How To Make Them Learn (from 12-9-11)

I recently caught a rerun of ABC’s comedy The Middle (a very clever show) in which the quirky, gifted son, Brick, didn’t want to go to Physical Education. Rather than forcing PE on Brick, the teacher was allowing Brick to stay back in the classroom and read. Dad went to talk to the teacher about the situation.The teacher, so fresh-faced that Dad accused him of being a fifth grader, explained that he wanted Brick to be intrinsically motivated, wanted him to want to go to Gym. Dad explained that Brick would never want to go to PE, but would be perfectly content to sit and read. Dad said, in essence, We need to make him go. The teacher said, in essence, we need to make him want to go.

The issue of student motivation has sort of gotten lost in shuffle in our debates about education, lost in an avalanche of over 30 different reforms (at my last count), very few if any of which actually focus on what’s actually going on with students as opposed to what’s going on with data. But student motivation is crucial to everything that happens in education– including the all-mighty data. If a student wasn’t motivated to try his best and instead random guessed, does the test score represent how little he knew, or how little he tried? 

What I liked about the parent conference on The Middle was that it neatly summed up two adult views of student motivation: make them do it, or make them want to do it. 

President Obama, in his yearly address to students, has repeatedly sent them the message that it is their job to do well in school, whether they feel particularly engaged or not. They need to “put in the hard work it takes to succeed.” There is a great deal to be said for teaching our students about duty and responsibility. I think our society has become cynical about both. School, in addition to teaching students content, must by its very nature be a place where they learn how to do things that are necessary but not much fun. That’s where “make them do it” comes in.

On the other hand, I don’t think there’s anyone who would say that schools need to be places of intentional drudgery, designed to break the wills of students, to make them compliant drones who see no purpose behind  what they do other than following orders. As a parent, I love to hear that my kids are engaged in learning, are enjoying their classes. That’s where “make them want to do it” comes in. 

So which way is better – force or engagement? 

To answer that, maybe we need to ask what habits of mind we want our children to develop. With our focus on data and statistics these days, we tend to forget that schools are good for more than creating good test-takers. Schools should be working with parents to help students develop the habits of mind that will make them, not just good workers, but good citizens as well. 

What habits of mind are we trying to develop with a “make them do it” approach? Make Them Do It teaches them, at the very least, to follow orders, which is, quite often, a good thing. In general, society doesn’t function if we don’t follow the rules. If we decide we want to be British for the day and drive on the other side of the double yellow line, the results can be deadly. If we are a cashier and decide in the middle of a transaction that we want to step out for some fro-yo and leave the cash register drawer open, the results can be bad for business. Make Them Do It wants to develop the habit of mind that says, “Life is not all fun and games, and life is not all about my happiness. There are things I just need to do, like them or not.” As Robert Fulghum pointed out in one of his essays, being an adult is about doing all the gross things no one wants to do, like dealing with dirty diapers and toilets, dead pets, and that gunk at the bottom of the dish drain catch.

I think there’s an important thing to note here, though. Make Them Do It is provisional. It should be temporary. From the student’s perspective, Make Them Do It is actually They Make Me Do It. Unless it eventually becomes I Make Myself Do It, it’s useless. I think it’s important to keep that in mind. I think we have all seen young adults (and not so young adults) who still need to be forced to do everything, even once they are grown. They don’t see why they should have to get a job, or move out of Mom and Dad’s basement, or do anything other than play video games. They keep getting forced to do everything. They never moved from They Make Me Do It to I Make Myself Do It. In the end, our prisons are filled with people who never quite mastered They Make Me Do It, much less graduated to I Make Myself Do It.

I’ve had students tell me that the only reason they do anything at school is to avoid getting trouble at home (where Make Them Do It is king). I’ll ask them if they intend to continue on in that way, or if they intend to eventually start motivating themselves. They don’t quite understand the question. I try to explain: are you going to continue to use Fear of Getting in Trouble as your main motivator the rest of your life? Are you going to go to college to avoid getting in trouble? Are you going to do good work on your job just to avoid getting in trouble? They don’t quite get the concept of doing things for any other reason other than to avoid getting in trouble. 

This hardly seems like the height of human potential. 

The irony here is obvious – even the habit of mind Make Them Do It must eventually become the habit of mind I Want To Do It, or it is useless. To be a good citizen, a good adult, yes, you must learn to do your duty, to do unpleasant, un-fun things. But you must see why those things are important, and you must eventually motivate yourself to do them. A populace that is only controlled by fear of punishment cannot function: it will either degenerate into chaos or become a complete dictatorship. There’s always someone willing to step in to make everyone else do it his way.

