Educators Focus Attention on Ways To Boost Student Motivation
As educators search for ways to boost perennially low levels of student achievement, many are zeroing in on what they consider a root cause of poor performance: the lack of students' motivation to learn.
Despite the well-documented link between effort and performance, researchers note, several recent studies have shown that most students do not work very hard at school.
For example, the 1988 National Assessment of Educational Progress found that about half of students in all grades read a total of 10 or fewer pages a day for homework and school.
This situation has come about, researchers contend, because students' peers, and the society at large, have sent a message that students need only do what it takes to get by.
And schools themselves, educators argue, have contributed to the problem by demanding little of students and by presenting material in a boring fashion that deadens their interest in schoolwork.
"Students have to understand that their success in life bears a large relationship to their success in learning," said Christopher T. Cross, assistant U.S. secretary of education for educational research and improvement, who is hosting a conference on the issue this week in Arlington, Va.
Currently, he said, students and parents "believe that ability is more important than effort, and don't appreciate the fact that effort is a key ingredient in doing well."
To spur student motivation, several educators have called for new kinds of incentives, such as more closely tying job or college-entry prospects to accomplishment in high school. Such moves would encourage all students, not just those who plan to attend selective colleges, to work as hard as they can in school, in the opinion of Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
"Students are people, and people basically do the things they have to do to get where they want to go," Mr. Shanker said. "If the standards for college entry were higher, I'm sure the overwhelming majority of students would meet the standards. If you don't have to, why not watch TV [instead of doing schoolwork]?"
But Theodore R. Sizer, chairman of the education department at Brown University, responded that incentives are not enough to motivate students. What is needed, he argued, are changes in curriculum and instruction that would engage students in classroom work.
Outside incentives "might bring [students] to the edge of the pond, but it won't make them drink," Mr. Sizer said. "A good salary might bring us to work at an office, but it might not get us to work very hard. The heart is, what you're doing is interesting."
"Watch a play being produced, or a class of kids trying to figure something out," he continued. "The level of engagement derives from interest. Achievement is likely to follow. There is very little achievement when you don't engage. It's an absolute precondition for serious work."
Although concern about student motivation and work habits is not new, it has gained urgency as evidence mounts that the level of student performance is low and not increasing.
At a recent press conference to release a report analyzing 20 years of NAEP results, for example, several participants cited students' apparent work habits as a crucial factor in their poor performance.
Other studies, such as the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, confirm that many students are not interested in schoolwork, according to Mr. Cross. That survey of 25,000 8th graders found that about half said they were bored in school most of the time, he pointed out.
Such findings represent a sharp contrast to results from studies of other nations, chiefly those in Western Europe and Japan, noted Mr. Shanker.
"Reports from other countries say a large number of students are trying to do the best they can," he said. "In the U.S., [studies] show a lethargic, bored student body. They are asking not what can I do to maximize my potential, but what is the least I can do to get out of here and get a ticket--'Is this on the exam? Is this required?"'
In response to such concerns, several educators, including Mr. Cross, have moved the issue to the top of their agendas.
In addition to holding this week's conference, for example, Mr. Cross has also asked each of the proposed 18 federally sponsored research centers to focus on student motivation in the coming year.
"It's an underlying--and overarching--concern in much of what we do," the assistant secretary said.
As researchers work to pinpoint the reasons for the lack of student motivation, most observers agree that children tend to lose their enthusiasm for learning early in their school careers.
"Kids are born with" a desire to learn, said Dorothy K. Rich, president of the Home and School Institute, a Washington-based group that promotes parental involvement in education. "You don't see a baby without it. They have it right through the 3rd grade."
But, she added, such eagerness "is diminished in the 4th grade. By the 7th grade, I see a bunch of tired kids."
The drop in enthusiasm reflects the growing attraction of out-of-school alternatives to learning, such as television, Ms. Rich contended.
By contrast, noted Katherine P. Haycock, executive vice president of the Children's Defense Fund, many children are "bored to death in classrooms."
"Most teachers teach ... skills without context, without reference to ideas worth knowing," said Ms. Haycock, the former president of the Achievement Council, a California-based group focused on minority-student achievement.
"When you do that--teach reading by letters as opposed to by paragraphs, by pages, by books--you make learning not fun," she observed. "Kids are not motivated to learn."
"Schools are, by and large, quite boring places," agreed Mr. Sizer. "It hurts to say that. That adjective kids use to describe their classes is unfortunately quite apt. We teachers talk a lot. We don't attend to getting kids interested."
Many low-achieving children also lose their motivation to work at school because of classroom practices--such as ability-based reading groups and tracking--that underscore their poor performance and make them doubt their abilities, Ms. Haycock added.
"Every day in every way schools communicate a lack of belief in students' potential," she said. "We systematically expect more from some than from others. Minorities and poor kids, we don't expect much from them; we call them 'unmotivated."'
