'It's Never Too Late To Help Children'

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All these recent studies of American education, it seems to me, fail to deal with a major point: People don't learn subject matter or skills unless they want to. Motivation is the basic energy that fuels a student's learning of the basics--and the delights--of education. Therefore, the main question for our schools is not what subjects and skills to teach (although we should be clear about that) but how to motivate students to learn and go on learning.

I've spent quite a lot of time over the past three years studying, at Harvard University and in the Philadelphia schools, the science of motivation, especially the motivation to achieve. As David McClelland, a Harvard psychology professor, explained in The Achieving Society, achievement motivation is learned, not genetic.

Parents have a vast effect on how strongly motivated their children will be. Parents who encourage children to set their own goals, within the limits of safety, expect them to achieve, give the sort of help that strengthens (such as teaching a skill or finding a resource rather than doing the job for the child and saying in effect, "You can't do that")--these parents tend to rear achievers. But parents who put so much pressure on the children that they are scared, rebellious, or neurotic; or who say, in effect, "Do what you want, just don't bother me"; or who are overwhelmed by the tasks of parenthood (especially children who are having children, unmarried, alone) tend to rear scared, weak, rebellious children who have no sense that they actually can set and achieve goals, and no experience with how good achievement feels.

There are a number of methods of teaching that do not motivate students. One is to treat them as if their heads were empty vessels to be filled mainly from that orifice of truth, the teacher's mouth, supplemented by skills workbooks. Keep the kids quiet, pour information in till the heads are full, and then they're ready for a productive life.

This is bunk. Nothing is less like a passive vessel than the human mind. Even the least-motivated person's mind churns, processes, distorts, illuminates, or extinguishes whatever goes into it.

Another nonmotivator is the be-quiet-and-do-it-my-way approach. I remember once in a 3rd-grade classroom hearing a teacher pose the question: "What numbers between one and 10 can be divided by 2?"

A smart-looking kid raised her hand.

"Yes, Susie?"

"Seven!" Susie answered eagerly.

The teacher's face looked scornful. (The other faces in the class turned a bit fearful.) "Susie," said the teacher, "how can seven be divided by two?"

"It's easy," said Susie. "You do it and the answer is three and a half. "

"All right, Susie," said the teacher, "if you're going to be smart you can just leave the room."

What a squelch of motivation and thinking and enthusiasm! The only answer you're allowed to look for is the one in the teacher's head.

Yet another discourager is to teach error-avoidance at all costs. The worst thing students can do is make a mistake, so students, don't take chances. If you aren't sure how to spell "monstrous," write "big''--no error. One of the best classrooms I ever visited had this bold, hand-printed sign above the blackboard: "It's safe to make a mistake in this room--but more to your credit to make a different one each time."

Still another discourager: too much teacher explaining. I often think of a wise Chicago public-school teacher who wrote in 1891, "Everything that is explained to a pupil which he can find out for himself robs him of so much education." Children need to learn to think for themselves and to be praised and encouraged for it. If they figure something out wrong, a good question may get them thinking better, figuring out the answer, enjoying the discovery and thus motivated to think again.

Finally, there is the discouraging "piecemealization" of education. The worst example comes from the teaching of that most important of all mental skills and joys, reading. Too often, students are required to learn through workbooks (doggedly clerkified by teachers, else!) dozens of discrete reading skills. A few years ago, Chicago teachers were told to teach 525 separate skills.When the teachers revolted, a reduction was negotiated: 273 skills. And when the schools found that at the end of 8th grade, even with all these skills, students still weren't reading, the authorities decided to extend the skills approach into even higher grades.

Unnecessary piecemealization also occurs when "English" or "language arts" courses are divided into separately taught subjects. Teaching reading, literature, grammar, writing, punctuation, and spelling as separate disciplines detracts from the real point--learning how to get good stuff out of books and thinking, talking, and writing about what is read. There are students who become experts at getting the correct answer on worksheets--adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing--but off the worksheet they don't know when to do which.

Studies by Mr. McClelland and others of achievement motivation among adults in business and industry have shown that despite some kinds of parental behavior, environmental squelching, and bad teaching, it's never too late to help children become productive, achieving, confident, and motivated to learn. The following characteristics of achievers describe traits that teachers can help students develop.

  • Achievers are self-reliant and feel responsible for their actions. Therefore, teachers should encourage them when they do something useful and productive on their own. We shouldn't let them get away with blaming fate, or the system, or other people--"What can you do about it?" we ask.
  • Achievers want to do a good job. They usually don't compete against others; they compete with their own past performance. Therefore, we should praise not the child but the job. We also should provide challenging work that they have a good chance of doing successfully--if they try.
  • Achievers set "medium-risk" goals. They don't enjoy achieving very easy goals, nor do they take on wildly difficult tasks. Their goals are challenging, but possible. Therefore, teachers should provide assignments that are somewhat open-ended and provide for a gamut of responses, so that students can set their own goals within the assignment.
  • Achievers plan carefully. They calculate the difficulties; they may list the tasks that lie between idea and accomplishment. We should encourage them to discuss planning and ordering of tasks; we don't just "tell 'em what to do."
  • Achievers take obstacles into account--personal obstacles (like fears, negative attitudes, lack of skills) and world obstacles (lack of materials, opposition from others, rules).
  • Achievers find and use help--help that strengthens. "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and he feeds himself for life" (Chinese proverb). We discuss assistance available and praise instances of successful use of help.
  • Achievers know how to keep working at the job. They divide it into manageable parts, taking breaks at predetermined points, checking off progress on a chart, and thinking how good they'll feel when they achieve their goal.
  • Achievers check their progress realistically. They seek and are stimulated by realistic feedback from facts, parents, teachers, and friends. We should provide this, and encourage students to provide each other with it, but we should help them be sure that the feedback is realistic.
  • Achievers enjoy achieving their goals. One goal achieved leads to setting and achieving another. We should share their satisfaction and help them set the next goals.

I conclude with a caution. Do parents, teachers, and schools really want to develop high achievers? Sure, they will help give us a more successful society and a more productive nation; they will be happier, more self-esteeming people. But remember, these people will be self-reliant, set their own goals, and be self-starters. They will not be pawns. They will not be empty vessels docilely waiting to be filled with learning. They will judge--evaluate--their own behavior and progress, and that of their teachers and parents. Yet, they will respect the need for order and welcome achievement-aimed cooperation. They will be rewarding and stimulating to teach--but nobody's pushovers.

Vol. 04, Issue 29, Page 24, 18

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