Aspiration is often associated with a whimsical sense of dreaming about the future. The Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, an independent non-profit organization, defines aspiration as the ability to set goals for the future while maintaining the inspiration in the present to reach those goals. When a student has dreams for the future and is actively working towards them, she’s in the “aspirational zone.” And in that state, student achievement increases.

A lot of kids have big dreams about what they want to do as adults — whether that’s become a professional athlete or a teacher — but no idea of what it takes to get there. Dreaming about the future is important, but without a plan, it often ends with just that — a dream. “There is such a disconnect between the kids dreaming and the kids doing,” said Russ Quaglia, president and founder of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations in an edWeb webinar. Other students work very hard to complete all their assignments and participate in every group, but they have no vision for where they want that hard work to lead them. The trick is to find the sweet spot – what Quaglia calls the “aspiration state.”

[RELATED READING: Six Ways to Motivate Students to Learn]

To do that, Quaglia suggests focusing on three guiding principles: self-worth, engagement, and purpose. Helping students work on these qualities will ultimately help them to feel academic motivation, a clear predictor of academic achievement.


It’s incredibly important for students to know that someone cares about them, that their presence matters. The Quaglia Institute has surveyed almost a million students about their perceptions of school. Fifty percent of students surveyed don’t think their teachers care if they’re absent from class. “Half the students in our country don’t think we care if they even show up,” Quaglia said. Only 45 percent of students responded that they feel valued at school. That disconnection, or sense that they don’t fit in at school, is part of why kids drop out.

Helping students to feel that they belong and matter could be as simple as asking after a student’s well-being after an absence, or making sure he is caught up on the work. It could also mean being the person a student seeks out when life is particularly hard and also when it’s great. Every student needs at least one person like that in life, and teachers often become that support system.


Making sure kids are paying attention is another crucial factor. “We’re talking about making sure classes are fun and exciting,” said Quaglia. “What I mean is that they’re so engaged that they lose track of time and space.” When kids are engaged, teachers can try to instill and provoke a sense of curiosity and creativity in them. In many classes, this is not the case: 45 percent of students say they are bored in school and the same number say their classes help them understand daily life. Only 34 percent of students say their teachers know their hopes and dreams.

A huge part of engagement is getting students to have a spirit of adventure. They need to be willing to risk something and succeed. “We have not made it cool to be successful in school yet,” Quaglia said.


Giving students real responsibility over their education makes them an actor in the school’s community and they begin to care more about what happens in school. If students can develop a sense that they not only matter, but have purpose, it can help them become more academically motivated. In the Qualia Institute survey, 94 percent of students believe they can be successful, but only 74 percent believe their teachers expect them to be successful. “The teacher’s expectations of kids are lower than the kids’ expectations of themselves,” Quaglia said. He finds that statistic especially disturbing.

[RELATED: How Will Students Perform? Depends On Teachers’ Expectations]

“I promote the notion of student voice, but then I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall when kids say they don’t think their teachers are willing to learn from them,” said Quaglia. Only 52 percent of students say their teachers are willing to learn from them. That disconnect is exactly why it’s so important to give students purpose. If they are genuinely heard by teachers they respect, it can go a long way towards motivating them.

By focusing on helping students develop a sense of self-worth, engage with school, and find purpose, teachers can nurture academic motivation. When they are motivated, they try to get good grades, put forward their best work and push themselves to improve. Students that responded that they are academically motivated were also likely to be performing better academically.

“Most kids are academically motivated, but the longer they’re in school the less academically motivated they become,” Quaglia said. Teachers have the power to reverse that trend, but it takes a recognition that students respond to every action or non-action.

“Our choice isn’t whether we are going to be their heroes or not,” Quaglia said. “It’s whether we’re a good one or a bad one. Kids will pick us as heroes and we won’t even know it.” That knowledge doesn’t mean teachers have to become superhuman, but it does mean that building trust with students, learning their names, and sitting down with them can make all the difference.

How to Help Kids Find Their Aspirations 3 October,2013Katrina Schwartz

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  • Dan

    Many positive ideas here but a ton to ask for a public school teacher who has 30-40 students per period. That said, it’s the little things that matter, and I think teachers that place emphasis on learning deeply over procedure/petty mistakes make the most amount of impact toward student enlightenment.

  • David Price

    This is, without doubt the biggest challenge for educators: how do we compete with the learning students are engaged in informally, when they’re in school. Inmy new book, ‘OPEN’ I identified 6 ‘imperatives of social learning, which power what they do when we’re not teaching them. Whenever I ask teachers how many of these motivations are present in formal learning, there’s usually an awkward silence.

    As teachers we don’t need to- can’t – be experts in everything – but we just have to give kids more responsibility for their learning, and they’ll always exceed our expectations.

    Thanks for raising this important topic!

    • jefferylamontagne321

      my Aunty Peyton got a year old Audi RS 5 Convertible by working from the internet. he said J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Bill

    Ideas here are excellent-not only for young students but very much so for senior citizens.

  • Jim Christopher

    The key is establishing a flexible mindset in students keeping them engaged and motivated.

  • RNM

    Great stuff – but HOW do we do these things? What do they look like in the classroom? What are the strategies that work? For example the article talks about student voice but doesn’t say how this was conducted – survey? Focus group? interviews? Panel?

    Would love to hear some ideas.


  • Joseph

    The things that she writes about reminds me of something I read on a blog recently. It was written by some young girl about how she isn’t motivated because of the teaching methods used. Specifically, she probably lacks engagement and purpose like it is written here. Anyways it was an interesting piece from a student’s perspective.

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  • deserteacher

    Using hope as a teaching method would do the trick.

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  • sahel

    In order for a child to have a good future to be able to help them to achieve their creative minds., In this case, that can be a good future.!

    to more learn:درب اتوماتیک

  • Charles

    Interesting points, but I am not sure how they relate to a students actually FINDING their aspirations. This seems to be more about doing WELL in school. The author states, “… Quaglia suggests focusing on three guiding principles: self-worth,
    engagement, and purpose. Helping students work on these qualities will
    ultimately help them to feel academic motivation, a clear predictor of
    academic achievement.” Academic achievement and finding/reaching your dream is NOT the same.

    • Atlas Educational

      If your child is engaged, has a purpose for learning, and a good sense of self, problem solved.

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  • Learning = self design – and one can’t do that effectively without knowing where you want to get to and who you want to become. Peter H. Reynolds’s book THE NORTH STAR is a great way to introduce the concept to even very young children – and equally as inspiring for adults still trying to figure it out.

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  • I know how students can find their aspirations… the aspirations show up starting around age 9. When your kid shows an interest in something as she begins to discover the world outside their classroom and home, that is your cue to pay attention to what is catching your child’s attention. Learn more at


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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