A recent Washington Post article by Robert J. Samuelson summarizes the failures of “school reform” in our nation’s public schools. Mr. Samuelson notes that 17-year-olds have made no progress in reading or math between 1971 and 2008, according to the most reliable test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. He argues that all of the usual justifications for these disappointing results just don’t hold water:
Standard theories don’t explain this meager progress. Too few teachers? Not really. From 1970 to 2008, the student population increased 8 percent and the number of teachers rose 61 percent. The student-teacher ratio has fallen sharply, from 27-to-1 in 1955 to 15-to-1 in 2007. Are teachers paid too little? Perhaps, but that’s not obvious. In 2008, the average teacher earned $53,230; two full-time teachers married to each other and making average pay would belong in the richest 20 percent of households (2008 qualifying income: $100,240). Maybe more preschool would help. Yet, the share of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool has rocketed from 11 percent in 1965 to 53 percent in 2008.
Mr. Samuelson believes that the deeper cause of poor test scores is “shrunken student motivation.” In other words, students aren’t doing better in school because they aren’t generally motivated to learn, and aren’t interested in the specific material being taught.
This explanation digs deeper than the traditional litany of “not enough ___” theories, which typically boil down to yet another demand to throw money at the problem. But Mr. Samuelson leaves open the question of why students lack motivation, and whose responsibility it is to motivate them in the first place.
So whose responsibility is it to motivate students? Whose job should it be to craft classroom lessons and materials that are emotionally compelling and exciting, so that students will want to make the effort to learn? Well, who else but the teachers and the school leadership? It is the educators (and not the students themselves) who have the sometimes daunting responsibility not only to identify what students should learn, but to design a curriculum that is interesting and meaningful, according to a pedagogical approach—a way of teaching—that keeps students excited and engaged.
Unfortunately, in many schools, public and private alike, educators seem to have abandoned that responsibility. Instead of well-thought-out curricula, many teachers follow textbooks of dubious quality, but adopted by the Boards of Education of big states like California and Texas. And apparently, developing teachers’ teaching skills to enable them to properly motivate their students isn’t a priority in the education establishment either: a recent survey of teachers of teachers found that only 37% considered it “absolutely essential” to focus on developing “teachers who maintain discipline and order in the classroom”, and 50% of the surveyed professors admit that “teacher education programs often fail to prepare teachers for the challenges of teaching in the real world.”
So how do you motivate students?
This is a difficult question, and an emerging area in educational theory. However, the teachers who are actually on the ground, teaching classes and interacting with students, are in position to make a tremendous contribution to this area of pedagogy. It is the classroom itself that becomes the laboratory for innovation in motivation, since it is in the classroom that new methods can actually be tested in practice.
At LePort, we make this a priority. We don’t have all of the answers yet, but we do think we are on the right track.
We believe that children begin life with a certain general thirst for knowledge. It is the educator’s job to then cultivate that youthful enthusiasm throughout the entire course of the child’s education, rather than pummeling it to death with dry, haphazard content that appears to the child to be irrelevant to the real world.
The educator preserves and appeals to the child’s natural curiosity by means of a carefully-sequenced curriculum. At the very earliest levels, it is the sights, sounds, touches and smells of the world itself that motivate the child to look around him and learn about what he finds. At every new grade level, the child’s preceding knowledge becomes the foundation for his further learning. And as in a mystery story, what he already knows propels him discover more in the next level in his studies. Lessons are carefully structured to first raise a natural question in the child’s mind, arising out of his previous knowledge, and only then to present the new knowledge as an answer to that question. It motivates him to ask “why?”—which is, in turn, what motivates him to actively absorb the answer. The end-result is that the child forms a personal connection with the content he learns, and takes an independent interest in cultivating a deep, integrated knowledgebase.
All of this requires teachers who care deeply enough to get to know their students as individuals, who have small enough classes so each student can get plenty of individual attention, and who have the prep time to do the work necessary to give them such attention.
Teaching well is a challenging task, and one that takes a lot of expertise and passion. If Mr. Samuelson is right that “shrunken motivation” is at the heart of many of the problems that pervade the public schools (and it likely does play an important role), then this is a fantastic opportunity for educators to rethink what and how they teach. What better way to get our students excited about learning again, than to get our educators excited about revisiting the question of how best to inspire them to learn.