Thursday, February 25, 2010

School's Failure to Motivate Students

Several months ago I posted a failure example of the standard education system.  I hope to pick this area back up and continue the series.  In this post, I will provide a second example of how the standard education system fails. 

"Why do I have to learn this?"

The question can be asked in any classroom.  Students are given material to master but rarely any good reason why they should bother.  Looking back at my own schooling career, I can find here and there a few lonely examples where the subject material was interesting and I enjoyed learning it for what it was.  Mostly, here are the reasons I found to try hard at school:

* To seek the approval of authority figures (teachers and/or parents)
* To prove one's superiority over one's peers
* To have the tools to succeed at the next tasks given

I pity the children who are seen as lazy and unmotivated.  Government school teachers tend to believe they should not be responsible for motivating the students and tend to blame the students (or their parents).  Rarely do they question the schooling system itself or the manner of their own teaching.

When asked "Why should I learn this?", no teacher says "So you can feel better about yourself by out-competing other students" or "So you can have my approval".  These are obviously unhealthy motivators.  The only fall back is "You will need this when you graduate."

Yet that answer only begs the question.  Of what use will it be when one graduates?

The education failure is that, for most students, there is no intrinsic motivation for learning.  I remember students occasionally asking why they need to learn a subject throughout all levels of school.  Always the answer was that it would be needed at the next level.  In grammar school, we needed to learn it to succeed in junior high school.  In junior high, so we could succeed in high school.  In high school, so we could succeed in college.

Having graduated college, I see that most of what I was taught along the way has either been long forgotten or is of completely no use to me (or actually detrimental to me).  The only validity to the "you'll need it at the next level" reason is with respect to having the external recognition of achievement on one's resume. 

The best subject that exemplifies this education failure is mathematics.  Math is presented as a cumulative series of recipes to be "learned" by the student.  There is no start or finish to the material, but it continues on and on.  The math is never applied to any actual problem of interest, and no justification is given for learning it.  Even as the top math student throughout most of my schooling, I really understood very little of the math.  It was always primarily recipes to memorize and apply.  (Though to be fair there were occasions where some understanding would accidently slip in and provide a fleeting sense of satisfaction).  Sadly, this paradigm for studying math was continued even into college. 

It was actually through my engineering classes that I most came to appreciate and enjoy math, where there was clear application and scope.  These classes provided me with an intuitive understanding for not only college-level concepts as the Fourier Transform but also high-school level concepts such as the matrix.  Of course, in high school the matrix is just some strange thing on paper for which you must memorize operations for a test.  These operations were quickly forgotten after the test, and in the process no actual understanding of the matrix was gained. 

If students were taught language the way they are taught mathematics, they'd march along for twelve years of school memorizing progressively larger words and sentences, yet never reading a single book.

Of course, purely intrinsic motivation will not work for every subject for every student.  But always we should seek to maximize this type of motivation, so that the student actually obtains some satisfaction in the process of his or her education.  When this is the case, actual understanding of the material will be gained and not just fleeting memorization for a test.  When this is not the case, the source of the problem is not the student but the education system; what is being given to learn and how it is being taught.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of French class with...what was his name...Squirrely little guy, taught French and Latin...anyway. I had a perfect grade in that class not because I developed a deep appreciation or mastery of French but because the dude's tests were cut and paste directly from his notes, everything in the same order as it was written on the board a few days before. The only thing he tested was my visual memory, which got quite good by the end of the year.
    I hated math for that very reason. There was seldom any apparent use for any of it. I only began to develop a wary appreciation of math when bits of it became applicable in real life.