL, think ASK.

By asking questions, you foster ownership in the conclusions and the subsequent application in students. As they age, students require us to lead them by asking questions instead of imposing our ideas.


We do too much for kids. It’s why so many are unready for adult life at 18. Instead of prescribing each step of an assignment, prepare students to create the path themselves. Describe the goal, but let them determine the steps.

4. Don’t think RULES, think EQUATIONS.

Life is full of equations: If we do this, that becomes the consequence. If we do that, this is the benefit. Few students like rules. We can help them own choices by insuring every decision is an equation with positive or negative outcomes.

5. Don’t think DO IT FOR THEM, think HELP THEM DO IT.

The bottom line is this: Students support what they help create. We must let young people actually do the work themselves. Parents—stop doing your child’s homework. Stop negotiating their grades with the teacher.

I recently saw a news report about Olivet Middle School in Olivet, Michigan. Students on the football team came up with an idea for a play in one of last year’s games. Keith was a teammate, but was a special needs student with social issues and a lack of boundaries. However, his fellow players decided they wanted to show him he was important to the team, so they chose to help him score a touchdown. And they did. They set up the play, surrounded him and insured he got into the end zone. Keith later said, “It was awesome!” The part I think was awesome is—no adult prescribed this activity. It was all student-driven, student owned. And everybody won. Hmm. Sounds like metacognition to me.

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Five Shifts that Lead Kids from Apathy to Ambition