As we head into Summer, we have to make sure that our children continue their learning. One way to do this is to abandon one of the most-damaging ideas: That some kids are not motivated to learn. Read Editor RiShawn Biddle’s Best of Dropout Nation piece from December, and consider how you will help build cultures of genius in which our kids can learn and thrive.
As we celebrate Christmas, let’s all resolve to abandon one of the myths that sustain the abysmal condition of American public education: That of the so-called motivated student. According to some folks, teachers and schools can only do so much if a kid is unwilling to sit down and open their books. This theory, argued so often by so many teachers and even other adults, is pure hogwash.
The first problem with the myth of the motivated student is that it is based on the old-school concept that children are little adults who can actually make thoughtful decisions. This runs contrary to decades of research by child psychologists and education researchers. Certainly kids develop executive functions such as self-control from birth and are constantly honing those skills. But research on brain develop shows that such skills as self-control do not fully develop until one reaches their mid-twenties. More importantly, kids don’t have the requisite life experience needed to make consistently smart, thoughtful decisions. One of the reasons why so many kids act out in school by third grade is because of their illiteracy; since they don’t know how to tell anyone that they don’t know how to read (and are embarrassed to say so in any case), the natural response is to behave badly. Essentially, intensive reading remediation in schools could easily solve these behavioral issues (and stop future problems by ending the overlabeling of kids as special ed cases).
The second problem with this myth is that it lets teachers, principals and other adults off the hook for their responsibilities to provide high-quality education for all the kids in their care. When adults declare that kids aren’t motivated to learn, they essentially fail to consider if their curricula lacks rigor and relevance, if their instruction is of low-quality and lacks subject-matter competency, that they don’t care enough for the lives and futures of their students, and if the cultures they have created in schools are mediocre and don’t nurture the inherent capacities of the kids.
Put any child in an environment filled with high-quality teachers, strong school leaders, rigorous curricula, caring adults and cultures of genius, and that child will thrive and achieve their potential. Place kids in failure factories — ones with environments filled with laggard instructors, weak principals, lousy curricula, banal adults and acceptance of mediocrity and apathy — and the child will wither into academic failure. The reality is that kids will learn; that’s what growing minds and bodies do. But how much they learn is dependent on the teachers and other adults responsible for educating them. Arguments to the contrary are merely derelictions of responsibility.
It’s time to stop blaming kids for the failures of adults unwilling to overhaul instruction, curriculum and other aspects of public education. The adults need to step up and reach the genius within every child. Let’s dedicate this Christmas and holidays afterward to reforming American public education and giving children the gift of education.