Monday, March 2, 2009

The Problem of Student Motivation

Recently, I have come across an interesting article: "Who is Responsible for Student Learning," by Baylor University education professor, J. Wesley Null. The main thesis of the article is that in an age where "accountability" is a buzz word, we must remember that, as wrong as it may sound to some, teachers can only do so much in getting students to learn. We often forget that the other half of the responsibility MUST lie with the student.

Null suggests that the view which sees teachers as the primary responsibility-holders to student learning confuse the business of education with most other businesses. There, if the product falls short of expectations, the workers are the likely culprit. As Null rightly points out, this ignores one key difference between "factories" and education: students, unlike cars and insurance policies, are agents that are often actively resistant to being "worked on." If a car turns out not to work well, something in the workmanship is likely to blame. If a student graduates history class without being able to recall history facts, it may be due to poor teaching by the teacher, or poor learning by the student.

Null provides an analogy to bolster the point:

[I]f a husband and wife enroll in, say, a marriage course at their local church, should the pastor who teaches these classes be blamed if the couple's marriage never improves? Or do the husband and wife have a joint responsibility to improve their own marriage?

Obviously, we would suggest that the pastor can persuade, guide, cajole, instruct, and remind. What we would not say, though, is that any of this can make the marriage work. In the end, teaching, guiding, and reminding are only so good as the will of the person recieving the instruction, guidance, and reminders.

That this is analogous to the limits of the teacher's role is obvious. What we do with this recognition is not. When teachers say things like, 'we can only do so much,' or try to shift at least some of the "blame" onto parents, students, and an anti-intellectual culture that many students come to us imbued with, we are seen as offering a subterfuge. In turn, teachers may be charged with laziness and unwillingness to be accountable.

In some sense, this view is sometimes justified. There certainly are such things as bad teachers, and often, those teachers ARE shielded from accountability by the ill-thought-out mechanism of tenure. And, as a "public service," there has to be some way to hold teachers accountable for results. Otherwise, poor-performing teachers can pawn all responsibility onto their students.

There are several other reasons for our collective uncomfortability with blaming at least some of education's failure on students:

(1) Doing so forces parents and society at large to take a critical look at their practices and whether they may be (inadvertently) sending teachers students who have not been taught such basic prerequisites to learning as respect for authority, impulse control, and some reason (internal or external) to value the enterprise of education. It is easier to blame teachers for students' low performance.

(2) As trivial as it seems, all of us have become familiar with the "feel good" teacher movies like "The Ron Clark Story," "Dangerous Minds," and "Freedom Writers," where a teacher is able to overcome all educational obstabcles with students by pure dilligence and tenacity. Take this, couple it with the egalitarian idea that every child has equal potential, and we grow intolerant with the view that student failure is not purely a symptom of bad teaching.

(3) As most of us have had at least 12 years of direct experience with teachers, teaching is the one job that most people have seen close-up, and as such, most people feel is not so difficult. I think that this inadvertently plays into notions that student failure is due to bad teaching because, unlike most professions, it is easy to "play at armchair teaching." Laypersons might not be quick to offer opinions on how accountants can do their job better, but are generally unafraid to criticize the "common sense" discipline of teaching.

It is difficult to know how to strike a good balance between holding teachers accountable for results and accepting that teaching, unlike other professions, requires willingness from producer AND PRODUCT in order to be successful. it may even be as simple as involving teachers who produce scores of underachieving students in more stringent observations and professional developments. It may also involve offering teachesr financial incentives, as some districts have done, for good results (thus not penalizing underperformance, but simply rewarding outstanding performance.

But what many don't realize is that teaching is hard as it is. It is even harder when we teachers are held solely or even primarily accountable for students low performance on tests (when they admit, as they often have to me, that they do not studey), for low homework grades (homework is the responsibility of the home), and even student truency.

As Null correctly notes, and as hard as it is for many parents and policy-makers to hear, "Individual agency matters. Put another way, one person cannot be held responsible for another person's behavior."


