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The Language of Dreams

December 27, 2013


Motivational focus affects how we approach life’s challenges and demands. While everyone is concerned at various times with both promotion and prevention, most of us have a dominant motivational focus, which affects what we pay attention to, what we value and how we feel when we succeed or fail. As educators, we have the pleasure of working with prevention and promotion-focused students, and those who successfully speak the motivational language of both have shown remarkable results. (1)

While the classroom management style prescribed in Doug Lemov’s Teach like a Champ is highly suitable for prevention-focused pupils, the promotion-focused will thrive when teachers have management styles that support creative solutions, long-term visions, and opportunities to shake things up. (2)

Dream Deserts

Many of my students had jobs and most of their parents had more than one. Those jobs, however, are insufficient means for providing promotion-focused students with inspiration.  To clarify, a job and a career are not the same. A career is defined by the OED as an individual’s “course or progress through life.” The etymology of the term comes from the 16th century French word Carriere, which meant “road” or “racecourse.” In contrast, a job is “a regular activity performed in exchange for payment.” If you still don’t see the distinction, Chris Rock can elucidate further.

Some don’t have to leave the kitchen table to see people with fulfilling careers, these privileged individuals were not the students I worked with. Along the bus-ride or walk home from school each day, my students saw insufficient examples of successful careers. Regardless of their motivational focus, people will always dream about their future. But those dreams, and the will to realize them is limited in “dream deserts” where access and opportunity are unjustly stifled. (3) 

“Have a Dream I said” – The language promotion-focused students need to hear

Lacking sufficient examples of career opportunities in the formal economy, my students were often vocal about their motivations to enter the informal economy. I took their insights seriously, and created an entire unit to address them. This unit began with an excerpt from Jay-Z’s Decoded titled “Have a Dream I Said”. It began with the a simple question: What’s the basic motivation for a hustler?

The kid in McDonald’s gets a check and that’s it. There’s no dream in fast food. Manager? That’s a promotion, not a dream…The truth is that most kids on the corner aren’t making big money–especially if you break their income down to an hourly wage. (footnote from freakonomics) But they’re getting rewarded in ways that go beyond dollars and cents. The kid on the streets is getting a shot at a dream.

This vignette spoke of my promotion-focused students’ profound capacity to channel their energy towards a compelling victory. Moreover, it undermined mythologies of the informal economy. As teachers, we must speak the language of promotion-focused students daily. We must provide them with more vivid, inspirational examples of success and a map that will lead them to it. Lastly, we must recognize the small wins that they make along the steep path to victory. These celebratory acts will make the ultimate dream seem even closer, worth more and more risks we will ask them to take.


(1) One study found that students who received instructions suited to their dominant motivational focus were about 50% more likely than others to turn in their reports.

(2) Prevention-focused students were found to thrive with strategies emphasize rules and standards,  and under leaders who tend toward micromanagement, discourage errors, and focus on effectively reaching more-immediate goals.

(3) In the world of nutrition, urban communities are often described as “food deserts”. I’d like to encourage today’s geography majors to map “dream deserts” and identify such as any geographic area with unjustly low opportunities for meaningful careers.

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