We know that students’ motivation to learn sometimes declines as they move through school. This is a sobering fact for those of us in education, and for parents, to know that the longer our students are with us, the more they tend to lose interest in school. We adults are so troubled by this that we can often be heard assigning blame for the problem: poor parenting, ineffective teaching, video games, the mass media, substance abuse, lazy or spoiled kids.
Many factors contribute to apathy, but we adults would be wise to focus on the motivational variables within our sphere of influence. Or perhaps a better approach would be to identify how we sometimes undermine students’ motivation to learn, so we can STOP! Research suggests that we undermine motivation when we:
ütell students what to think, feel, read, write, or say
üexpect students to perform a task which they are not prepared to perform
üevaluate performance with no specific feedback
üevaluate only the negative aspects of performance
ümake empty praise statements: “Great job!” “Awesome!”
üincrease competition in the classroom
ütalk/lecture more than we question/facilitate
üassign learning tasks as punishment
üassign large projects without breaking them into parts
üthreaten, coerce, or scare students to perform better
übribe or reward students to perform better
üare not prepared ourselves
Self-Determination (Deci & Ryan) Theory asserts that humans are motivated by universal needs for 1) competence, 2) autonomy, and 3) relatedness; in other words, we share a universal need to “self-determine” our lives. For a task to motivate us, we need to feel that we have the skills necessary to be successful, that we have some choice and control over the task, and that our engagement is likely to increase our feelings ofconnectedness to other people. From the moment we are born, motivated is our “natural state.” When we are unmotivated, it is unnatural.
The most effective teachers, coaches, and parents know this. They motivate their students through a relentless emphasis on the skills necessary for competence, by showing them how to be the authors of their lives, and by fostering the relationships that are fundamental to their well-being. Where all three are in place, apathy cannot survive.
In Defense of Measurement
Educational reform over the last decade has adopted the philosophies of business and manufacturing – the Total Quality Management (TQM)or Six Sigma approaches to continuous improvement. For years, education in the United States rejected such efforts as not applicable to teaching and learning.
Granted, there are problems with applying business management principles to education: 1) the question as to whether learning can be measured, and 2) the inevitable conflicts about whatshould be measured. Add to that a third, political consideration-- “who gets to decide what should be measured” -- and you can begin to understand why reforms have been slow to take root in education.
But we do know how to calculate the number of words a student can read in a minute, how to benchmark that number against same-age peers, and to re-assess periodically to monitor whether the student’s reading rate is improving at the same trajectory of other students. We know how to test whether students have mastered certain skills – whether they can solve a problem using mathematics, or construct a reasoned argument in support of a position.
At the same time, these measures cannot fully inform us about the student’s depth of understanding, or whether he/she can apply the skills for some useful purpose. They tell us little about students’ abilities to think critically or creatively, or whether they have developed the soft skills of discipline, hardwork, teamwork or concentration that make them employable.
Perhaps a better approach is to first accept the merits of measurement. While TQM may not be a perfect match for the field of education, we must acknowledge that defining success as being “whatever we say it is” only reinforces the notion that our profession is not interested in improvement. In an economy stretched for resources, this attitude toward the investment of tax dollars will no longer be tolerated.
Consider the seven basic principles of TQM: 1) quality can be managed; 2) processes, not people, are the problem; 3) don’t treat symptoms, but rather, look for the cure; 4) every employee is responsible for quality; 5) quality must be measurable; 6) quality improvements must be continuous; and 7) quality is a long-term investment. If we can agree that improving the quality of education is a common and continuous goal of Eastland, and that doing that means that we must measure and monitor our progress, we will have cleared a significant hurdle. We can then debate and define what will be the common outcomes of an Eastland education, and select the tools we will use to measure our progress toward them.
Much of the conflict in America today is attributed to the “culture war.” Wikipedia defines the culture war as a metaphor for the idea that political conflict arises from the ongoing tension between those values considered traditionalist or conservative, and those considered progressive or liberal. In truth, the conflict can be attributed to our different and often personal perspectives of what constitutes growth, or improvement.