  1. ...all of us have become familiar with the "feel good" teacher movies like "The Ron Clark Story," "Dangerous Minds," and "Freedom Writers"...

    You forgot "Stand and Deliver". Unforgivable...

    I like to point out that the underlying problem is that the kids don't care, but OTOH, I can remember a few teachers that really got me excited about their subject material, and even though I was a good student, I definitely put more effort into the subjects I was excited about.

    If a student doesn't want to learn, you can only discipline them for getting caught slacking off, not for slacking off directly. If we're going to insist that education be mandatory, I suggest that the educational system build some strategies around the desire to learn rather than class attendance and completion grades.

    There's an arms race between students (to work as little as possible) and the people who depend on academic certification (like employers), and the result is steadily devaluing education. I would actually like to see academic requirements drop for a while (e.g. shorter school days/years, more elective periods) so that we could actually get a fresh look at the pros and cons of our approach to education.

  2. David,

    Interesting thoughts. Yes, there are definitely those teachers that can turn apathetic students into eager learners. I suppose that my point was simply that unlike many other profesions, the "clients" in school are not always willing, and often, are resistant to the "product."

    >>>"If we're going to insist that education be mandatory, I suggest that the educational system build some strategies around the desire to learn rather than class attendance and completion grades.

    Definitely so. But if learning is not valued and encouraged at home (and where I teach, education is a low priority), then I am not sure how successful teachers are going to be at undoing that. Elementary schools stand the best chance. By the time of high-school, though, we are asking that 14 years of laxity towards education be undone. And the situaiton is certainly exacerbated when there are no consequences as home (which means that consequences at school are a foreign concept that will drive students even further from wanting to learn).

    The problem is that, thanks for NCLB and the like, schools are coming up with creative ways to "keep their numbers up," which often means putting less and less responsibility on kids and dumbing down the curricula (for fear that, if they don't, they will appear as if their numbers are declining).

    I would certainly not be in favor of seeing the requirements drop. (If we want to perform the experiments, let us look at other countries versus our own, or charter schools like KIP schools versus our public ones). I am not sure how one could argue that there would be any pros to shorter school days or less requirements. (It would be like arguing that we should see what the 'pros and cons' are to shortening overnight hospital procedures to outpatient procedures in the hopes that the latter offer better medical care.)

  3. I would certainly not be in favor of seeing the requirements drop.

    Do you think that we need to increase the requirements, or are we just at a sweet spot of a requirements level that you wouldn't want to change?

    My experience with education is that, as important as it is, people seem to forget a good portion of what they've learned throughout school, and at least some time is (productively) spent reinforcing old information. While I'd really like to see the performance requirements be more consistent and more stringent, I'm skeptical that we could get much improvement out of increasing the "commitment" requirements, e.g. more hours per day. I know it's not a perfect metaphor, but a lot of language-learning CDs stress the importance of taking breaks or only doing one lesson per day. Aren't there some tradeoffs involved?

    You're probably right that private schools would be the best place to try something like that, but whatever has been tried I wasn't aware of.

  4. David,

    That is an interesting point. As far as I am aware, other developed countries have just as difficult schools as we do (generally tougher), and are not having to contemplate watering them down. Chinese, Japanese, British, Austrailian students are meeting demands similar to ours just fine.

    Actually, a key complaint that the Brits have about the way we roll is that we don't expect nearly enough of our students. Obviously, if you expect too much, students burn out. but expect too little and as I suspect has happened in our case, students get lazy. As you know, there is more than one rationale for students not remembering what they learned.

    Now, I do think that we should adjust the scope of our curriculum, and teach fewer topics with more intensity (like the Brits). I don't see that as lowering standards, but only ensuring that more time is spent per unit (with fewer units).

    Is there a trade-off? Yes. The more we expect people to be exposed to, the less they will remember. But is the purpose of school solely to teach students things they will recall later? Not as I see it. I see that the very act of making students learn shapes their minds to know how to learn. Whether they remember algebra is not as relevant to me as the fact that they had to go through the process of learning abstract math.