Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Do High School Slackers Imperil Our Future?

Motivation, Not Curriculum:
The Key to School Reform

Minnesota’s governor, Tim Pawlenty, says that too many Minnesota high school students are goofing off. In his “State of the State” speech, Pawlenty says:
“Too many of our high school students today are engaged in academic loitering for much of their high school career. In too many cases, our high school students are bored, checked-out, coasting, not even vaguely aware of their post-high school plans, if they have any, and they are just marking time.”
Pawlenty adds: “This is a silent crisis and has the potential to devastate our future prosperity, if we don’t fix it.” His solution is to ratchet up high school math and foreign language requirements and to push more students into completing a year of college work before completing high school.

Pawlenty warns that future prosperity is in jeopardy, but, the truth is, more is in jeoprady than prosperity: inadequate education of our youth not only threatens our economy, it threatens our very democracy. It is crucial that our educational system begin to function at a much higher level and, in order to reach that higher level, there must be major reforms that successfully finds a way to substantially increase student motivation.

Motivation, I believe, is tied to a principle that Americans have long held. This principle states that motivation does not come from central planning and bureaucratic control, but comes via individual freedom and democratic processes. The wealth of a nation often comes via the efforts of highly motivated entrepreneurs, and happens within a system that is structured to encourage individual efforts. The old Soviet Union, the current North Korea and the current Cuba prove that an educated / trained citizenry is not enough to produce prosperity. A Bill Gates could not have flourished in those countries. It seems a sound idea that motivation and prosperity come from the same sources: freedom and opportunity. And children who are immersed in freedom, opportunity and responsibility are the children who are best prepared to contribute to a democratic society.

It would seem that this American insight about motivation should be the insight that guides the operation of American schools. Unfortunately, this is not the case, and, instead, schools seek quality in a manner that cannot possibly work. The guiding philosophy of school management, in fact, is that quality comes via hierarchical processes and bureaucratic control. And, though this approach, again and again, has shown to be a disaster, the solution to low quality that is offered, repeatedly, is that more hierarchical processes and more bureaucratic control is the answer.

Pawlenty makes a case for increased governmental regulations. He appeals to the common sense notion of the importance of education. He says that because the future is perilous, we must provide young people with the best education possible. Yes. And where will this best education come from? Pawlenty’s answer seems to be: by establishing more governmental requirements, using more technology, and giving more rewards and punishments.

But, the problem is not that schools lack adequate curriculum, technology or power over students. The problem is that even top students are working far below their potential. Minnesota, like all states, already has a big system of academic rewards, requirements, and punishments that already fail to motivate the slacking high school students that Pawlenty cites. It seems unlikely that Pawlenty’s more-of-the-same reforms will result in much increase in motivation -- within failing students or within top students -- and motivation is the key to accomplishment.

As in medicine, the first order of schools should be: do no harm. Yet schools, by implementing a consensus view of education, systematically infantilize students and impede students’ natural motivation toward individual growth. Humans have an untold potential to produce an amazing wealth of ideas, compassion, peace, and prosperity. Schools must find ways to strengthen the will and determination of each student. The future will demand solutions that will stretch the limits of human maturity. Schools must find ways to inspire students to new levels of individual effort and individual maturity -- levels so high that they could not be mandated.

Meaningful school reform, I believe, would show how to personalize each student’s education. A personalized education is the key to generating amazing new levels of student motivation. This school reform would not be easy: putting motivation at the center of school design, via a personalized approach, would require a major upheaval in how we think about schools and a major upheaval in how schools conduct themselves.

Pawlenty’s plan defines education as the transmission of curriculum, but, education must be much more than that. Education, ultimately, is not what the system does, it is what the student does. Education, as Yeats said, is not about filling a pail, it is about lighting a fire.

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