"We do this from the day they walk in the kindergarten door, when classes are divided into 'bluebirds and redbirds,' where the 'redbirds' are the 'dummies,"' Ms. Haycock continued. "If it happens to you repeatedly, you believe you can't learn. Why try?"
Research into classroom practices confirms Ms. Haycock's observations, and suggests that even young children are sensitive to school messages, according to Rhona S. Weinstein, professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley.
"Children are very aware--as young as 1st graders--of differential teacher treatment toward high and low achievers," she said. "They see high achievers receive more positive feedback, trust, and choice in instruction, and low achievers receive negative feedback and have their learning more tightly structured by teachers."
Well-intentioned teachers may inadvertently foster such attitudes, according to Sandra Graham, professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles graduate school of education.
Teachers who praise children for performing easy tasks, or who offer unsolicited help when pupils appear to be struggling, tend to make children as young as 7 feel they have low abilities, she notes. As a result, she said, children tend to attribute their failures to their ability level, rather than their effort.
"They don't have expectations for the future, and tend to give up," she contended.
Practices that treat high-achieving pupils differently from low-achieving ones can also curb the motivation of the high performers, noted Ms. Weinstein.
Such children tend to focus on maintaining their performance, rather than on the tasks at hand, she pointed out. "That takes away energy from learning."
By the time students reach high school, a different set of factors affects their motivation to work in school, educators and researchers note.
For one thing, said Patrick Welsh, an English teacher at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., the contrast between in-school and out-of-school experiences is more striking than it is for younger children.
"Look at what's out there today for kids--video games, VCR's, cable television, sex in the afternoon, jobs, cars," he pointed out. "All that stuff's going on. Why should they be motivated for school? The other things going on are more fun."
The regimentation of the secondary-school schedule also makes school more "boring" for students than it is in the early grades, Mr. Welsh added.
"They're bored as hell with school," he said. "They should be bored."
As a result, he continued, "most are tuning out. Even the bright kids are tuning out. They're not turned on to learning."
In addition, others note, messages from students' peers and from society at large militate against excelling academically.
Despite popular perceptions that teenagers reject academic achievement, most adolescents value doing well in school, according to B. Bradford Brown, professor of educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who has studied the "school culture" of some 12,000 high-school students in Wisconsin and California.
But teenagers "differentiate between doing well in school and doing great in school," he said. "The pressure from friends is to do good enough, to do what it takes to get by."
Such peer pressure arises from the natural tendency of adolescents to break free from adult expectations--including teachers' and parents' expectations for academic success, Mr. Brown pointed out.
"Teens who are oriented toward excellence are swimming against the tide of adolescence," he noted. "We expect kids to become their own persons, and not do what adults tell them to do. Teens doing well are not in the swim of things. They are held up [by adults] as model students--always at their desks, always on time. They are in the mold they are supposed to be breaking out of."
"In doing that," he continued, "they create pressures for the rest of the students. They are 'curve wreckers' who set high standards and allow teachers to raise expectations. They are making life more miserable for those who are average or below-average students."
In response to such pressures, Mr. Brown said, "students typecast individuals who do apply themselves as 'brains,' and further associate them with that crowd called 'nerds.' In so doing, they devalue the social stock of high achievers, and force high achievers to pay a high price. That makes high achievers think twice about whether they want to pay the social cost of doing well."
Such pressures are more acute for minority students, researchers say. As a well-publicized study by the anthropologists Signithia Fordham of the University of the District of Columbia and John U. Ogbu of the University of California at Berkeley found, black students who excel academically are often derided by their peers as "acting white." (See Education Week, March 25, 1987.)
As a result, suggested Mr. Shanker of the AFT, many high-achieving black students transfer out of public schools and attend parochial schools instead.
"The kid who raises his hand to give an answer [in a public school] is likely to be beaten up after school," he said.
In addition to peer pressures, society also sends a message that academic excellence is not valued, Mr. Brown observes.
"We reinforce it," he said. "Go into any high school and you'll see a trophy case displayed near where adults come in. See how many academic trophies are there, and where they are positioned [compared with athletic trophies]. See how often students are let off for the day when an academic team qualifies for the state tournament. It's quite clear what counts."
At the same time, noted Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, colleges and employers--by admitting to postsecondary study or jobs virtually anyone, without regard for level of high-school achievement--send a message to students that working in school does not matter.
"People do what they've got to do to achieve a result they covet or avoid a pain they dread," Mr. Finn contended. "As long as everybody gets a job whether they earn A's or C's in school, and as long as everybody is admitted to college on the same basis, why should any rational being take hard courses to get an A?"
"Can I prove that students do only enough to get by? No," he continued. "But unless you believe that American kids are innately dumb, and dumber than kids around the world, you have to conclude that the reason they are learning less is that they are not working as hard."
"They are thinking they are doing well enough," he said. "They are doing well enough to gain the payoff they seek."
