Yesterday, I read an essay published in the Hoover Digest, written by Diane Ravitch. In the essay, Ravitch, whose well-defined ideas on education you can find on her Bridging Differences blog, says that we are quick to blame teachers for low international test scores and poorly performing schools, but we rarely point to the students and their “slacker” attitude towards school when thinking about reform. It’s really an excellent essay, and I highly recommend that you read the whole thing, but here’s an excerpt just for reference’s sake:
Next time there is a conference about the state of American education--or the problems found in each and every school district--why don't we take a hard look at why so many of our students are slackers? Why don't we look at the popular culture and its effects on students' readiness to apply themselves to learning? Why don't we appraise the role models of "success" who surround our children in the press? Why don't we ask how often our children see models of success who are doctors, nurses, educators, scientists, engineers, and others who enable our society to function and who contribute to our common good?
The idea that an overarching anti-intellectual societal attitude has something to do with why kids aren’t motivated to do well in school also came up in this post about a dip in the number of students reading for pleasure. One reason kids may be reading less, suggested one commenter, is because there’s no cultural validation for reading books. Ravitch takes it a step further by implying that not only is there no cultural incentive to read books, but there’s no societal validation for studying in general.
I’m no sociologist, but it seems to me that Ravitch is on to something. In American media, who is glorified more often: Movie stars or engineers? Pro-sports players or brain surgeons?
I don’t think you can point to any one entity as an explanation for such a complicated issue, but I can’t help but wonder: How do those kinds of role models affect the way our kids learn and how hard they’re willing to study? Is society at least partly to blame for the lack of motivation in our students? And if so, how do we go about changing that? Do other countries have similar problems, or is this specifically an issue in the United States?
A version of this news article first appeared in the Motivation Matters blog.