In hindsight, some of these arguments seem silly. It hardly seems possible that the law in our country once did not allow women to vote. The women’s suffrage movement began in 1848, but it was 1920 before the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted. Americans of both parties would agree today that extending voting rights to women was an act of self-improvement in our nation’s history.
Often, however, whether an initiative represents improvement is more ambiguous. I often debate with my own children the merits of today’s popular music, television shows, and social networks. Today’s music is less melodic, the content less thoughtful and often hateful or sexist. Reality shows and social networks amplify our insecurities, superficialities and jealousies: our least attractive attributes as a species. Yet within these always-fluid enterprises we can find, even today, groundbreaking music, poetic lyrics, and socially-conscious, thoughtful television shows. Cell-phone video posted on the Internet helped to overthrow a series of repressive regimes inthe Middle East.
Our country is sometimes referred to as “the American experiment.” Speaking about the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said that Americans were engaged in a conflict that would determine whether “a country so conceived could long endure.” If we could change our political discourse to substitute the word “improve” for the word “reform,” perhaps we could get past the notion that our culture is broken and in need of being fixed, and move ahead with the business of improving it, remembering that growth is typically more like a vine that twists and coils than a stalk that grows sure and straight.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of “Significance”
In his book How We do Anything Means Everything, Dov Seidman makes the case for what he calls “outbehaving the competition:”
It is important to be mindful of . . . the philosophical idea that if you pursue happiness directly it eludes you. . . . I have learned from my work that there is a corollary to this paradox – that you can’t achieve success by pursuing it directly. Inspirational leaders understand that real, sustainable value can be achieved only when you pursue something greater than yourself that makes a difference in the lives of others. The word I use for this issignificance.
Seidman works with corporate managers to promote values-based thinking and behaving. He purports that successful organizations today are more productive because the people within them share sustainable values that lead to positive outcomes. In other words, their focus is on a shared set of values rather than a successful outcome. When every individual within the organization truly thinks, communicates, and acts from the same set of core values, the outcomes take care of themselves.
As an example of what he is advocating, Seidman tells the story of professional golfer David Toms, who in 2005 disqualified himself in the second round of the British Open. He was unsure if his golf ball was wobbling in the wind when he tapped it into the hole. Because it is against the rules of golf to hit a ball while it is in motion, Toms self-reported his uncertainty. After watching the videotape, the rules official said he could not confirm whether the ball was wobbling when he hit it, and left it up to Toms.
Toms said if he had continued on and won, he would have felt like he was getting away with something. It would have been unfair to his competitors, but even more significantly, unfair to himself:
I believe it might have had a devastating impact on my career had I continued on. It’s very hard to perform without a clear head or a clear conscience. You have to be mentally and physically ready and prepared to play.
On Decision-Making, and Oliver Wendell Holmes
As Americans, we live in a democratic society marked by conflict and debate – under a government designed to encourage dissent. The founders believed that such a system would ensure that change would be measured rather than rushed; thoughtful as opposed to impulsive. Often, our system seems to stymie change as leaders promote opposing ideologies as if they represent scientific truths.
Yet decisions must be made, and we count on our leaders to make them intelligently. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once commented that each case that comes to court has “a unique fact situation.” The judge as decision-maker faces numerous “imperatives:” to “find the just result in this particular case,” to find the result that will be consistent with decisions made in similar cases, and at the same time, that will be most beneficial to society as a whole when generalized across similar cases in the future. He believed that the judge also confronts less talked about, but equally compelling imperatives: to “secure an outcome most congenial to the judge’s own politics,” and sometimes, to “bend legal doctrine so that it will conform better to changes in social standards and conditions.” Of course, he acknowledged the imperative to “punish the wicked” and “excuse the good.”
In his candid explanation of the politics involved in any decision, Holmes asserted that one "meta-imperative" hovered above all the others: to not let it appear that any one of the lesser imperatives played too much into the final decision at the expense of any of the others.
Holmes’ observations should remind leaders that making decisions on behalf of others is not as simple as applying one essential principle to a circumstance, and determining an outcome. There are many variables that should influence our leaders' decisions.
If Holmes was right , our leaders should rely on something more than personal preference or ideology. According to Holmes, that "something” is EXPERIENCE.
This need to consider multiple variables means that decision-making is complex. It should also give us caution that variables can be manipulated (i.e. decision-makers can choose the variable they want to employ to secure the outcome they want in a given situation), a warning to all leaders to watch that their own politics do not interfere with their ability to make wise decisions.
Lessons from “The Blue Guitar”
When I was in college, I had a class on poetry. One of my classmates was a respected artist on campus. She had paintings and drawings on display in the University of Illinois Art Gallery: it was not often that a student enjoyed an entire display to herself. For some reason I cannot fully explain to this day, I didn’t like her. I’m confident this says more about me and my shortcomings than it says about her.
As a student, she oozed that confidence that comes from the adulation of talent. She was extremely well-read, and to be honest, a person could learn a lot just listening to her analysis. But one day we were reading the Wallace Stevens poem “The Man with the Blue Guitar;” this lead to our only interaction for the semester -- an argument.
Wallace Stevens was a poet influenced by the Imagist movement. The Imagists tried to write their poems starkly, in a manner that evoked an image without attempting to explain it. Their philosophy was that words could not improve the communication of the image. In a way, they saw themselves like photo journalists. The interesting thing about being a photojournalist with words is that no two readers of an imagist poem will ever have exactly the same mental picture. The power of imagery is that we bring to it our own memories and experiences.
In the course of my classmate’s analysis (which was always first, and always the longest), there was something that just didn’t make sense. In describing what she saw upon reading the poem, it became clear that she imagined a man playing a red guitar. I mean, the name of the poem was “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” but when she read it, she somehow imagined a man playing a red guitar.
I was incredulous. I finally interrupted and explained that, despite her obvious genius and artistic sensibilities (don’t worry, I only thought these things), she should have in her mind a blue guitar. Her blue guitar might be a different shade of blue than the blue guitar in my mind, and our guitars were probably different sizes and shapes. Her man may have been playing it left-handed, and mine right handed, but neither she nor the Imagists were so omnipotent that they could randomly change the meaning of the word “blue” to mean “red,” or suddenly change the entire structure of English grammar so that adjectives no longer modified nouns!
I understand that much of the joy in life is in its ambiguities, but we should not exploit that uncertainty to define the world solely in our terms, or for situational convenience.
When am I Going to use Algebra?!
G.V. Ramanathan, a professor emeritus of mathematics, statistics and computer science at the University of Illinois at Chicago says that math has little relevance to daily life. He goes on to say that math has been marketed as essential even though most adults have no contact with math at work, or in their leisure. He argues that the students who love math and science have done very well in our country, and our graduate schools are the best in the world. He cannot understand the need to spend taxpayer’s money on “pointless endeavors without demonstrable results or accountability.”
Professor Ramanathan’s view has support among many of the constituencies that have traditionally set the direction for K-12 education in the United States. His is the traditional view – that beginning somewhere in grades 8 or 9, students should be tracked into math courses based on their abilities, their interest, or the extent to which they will need math in their chosen career-paths. Interestingly,this point of view is in direct conflict with the education reform movement in Illinois, and throughout the nation.
In their policy brief The Building Blocks of Success: Higher Level Math for All Students commissioned by Achieve, Inc., researchers found that Algebra II and other advanced math courses are prerequisites for many college courses, not only in math and science, but also in social science fields, economics, business, and computer and other technology courses. They found that female, disadvantaged and minority high school students not only earn fewer mathematics credits than their peers, but are less likely than those peers to enroll in higher-level math courses such as trigonometry and calculus.
