Whose Fault Is It?

An interesting opinion piece on the NYTimes website about why America is number 11 (as listed in a recent Newsweek ranking). Conclusion: our students aren’t motivated.

The article quotes economist Robert Samuleson, who says (among other things), “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ”

As a former public school teacher I acknowledge that this was a true statement for my own personal experience in the classroom (when your parents are paying thousands of dollars to send you to private school, you’re not allowed to be unmotivated 😉 ). And not seeing the actual survey data, I can’t comment on it’s validity. But there’s a part of me that retorts: “Okay. So what?”

If it’s true that the thing bringing us down is unmotivated students, then the next step would be asking: what are we going to do about it? And on a practical level, what can I, as a teacher, do to motivate my students?

Way back when, I used to teach in Seattle, and I worked with a really cool group of teachers–both in my school and in a couple of other schools–who had a video club. One of the things this group did when they first started (alas, before I had joined) was to create a list of reasons why 9th graders struggle. This list was later referred to as “The Wall” because that’s how much space it covered in giant Post-Its. But they didn’t stop there, as overwhelming as this wall of struggles probably was. They then went through each item on the list and circled every item where they could do something to make an impact.

I think it’s really easy to say “students aren’t motivated” and throw your hands in the air and give up. And it’s really hard to ask yourself those tough questions and look at what steps you could take to change the things you can, and attempt to put aside the things you can’t.

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