Education Opinion

Worlds Apart

By Ronald A. Wolk — February 01, 2003 3 min read
When kids are not engaged, not only do they fail to learn, they also tend to become bored and restless.

It is easy for pundits (like me) to pontificate about how to fix schools and raise student achievement. But teachers and principals do not have the luxury of dealing only in theories; they have to work with real kids and all the problems they bring to school.

Perhaps the most serious of those problems is lack of motivation. Nothing positive is likely to happen in a classroom if a student does not want to learn. Indeed, when kids are not engaged, not only do they fail to learn, they also tend to become bored and restless, which often leads to disruptive behavior and disciplinary problems.

So why do students lack motivation? We know that children, almost from birth, are driven by curiosity; they’re like sponges, soaking up everything they see and hear. Learning is as natural to them as breathing, and they delight in every accomplishment. As author James Raffini puts it, “Rarely does one hear parents complain that their preschooler is ‘unmotivated.’”

Over the years, however, many students lose interest in formal learning, and their curiosity dulls. The problem for some children— especially the poor and disadvantaged—begins at home. Research suggests that kids’ motivation to learn is significantly influenced by their home environment and by the attitudes of their parents toward learning and questioning. Children who arrive at school with a learning deficit often struggle and fail in classrooms and may withdraw as an act of self- preservation.

But many youngsters from reasonably affluent homes and with educated, encouraging parents often lack motivation, as well. This suggests that something about the school experience may contribute to the problem.

As I began writing this column, my grandson asked me what I was doing. He is a bright, even precocious, 7th grader who’s been having problems with some of his courses and teachers. I saw an opportunity to explore why, so I explained that I was writing about student motivation. He agreed to let me interview him. “Why do you think so many kids, including you, don’t seem to want to learn the subjects you are taught in school?” I asked. He shrugged, thought for a moment, then replied: “It’s like school gets in the way of life.”

He offered other helpful opinions during our 10-minute chat, but nothing struck home like his opening remark: School gets in the way of life. What is the value of an education if it does not relate to how we live?

Harvard educator Howard Gardner writes about children’s perception of two separate, and very different, worlds—the world of school and the real world—and how those worlds never meet for many kids. Students may succeed in school because they are extrinsically motivated by the promise of rewards or penalties. Unfortunately, high test scores and good grades are not necessarily equated with learning, and these kids may well enter the “real world” shortchanged.

Others are intrinsically motivated and do well in school because they recognize the relevance of certain subjects to their lives or discover their passions. Research shows that intrinsically motivated students perform complex intellectual tasks better and make more informed decisions than extrinsically motivated students. These kids are more likely to benefit from schooling and become lifelong learners. The real losers are those who find school so irrelevant, they drop out at the earliest opportunity.

Given that a lack of motivation, perhaps more than anything else, is the reason students don’t learn or learn too little, motivating them should be at the top of the school reform priority list. There are hundreds of articles about how to do this, but most offer strategies and tactics for teachers. We need to go beyond that, to the fundamentals of schooling. We need to ask why school is perceived by so many children as getting “in the way of life.” We need to find ways to bring the real world into the world of schooling—and vice versa.

—Ronald A. Wolk