The report goes on to say that in the current system, “higher-level math courses function not as the intellectual and practical boost they should be, but as a filter that screens students out of the pathway to success.” While there is fear that requiring a common core math curriculum of all students will discourage students who have not previously taken such courses, the report cites research that “challenging math does not increase high school dropout rates if students are given the support and high-quality instruction they need to succeed.” Read the full report athttp://www.achieve.org/files/BuildingBlocksofSuccess.pdf.
On Complexity, and Thinking Through It
Complexity is the nature of modern life. As the global economy becomes more interrelated, it also becomes more difficult to manage or predict. Oil prices go up based on a weather forecast in the Gulf of Mexico. The Dow Jones loses 300 points because of the rumor that Greece may default on its debt. Technology and the Internet serve as accelerants, increasing our sense of lost control.
One way to cope with this complexity is to withdraw. Throughout history we have seen individuals and sects within our society who have chosen to live deliberately and simply. Henry David Thoreau went to live on Walden Pond. The Amish move goods with horse and buggy, even as cars zip by at 60 miles an hour.
A more common reaction is disengagement. Many of us manage our anxiety by not really thinking. And fortunately for us, there are people and groups out there who are interested in thinking for us: financial advisors to tell us what to do with our money; television and radio talk show hosts to tell us what to believe and for whom to vote. We have experts to tell us what to eat, or what pills to take to increase our energy or prevent cancer.
An important function of education should be to prepare our children to manage complexity in their adult lives, not by withdrawing or disengaging, but through the development of higher level thinking skills such as analysis, evaluation and synthesis. These skills help us see the underlying structure and simplicity of complex systems. In teaching our students to think through it, we will increase their autonomy, reduce their anxiety, and strengthen society as a whole.
On Drilling: and Missing the Point
Application is the skill that matters, both as the means and the measure of competence. Students are not fully learning until they are applying a skill to some end, and we are not truly measuring students’ competence unless we are measuring their ability to apply their skills correctly for some purpose.
When I was in junior high school, there was a player in a neighboring district who was widely regarded as the best basketball player in the region. He worked year-round on basketball drills: ball-handling drills. He could dribble two and three basketballs at a time. I once saw him dribble the length of the floor using only his knees. Another time, he dribbled two basketballs in the distinct rhythm of the William Tell Overture. Nobody at that time had ever seen anything like it.
Kids from all over would come to basketball camps to watch him. During the season, we would go to his games just to watch him warm-up. All of the drill work had made him so slick and confident that he never made a mistake.
Ironically,the games were never as interesting. The team he played on won about half the time, but there were three or four teams that were better than his. I remember he often looked frustrated during the games.
He did receive a basketball scholarship to college. He rarely played during his four years, but he was so slick with his ball-handling drills that the university started putting a spotlight on him during the warm-ups. I heard people came to games just to watch his warm-up routine.
Application - Why it Matters
We teach beginning readers to recognize site words – common words that they need to know instantly, without sounding them out. This allows them to read fluently, with rate and expression that convey meaning. Soon, they will begin to read phrases like “in the house” as one thing. Fluent readers do not comprehend the phrase as three words, but rather, as one unit.
Beginning readers also learn the skills of phonics – the basic understanding that letters and letter blends work together to represent sounds. By using their phonics skills, readers can pronounce words that they have never seen before. Pronouncing the word correctly often leads to proper decoding of its meaning. It is not uncommon that a beginning reader, after struggling with the different parts of a word and blending them into one, will recognize the word as one that is already in his oral vocabulary.
Teachers often use flash cards to help students practice their site words, and coding to teach phonics. These are proven methods for isolating and practicing basic skills. But the end goal is not to increase the speed that a student can read through a deck of flash cards, or code the phonemic representation of a multi-syllable word.
If you have ever listened to a student or an adult read the phrase “in the house” as if it were three separate words instead of one unit of thought, or sound out the word “fortuitous” using their phonics skills, you will understand how it is possible to master the basic skills of reading without, somehow, learning to read.