Teachers also allow students to get away with not working hard by not assigning much schoolwork, argued Mr. Sizer. To keep order in schools, he said, teachers make "treaties" with students in which teachers agree not to demand much of them if the students agree not to be disruptive.
"To ask people to go the extra mile takes energy," Mr. Sizer said. "It's hard to ask 175 kids each day to engage. You don't do it. It's too overwhelming."
As a result, he said, teachers "say to kids, 'Here's the deal: If you sit quiet and go along, I won't push you too hard."'
Whatever the reasons, researchers point out, findings from national and local studies confirm that students do little work in or out of school.
For example, the 1988 NAEP survey found that 56 percent of 12th graders reported reading 10 or fewer pages a day for all curriculum areas, and that more than two-thirds--71 percent--said they spent an hour or less on homework each day.
In addition, John W. Thomas, a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, found in a study of junior-high-school and high-school American-history classes that teachers spent the overwhelming majority of their time handing out review sheets for material that would be included on an upcoming test.
A similar study found that biology teachers performed essentially the same tasks as their counterparts in American-history classes, but more often required students to think and solve problems, Mr. Thomas said.
"The message is, it doesn't make much sense to tear your hair out about what a terrible situation it is at the secondary level that students don't work," he concluded. "Courses allow students to do that."
To spur student interest in working in school, some local districts and businesses have offered to pay students who earn high grades.
But such efforts represent at best a "short term" solution to the problem, said Mr. Cross of the Education Department.
"Unless you sustain that, it may not have the desired effect," he said.
A better solution, he suggested, is for employers to provide high-paying jobs for high-achieving students. Currently, he said, few employers even look at high-school transcripts, and those who do seldom link wages to success.
"If you had situations where employers hire a lot of students out of high school, and gave bonuses to the top 10 percent of the class," the assistant secretary said, "that would send a powerful message back to students' colleagues, and to the generations of kids coming along going through the same schools."
Several national groups have already begun efforts in that direction, noted Mr. Shanker. As an example, he said, the National Academy Foundation, a group of business leaders and educators, links career opportunities to student success in its career-oriented "academies."
The union leader has also endorsed efforts such as Worklink, a project created by the Educational Testing Service, which makes high-school transcripts and other information about student abilities available to employers, and a proposal by the National Center on Education and the Economy to require students at about age 16 to earn a certificate in order to qualify for further education or training. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1989, and June 20, 1990.)
Colleges should also tighten their standards to provide incentives for all students to work hard in high school, Mr. Shanker suggested.
"Every other country in the world has some standard for college entry youngsters have to meet," he said. "In the U.S., many colleges have standards. But every youngster knows that there are a large number of colleges they can enter no matter what their attentiveness, or lack thereof [in school]. It's no longer an incentive."
As an alternative to raising standards for entry, said Mr. Finn of Vanderbilt, colleges and universities could charge entering students different rates depending on how much work they did in high school. For example, he said, colleges could offer the equivalent of merit scholarships for those who did well, while charging a "surcharge" for those needing remediation.
But Mr. Shanker countered that such pricing would discriminate against students from poorer families.
Moreover, cautioned Mr. Welsh of T.C. Williams High, colleges may be reluctant to erect any barrier to entry at a time when they are competing for a shrinking pool of high-school graduates.
In addition, said Mr. Shanker and others, incentives alone may not solve the problem of low student motivation. For one thing, Mr. Shanker said, businesses fearing job-discrimination litigation may be reluctant to hire students on the basis of high-school performance.
"Would corporations be viewed as discriminatory if their selections on the basis of school merit resulted in a smaller number of minorities being hired?" he asked. "Could they prove that good marks in school are necessary for performance on the job?"
While incentives may be important, added Mr. Sizer, schools must also revamp instructional practices to ensure that the material is engaging to students.
"If you organize the school differently so teachers know kids, set high expectations, work hard to get kids to be workers," he said, students "do much better than they would have done. They run ahead of the stereotypes."
"There are some schools like that around," Mr. Sizer added. "That's encouraging."
Mr. Shanker pointed out, however, that such schools are few and far between, and that not all teachers are capable of sparking a love of learning in their students.
"You're not going to get 2.5 million of them," he said. "If you can, show me. I want them hired."
"Incentives wouldn't eliminate finding alternative ways youngsters can learn," he added. "That's very important. Nevertheless, doing a lot of algebra, a lot of trigonometry, is not intrinsically interesting to most youngsters. It's hard work."
"I'm a strong believer in abolishing self-contained classrooms and lecturing as the dominant mode of teaching," he said. "Nevertheless, if you don't have incentives, you reduce the number of players when you come to the boring parts."
Currently, the union president said, schools too often send the wrong messages.
"It's not surprising what we have," he said of the lack of student motivation. "We have exactly what we're asking for."
Those who wish to attend this week's OERI conference on motivation should call the agency at (202) 219-2164.
Vol. 10, Issue 10