So what about engagement? What about I Want To Do It? I think there’s a huge place for it in schools. Here’s why. I Want to Do It develops habits of mind as well – habits of mind every, bit if not more important, than the obedience developed by Make Them Do It. You get different results when you work on something because you are thoroughly engaged, fascinated, and enthusiastic about something than you do when its a chore. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m talking about engagement, not entertainment. Entertainment is when I add enough bells and whistles and technology and balloons and You-Tube videos and confetti to make it fun, which in the end convinces students that the subject must not have been all that interesting in the first place if it needed so many special effects to jazz it up. 

Engagement is different. Engagement is when students understand why something is important and want to figure it out, explore it, solve it, or otherwise experience it. Watching students try to figure out the ambiguities of happiness and success, explore the power definitions have to shape our lives and give or take away power is to watch real engagement at work. My students are currently writing their This I Believe essays of personal philosophy in my 8th grade classes. Essays about philosophy for 8th graders? Yes. No confetti, no balloons, bells and whistles. Just ideas: ideas that matter. It seems to me we’ve lost the power of ideas, don’t believe that ideas are enough to hold anyone’s interest any more. 

This brings me to an observation I’ve made as I’ve taught many different levels of students over the years, from remedial to regular to advanced to gifted: the best students are just interested in things. The worst students think everything is boring. If we want to talk about habits of mind, here’s the heart of the matter. If you are a teacher, think about the very best students you ever had. My guess is that most of them were insatiably curious, and enthusiastic about learning to boot. They found things more interesting, and found more things to be interesting, than other students did. Learning was its own reward. 

When I think about the students I struggle the most with, it seems to me that their real deficits aren’t to be found in statistical data of test scores; their real deficits are to be found in their lack of curiosity, engagement, or enthusiasm for the world around them. Their real deficits are in their habits of mind, and if we could solve those, the other problems might fix themselves. My lowest students tend to say everything is boring, when in fact it may be that they are simply bored and boring themselves, which is not the same thing at all. 

My students create an Enthusiasm Map at the start of the school year to get them thinking about topics to write about. Each student writes his name in the middle of a piece of paper and then surrounds it with all the things he can think of that he’s enthusiastic about– food, hobbies, games, entertainment, favorite places, favorite music, favorite people– favorite anything. Almost without fail, my brightest kids tend toward running out of room and going to a second page. They are interested in so many different things! But many of my lower level students can scarcely find five or six things they are enthused about. They jot down a few ideas and then run out of steam. 

Higher level students read a lot because they’re interested in lots of subjects in the world around them, so they score well. Lower level kids don’t read much, if they read at all, because they aren’t interested in much, and we react to this by skilling and drilling them even more on remedial reading skills. Maybe what they really need is for someone to light the sparks of interest they do have into a fire.

I am not blaming the lower level kids. They may have limited life experiences, or a bad home life where their enthusiasms were stomped on every time they showed themselves. I am saying that maybe we should spend more time trying to tap into what kids find interesting, trying to expand their sense of what is interesting, trying to expand their sense of what matters. 

I recently had a student announce during a class discussion that she didn’t see why students had to study History or Civics. I couldn’t quite believe my ears. How do you not get that? How do you not see that our democracy and way of life can only improve or even last if its citizens are aware of its own history, ideals, and processes? Yes, Make Them Do It – make them take Civics and History whether they can see the point or not. But if they don’t eventually see the point, if we don’t eventually Make Them Want To Do It, then the whole endeavor may have been pointless to begin with. Do we really want students to say, “Yes, I got an A in Civics, but I still think the whole course was a stupid waste of time”?

It seems to me that our whole approach to education right now is force it on everyone: the government wants to make the districts force the principals to force the teachers to force the students to get better test scores. Make Them Do It. What habits of mind does that approach create? Stress, apathy, resistance to learning. It even begins to kill off curiosity and enthusiasm in the students who have it.

If we want to create the habits of mind that our best students have- curiosity, engagement, enthusiasm– we need to encourage them in all our students. So many of our students are failing because they just aren’t interested in much of anything. They need someone to light the spark somehow. Yes, we need to send the message that school is a duty, that they need to try their hardest, that they need to buckle down and get the work. But we aren’t doing our jobs if we stop there. 

It seems the two approaches must work together. Yes, there is a time to Make Them Do It, but that is only a means to and end. In the end, we want them to Want To Do It. Brick’s dad and teacher on The Middle were both right.

It seems to me that there is only so far you can go on Make Them Do It. At some point, I Want To Do It must come into the picture. You can make a boat get off the shore by pushing and pulling it and forcing it, but it will only go out and start sailing when it can get away from the pushing and catch the wind in its sails.