Friday, December 3, 2010

The Most Important Factor In School Success

A new book by Matthew Syed, a columnist for the Times of London and former 3-time table tennis British Commonwealth National champion titled Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham and the Science of Success, has reminded me once again of the importance of motivation in the education of young people. (Click on this link to read its Amazon book reviews) This book is intended to show the importance of purposeful, intensive practice in the training of world class athletes and leaders in all fields of human endeavor. But to me, it demonstrates the overwhelming importance of motivation in the education of children in our public school systems. The author explains, with reference to recent scientific studies and specific case histories, the power of the brain to learn and direct the human body to master difficult concepts or skills and to constantly improve performance. He explains how dedication and training has transformed ordinary people into stars in every field of human endeavor.

Every educator could benefit from a better understanding of the almost unlimited potential possessed by all students as described in this interesting book. The many successful case studies provided by Bounce should give us real hope that students, if properly motivated could achieve much more academically. The capacity of the human brain to be trained to learn and hone skills critical to success in life has great implications for education. If educators could harness the tremendous power of motivation that goes into the training of star athletes, or chess-masters, or superb musicians, there are almost no limits to improvements that could be made in the academic achievements of our students!

This book demonstrates that the missing ingredient preventing many students from excelling in educational achievement is proper motivation. Many of our students today are greatly handicapped because their life experiences lack positive role models and adults who can serve as mentors to provide the motivation to excel in school and to prepare for rewarding careers. Many of our students never get to experience the spark that ignites their motivation to excel either in sports, art, or in successful careers.

So who is responsible for the proper motivation of students? When I started teaching over 40 years ago teachers thought their primary responsibility was to present the curriculum material in an appropriate manner. After the concepts or grade level expectations (GLEs) were presented and students given an opportunity to practice and absorb the material, the teacher would test the class and assign grades to each student. It was the student's responsibility to master the required concepts in a particular course to the satisfaction of the teacher. The grade achieved in a particular course and even passing or failing was the student's responsibility, not the teacher's.

Today the responsibility for student achievement is shifting more to the teacher. The state no longer trusts the teacher to set the standards for passing a class or for promotion to the next grade. Also, politicians and some new leaders in education are taking the position that if teachers are paid to teach, then they should be also responsible for the achievement of students. No matter that in the educational process “it takes two to tango”. That is, if a student is not motivated to learn the required curriculum content, no amount of teaching pedagogy or work by the teacher will result in the intended learning by the student! Nevertheless, in today's political environment, it seems that teachers alone are being held responsible for educational results.

Fortunately, there is scientific evidence, also recently documented by learning research, that curiosity about our surroundings is one of our basic human drives. Some scientists believe that all children are born with an internal motivation to learn about the world around them. Unfortunately this does not automatically mean that students are motivated to learn that which the curriculum guide dictates must be learned by all students. If educators cannot make school work relevant in the minds of students, the motivation necessary for success in school will not happen. The students' drive to learn may focus instead on computer games or social media, on cell phone texting, or on other ways of achieving status in the peer group. Often just at the time when engagement of students in school is most critical, (around the middle school level) parents and teachers seem to lose any meaningful influence on the aspirations of many of our students. All students may be ready and able to learn, but not always what educators wish to teach!

The author of Bounce also cites studies by Dweck conducted in 1978 that demonstrate how parents and some educators have unknowingly used counterproductive motivational techniques. The most glaring example of bad motivation is the improper use of praise. These studies show how well meaning parents and teachers in an effort to boost self esteem in children have sometimes resorted to using every opportunity for complimenting children on their superior abilities. The idea is that students confident in their abilities will accomplish more in school. Instead, Dweck's studies show that children who regularly received this kind of unearned praise often became fearful of failure, and as a result applied themselves less and avoided challenging subject matter that could have helped them excel! On the other hand, students who were praised for actual effort and hard work developed a healthy work ethic and performed better over the long run in school and in life.

Experienced educators know that a school's educational climate or culture can have a huge impact on student motivation and performance. I once taught at a high school that was in the process of being converted from a pure magnet school to a combination community school and magnet school. The new plan adopted by the school board allowed any area student to enroll in the school while the school continued to maintain its magnet component. The school had never had to contend with motivation problems and with discipline issues because most students meeting the magnet entrance requirements were properly motivated to succeed and were not interested in disruptive behavior. Unfortunately the school administration and teachers were not prepared to deal with the flood of poorly motivated and often disruptive students that now poured in from the inner city local community. Very quickly the entire atmosphere at the school changed from one with a positive learning environment to one dominated by classroom disruptions, fights and disrespectful behavior toward teachers followed by deteriorating academic performance. It has now been 12 years since the change and the school has lost most of its magnet students and academic performance is now consistently mediocre. In this case, the school board and the administration of the school system have never taken the firm steps necessary to reclaim a positive learning environment at the school, and cannot blame the parents for pulling their students out.

Examples like this all over the state show that if a school is to improve its effectiveness, a large emphasis must be placed on positive discipline and proper student motivation. Educators must connect with parents and students to insure that excellence in academics is the prevailing attitude in the school. We must make certain that all students see school work as extremely relevant in their lives and future success. All schools must build in a program of constant reinforcement of academic goals and of connection of school to life and careers. The school must use goal setting to encourage attainment of important steps toward success in school and in life, and excitement about the achievement of educational goals. Most schools can do a pretty good job of staging pep rallies around sporting events, but how many can create an enthusiastic pep rally promoting academic achievement?

It can be done. But educators need the help of the entire community. Responsibility for student achievement must be shared by everyone in the community including the parents and students themselves. Judges and law enforcement officials must assist in enforcing the mandatory attendance laws. We must provide our students with proper role models, mentors, tutoring and job shadowing. Some schools in Louisiana have created successful school campaigns to accomplish higher scores on the LEAP test, or to improve the ranking of their school on the state school performance scores. One idea that can be borrowed from some of the more successful charter schools is a daily or weekly motivational assembly to emphasize good attendance, good behavior and the attainment of academic goals. There is no reason why the natural enthusiasm and energy of young people cannot be channeled to focus on success in school.

I believe that school motivational efforts are so critical that many of our under-performing schools can never become successful without a major push to change the climate of the school to one that is truly motivating for success. I call on the readers of this blog to send me examples of successful school transformations and motivational campaigns in their local schools so these can be publicized and shared with others. Just send your email comments and suggestions to