Sunday, January 3, 2010

Major Discipline Problem -- commentary

The most prevalent discipline problem in our public schools today may surprise those of you who are not teachers. You will not read about it in the news. The problems you read about in the news rarely happen, that is why they are in the news. The most prevalent discipline problem goes on in nearly every classroom every school day and gets discussed regularly and with great frustration in faculty gatherings across the nation. It is the ever growing number of students who simply refuse to do their work. This is having a very corrosive affect on our schools. A New York police officer turned school teacher quoted in Parade magazine said, "Educational standards have been lowered to accommodate those who don't want to learn and have no desire to succeed." My experience supports this observation.

What we are talking about here is motivation. Unfortunately, motivation cannot be created by legislation, though there are some things politicians can do that might help. And though teachers can and should inspire students, they can't connect with all of them all the time. Two good sources of motivation for learning are curiosity and anxiety.

The best source of motivation is curiosity. Over the years, I have changed careers several times. Each change has been followed by a steep climb in my learning curve. I was curious about everything related to the new job and was willing to learn a tremendous amount in a short time.

As I write this, I am doing so on a smart phone using Microsoft Word. After buying this high tech gadget, my learning curve about it took a steep climb. It was driven by curiosity and my sense of a need to know. Most of my intellectual growth, as I suspect is true of others, took place after high school and college. Why? Because, real life experiences piqued my curiosity.

We have so divorced education from real living that our kids see no connection between the two. They are curious alright but not about what the school has to offer.

We need to find a way to reconnect our schooling with what kids will experience when they leave our classrooms. About a year after my son dropped out of school, he decided to give it another try, so he enrolled in a school in Anchorage called Save. One of the school's policies was that all students had to be employed a half day each day. This had much more to do with his success than anything else he experienced in school. Something of this nature should be practiced in all our schools. It creates a tie between the classroom and reality.

Anxiety will also motivate. In fact, a certain amount of anxiety is necessary if any of us are going to get anything done. We could use our laws and our courts to create a little anxiety even as they have been used to diminish anxiety among students.

Many American students see no immediate consequences to mediocrity or even failure when it comes to academic performance, and long term consequences don't motivate very well if at all. Over the past 50 years, the long term consequences of academic mediocrity have become more severe while any short term consequences have evaporated. So now, many students don't see education as an opportunity but rather something to be endured in order to participate in the social aspects of school.

This is certainly nothing new. It was the same way when I was a kid. What has changed is the means by which schools can create anxiety -- there are fewer of them. We now have anxious teachers and complacent students. Along with this, there seems be a decline in the willingness or the ability of parents to create anxiety in the children.

Because of this lack of motivation on the part of way too many students, it is foolish to increase school funding unless it directly addresses motivation, something the teachers cannot do alone. Here are some suggestions for creating motivation:
1. Reform child labor laws so unmotivated students can be placed in the labor force.
2. Eliminate compulsory education laws so schools can dismiss unmotivated students. Of course they will be allowed to return when they are ready to learn.
3. Reform welfare laws so those who squander their educational opportunities have no safety net.
4. Make classroom participation a privilege. Provide isolated, programmed learning for those who have not yet earned the right to participate in the classroom. Computers make this very feasible.

I can feel the anxiety rising already.

Those that I call educationists, the ivory tower people who tell us how it should be done, place the responsibility for motivating students on teachers and some of it does belong there. The educationists will continue to develop methods and materials that will motivate as they try to compete with TV and video games, our main competitors for kids’ attention, but it can't be done.

We have tried for decades now to make education as exciting as the many things which compete for students' time and attention, and yet student motivation continues to drop,as do the curiosity and anxiety levels. Now, too many students are willing to embrace academic mediocrity and even failure, seemingly with impunity. Yes, we do have to deal with drugs, violence and unruly behavior in our schools, but the most prevalent discipline problem day in and day out is students who simply will not do the work required of them.

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