Holding Students to the Bottom of Everything

The actor Charles Grodin passed way recently, and while others remembered his major movie roles, I instead thought immediately of a role he played in a theme park attraction at EPCOT called Cranium Command. Cranium Command is no longer open – it was part of the now defunct and re-purposed Wonders of Life pavilion – but I still remember it vividly. You are inside the head of an adolescent teenage boy as his “brain pilot”, Buzzy, tries to get his various body and brain systems to cooperate to get him through a day of middle school.

Various Saturday Night Live cast members played different parts of the boy’s psyche and bodily functions. John Lovitz was his Right Brain, for instance. But Grodin played the boy’s Left Brain, an uptight, 3-piece-suited task master. When the boy gets in trouble for starting food fight, Left Brain tells him that his future is all over. This referral will ruin his life. No college education, no upwardly mobile lifestyle, he warns! Left Brain implies that the teenage boy’s inability to follow the rules, to heed the threat of possible punishments, will lead him to a life at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

As my English classes ponder our year-long theme, the purpose of education, I ask them to ponder this question: what kind of people should our school systems be producing? Also, what kind of people are our school systems be producing?

My students’ answers are always enlightening, but also depressing.

As part of our ongoing discussion, I try to acquaint them with some well known psychological concepts. We read about these concepts as part of our non-fiction reading to “teach the standards”, but mainly we read about them as part of their cultural literacy, to open up discussion, and to give them something to talk about if they chose to look at fictional characters through the psychological lens.

But the more I teach these concepts, the more it has been dawning on me that our school systems tend to hold our students to the very bottom of whatever scale of psychological well-being you care to look at, and even to whatever scale of intellectual health you care to use. And I think holding students down, however we do it, causes a lot of problems. I have met the enemy and he is us.

I’ll begin with motivation – that thing we claim many of our students don’t have. I teach students the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. When we say they aren’t motivated, I wonder what we mean. Do we mean they aren’t motivated by our extrinsic carrots and sticks, or they aren’t self-motivated by learning? I have recently had cause to visit a couple of other classrooms, and I heard a lot of talk about “this is a formative assignment, and this is a summative assignment.” And I thought – “Oh, no! I sound like that sometimes!” I’m bribing them – or threatening them – with grades.

Because the system has us thinking that if we don’t hold grades over their heads, they won’t do anything. The message we are sending students is: “Our work has no value beyond getting you grades that will get you credential later. If you don’t do our work, or don’t do it well, the system will punish you.” We can do better than this. But most of the time we don’t. We expect our students to be unmotivated, or only motivated by external rewards and punishments, and then complain that they aren’t intrinsically motivated to learn.

In fiction, characters who come alive and become fully themselves are intrinsically motivated. Villains almost universally use extrinsic motivators to control other people. Maybe we should be the mentors who help our “characters” come alive, rather than the villains trying to control them like marionettes.

Related to motivation is behavior. I teach students Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral Development. I know his experiments and ideas have been criticized, but I also know the levels make for great discussion. The highest level, the level many people never attain, and some only attain it for a few moments in their lives is level 6: Universal Principles of Ethics – I have a personal code of conduct based on universal moral principles, and I am willing to take risks for this code (my paraphrase).

Midway down the levels is Level 4: Rule-following. The lowest level is Level 1: Avoiding punishment. I don’t want to get in trouble.

If I ask students which level we hold them to at school, they universally answer Level One. All our discipline policies and procedures seemed to be based on an ethos that students are terrible savages out of some co-ed version of Lord of the Flies who will misbehave unless we threaten them with consequences. In my class, I try to talk to them about the idea that we should be shooting for something higher than avoiding trouble. We should be trying to create a better world, or at least a better class, together.

I also teach them Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is where Charles Grodin’s Left Brain comes in as the spokesperson for mere survival. At the bottom of the hierarchy are physiological and safety needs – basic survival. At the top is self-actualization – fulfilling your potential. What do we talk about more: the idea that if you don’t work hard and behave at school you won’t make enough money to survive, won’t get into a competitive school, and will lose out in the game of life, or the idea that you are learning so that you can move beyond mere survival to find meaning, fulfillment, and joy in life? I have no way to measure this, but I strongly suspect that we talk about a survival mindset more than we talk about self-actualization.

Lastly, I sometimes teach my students about that mainstay of teaching: Bloom’s Taxonomy. Note, it is a taxonomy, not a hierarchy – even though we often think of it as a hierarchy (just Google Bloom’s Taxonomy images and you’ll see). You need all the elements of Bloom’s Taxonomy. But in schools we typically tend to focus on what is typically depicted as the “lower” end of the taxonomy: remember and understand. The “top” of the taxonomy is now “Create.” Ask most students if they are generally allowed to be creative in school, and the answer is almost universally a resounding No. I think most of them would add a category to the taxonomy: regurgitate.

We should be creating a system that encourages our students to be intrinsically motivated, morally thoughtful, self-actualized, creative human beings. I fear that our system as it stands is set up to create unmotivated rules-followers who live in fear of not getting ahead, and who spend their days regurgitating things they learned and then forgetting them.

There are, I suspect, a lot of teachers out there who are counter cultural, who try to teach to the top of everything. But they are fighting against a bottom-focused system. Which raises another issue. What kind of teachers is the system trying to produce?

But that’s a discussion for another post.