Last week Robert Samuelson in Newsweek took on the topic of The Failure of School Reform, and came to the conclusion that it is because students don’t like school (with which I agree), and that this is the fault of our students (well, no).
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation. Students, after all, have to do the work. If the students aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a “good” college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure.
The unstated assumption of much school “reform” is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers. The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded. That applies more to high schools than to elementary schools, which helps explain why early achievement gains evaporate.
Of course Samuelson is right to say that student motivation is enormously important to educational progress and success; he is also partially right in the list he provides about what stimulates student motivation. I wish he had delved more deeply into that list; surely in addition to peer pressure and “intimidating teachers” (sic, ?) in his short list of motivations he could have added real-world relevance and connections, project-based learning, respect for student autonomy and individual passions, and technological tools integrated into learning. (What would you add?)
I agree too that we should attend to the data that demonstrates student motivation declines from elementary to secondary schooling. High school students, generally, are less motivated in school, but for Samuelson to go straight from that fact to the conclusion this must because of “strengthened adolescent culture” seem to me to be a bit of poorly founded logical jump.
To blame our students for their own lack of motivation is infuriating, demeaning, disrespectful, and ultimately, deeply detrimental to the cause of improving education.
We do need to confront the problem of under-motivated high school students, but let’s not blame our kids for the fact that school is boring them.
Our secondary schools are boring and undermotivating to our students because too many of our schools have fallen prey to a teach-the-textbook approach that sees its only accountability as a multiple choice testing regimen in which kids are evaluated by how well the select the right answer, over and over again, on subjects that have no relevance to their life.
We ask kids to sit in desks in rows 20 or 30 or 40 in a room while a teacher talks to them, and then we ask them to do homework about a topic which nobody has even tried to connect to their life and their future, and we then blame the kids for not loving it. We think that students who have listened to teachers carefully enough to remember what they have said, and read the textbook closely enough to remember what it stated, are being successful in true learning when they repeat it back to us on tests which ask mostly for factual recall and formulaic problem-solving.
The problem worsens for high school students, as Samuelson says, not because of “strengthening adolescent culture,” but because we have worn these kids down over the years, and stripped away the natural enthusiasm for learning they bring to elementary school.
Truth is, few of us as adults would be willing endure these “learning environments” on a daily basis, even if we were paid well to be in them. We adults seek out environments where we have purpose, where we enjoy autonomy and respect, where we can grow in mastery over skills that we care deeply about, to borrow from Pink– and most high schools provide none of these things. Some adults work in these envirionments, but let’s recognize this is only because they are paid to do so, and paid more than any other alternative available to them.
I write this not just from opinion but close observation; two years ago I spent a season visiting 21 American high schools, spending an entire day at each school shadowing a student (usually a junior), sitting in the student seats, and live-blogging what I saw was happening and whether it was genuinely motivating to students and facilitating student learning. Most of the time it was not.
But there are exceptions, and the exceptions demonstrate more powerfully than anything else that it is not our students’ fault they are undermotivated. What those of us who are paying closer attention than Samuelson know is that there are plenty of schools where students are motivated, where they do work hard, where they do like school, and where they do succeed and prepare for successful careers and college educations. Schools like High Tech High, New Tech Network schools, CART, and others are serious about providing learning which is meaningful to students, where they find purpose in their learning because they see its connection to the world they live in and the jobs they are aspiring to.
These are also schools which recognize, like Google, the value of greater autonomy in our professional lives, that we all deserve to have more choice and more voice and do our work, our learning, in ways that are meaningful and rewarding and which we choose. They are also places where we use the technological tools that empower us to be creative and collaborative communicators and producers.
These are also schools where students and learning are assessed in ways other than multiple choice bubble tests. They are schools which are serious about student engagement, measure it, and use the data to improve their students’ motivation for learning.
So yes, I do agree with Samuelson about the problem: educational reform is failing because kids aren’t motivated. I agree also with Samuelson that Arne Duncan’s solution to put a great teacher in every room isn’t going to work (nor will testing kids in boring, soul-crushing ways.)
But he could not be more wrong to blame the kids (or whatever it is he means in that weak formulation of “strengthened adolescent culture”) for their boredom. Instead, let’s fix schools so that kids find joy and relevance and purpose and reward and autonomy and mastery and creativity and productivity and collaboration in their classrooms every day.
[cross posted, with substantial revisions, from www.21k12blog.net]