Motivating Students, or Why Big Bird Must Die

Regardless of ideological pedigree, today's educational reforms all share a common theme: students themselves are not responsible for their dreadful academic performance. The model is intravenous feeding: the student will arrive and passively be "fed" knowledge, so progress is just a question of discovering the right insertion techniques. This approach, of course, guarantees failure since nothing will succeed if students just don't care.      

This vision is ubiquitous among professional educators, but there may be a crack in this façade. Robert Samuelson, a well-read economist (the Washington Post and elsewhere) has openly expressed the unspeakable, at least among professional educators: insufficient motivation may explain poor academic performance. Ironically, though nearly all teachers and parents know this, Samuelson calls it "almost unmentionable." Now that Samuelson has let the cat out of the bag, even Thomas Friedman of the New York Times can repeat Samuelson's heresy, and who knows what truth might pop up next -- that the earth revolves around the sun? Such is America's education progress -- only a famous writer can get a column (in Real Clear Politics) out of a fact known to millions but taboo thanks to America's woolly-headed educational establishment.

Samuelson's "bravery" is only the first tiny step toward a solution, and change will be exceedingly daunting, far beyond what he can possibly imagine.

Begin by recognizing an essential element in learning -- pain, or even mental agony. Though learning may occasionally be fun, this is the exception. Pushing youngsters brings pain; that's why it is compulsory education. They must daily show up to school, sit still, ignore distractions, fight boredom, resist socializing, take orders from adults, keep quiet, and perhaps most excruciating, suffer regular failure. Even among bright students, pain and learning are linked as lessons become more taxing, especially in subjects where they lack natural talents.

Pain is vital for feedback. Without feedback, learning is impossible. You may consider yourself an expert speller by passing a simple spelling test, but calibrating spelling ability requires more arduous tests. Eventually, the tests will be sufficiently challenging to leave you unable to spell a single word. Hardly a fun experience, but you learned a valuable lesson -- work harder.            

All learning requires pain, but the least able academically must necessarily suffer the greatest distress. Properly reading even a comic book versus just looking at the pictures requires decoding novel words and keeping the plot straight -- not easy for the barely literate. For those lacking English fluency -- a phenomenon increasingly common in American schools -- the pain of school learning is especially intense.

Unhappily, American educators (and many parents and students) embrace modern medicine's quest for painless cures. This is a futile search, not different from TV commercials for devices promising six-pack abs without breaking a sweat.  

So if discomfort is inescapable, but students and parents demand painless learning, how can this quandary be solved? One solution is manipulating test scores, and while commonplace, this can be risky. Grade inflation might suffice -- giving "A"s for "C" work, even awarding college credit for junior high school feel-good courses. A superior and below-the-radar solution is "Sesame Street"-like instruction. Here the teacher minimizes anguish with play-acting, singing and dancing, flashy textbooks with videos, exciting field trips, and all else that modern entertainment technology can supply. And, as occurs with Sesame Street's razzle-dazzle lessons, one can just abandon hard tests through which slackers might discover their ignorance. Having fun replaces distressing pressure.

The Sesame Street approach has become the pedagogical orthodoxy so students can supposedly learn and feel good about their modest accomplishments. Consider one authoritative, typical example: Merrill Marmin's Inspiring Active Learning: A Handbook for Teachers (1994). Here's how teachers are taught to motivate students: Move lessons quickly to prevent boredom, even if students fall behind; include varied material in lectures (but not so diverse as to confuse students) so something will always be attention-getting material; shift topics when sensing growing boredom; do not wait until students are attentive to begin talking since they will catch up; and avoid repetition to keep it exciting (but return to the subject later if necessary). Be sure to engage all students, so call on students to speak to an issue sure to generate interest and give lots of exciting examples to stimulate curiosity; kindle engagement by frequent votes on what some student said about the material; encourage students to seek aid from friends to build a cooperative spirit; elicit group responses ("a choral approach") to help students memorize facts; provide ample visual presentations, role-play, and use demonstration to pique interest; insert "provocative" topics when discussions drag; talk aloud when solving a problem to provide insight into problem-solving; and move from easy to difficult problems to instill excellence.

Conspicuously absent from this approach (and many similar ones) is teaching children to persevere when confronting initially confusing or boring material. This is light-years from George Orwell's observation that classical education is impossible without corporal punishment. It is a recipe for promoting attention deficit disorder and building self-confidence apart from any demonstrable accomplishment. Semi-literates will never know the truth. Teachers are further told to post anxiety-reducing classroom posters like "Everyone makes mistakes" or "It's okay to make mistakes" or "Hunting for right answers is more important than right answers." It is no wonder that educational professions hate testing -- it contravenes their core beliefs about how to teach.

Given dismal outcomes, this "feel good, nobody fails" strategy has obviously fallen short. No pain means, predictably, no gain. Moreover, judged by high truancy and dropout rates, the "learn-by-entertaining" method cannot compete with non-school rivals. Now, imagine, miracle of miracles, that Samuelson's column ignites a rush to old-fashioned pedagogy, when failing students were subject to ridicule and even smart kids lacked sky-high self-esteem.  

If mental discomfort were introduced into the motivation equation, the likely outcome would be outrage, with angry parents complaining that junior is too smart to fail. (See here and here.) Indignation would be particularly intense from parents of less academically talented students long shielded from failure. These once-"accomplished" students would have their lofty self-images shattered, and rest assured, in today's protest-happy world, public officials would hear the anger. Some distressed parents would threaten boycotts unless the old system were restored and everyone were again an honor roll student. Few "education mayors" could survive to reelection. (See here.)

Inflicting unaccustomed pain may also exacerbate disciplinary problems. It is an open secret that inflated evaluations help tranquilize potentially disruptive students. What happens now when former "A" students receive their first "C"s? Intimidating teachers is one possibility. 

But the real threat is trimming school budgets as the pain kicks in. Students addicted to inflated assessments will now likely drop out or play hooky, and since budgets reflect enrollments, the public education trough will shrink. This is hardly good news for thousands of school employees, many of whom vote. Nor will parents welcome this new-sprung harsh reality, and they may gravitate toward charter schools promising old-fashioned dishonest grades (Everyone a Genius Academy will be bursting at the seams). A mayoral candidate running on a platform of restoring puffed-up student self-esteem and keeping education jobs would be hard to beat.

If they read this, I can only wonder if Samuelson and Friedman are still motivated.      

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad