Getting students to care

Will Okun, a Chicago English and photography teacher, admires a colleague who engages students with hip-hop lyrics. But he wonders why he has to become an entertainer to get students to care about learning. Guest-blogging for Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, Okun poses three questions for experienced teachers:

– What are the most fundamental differences between the American educational system and high-achieving foreign educational systems and what are the positive or negative outcomes of these differences?

– How has the approach to education and learning changed during your tenure as a teacher and do you believe these changes are beneficial or harmful to the American student?

– What has changed in our society and in our educational system to bring us to the point where high schools must now create incentives to “inspire” and “motivate” low-income students to attend classes on a regular basis?

I’d welcome comments from teachers and from people who are familiar with other countries’ education systems.

Update: Here’s more from a middle-school science teacher, Anthony Cody of Teacher Leaders Network on getting students engaged in learning without gimmicks.

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  1. I’m not a teacher (though my wife is and my daughter was), and I’m not familiar with other countries’ education systems. But the answer to “What has changed in our society and in our educational system to bring us to the point where high schools must now create incentives to ‘inspire’ and ‘motivate’ low-income students to attend classes on a regular basis?” seems pretty clear: Lots of people either (a) just don’t give a shit about education or (b) are too stupid to learn anything even if they do give a shit.

  2. I am going to pick on TV a little here. Part of the difficulty in getting kids motivated comes from television and movies.

    1) Television itself is a problem. Not the content, that is a separate issue. Tv has evolved to a point where the shows are fast paced and things on the screen are changing rapidly. To compete movies have gone the same way. Compare older tv shows to newer ones, much more is happening in actually a shorter space of time. An old Andy Griffith show for example would spend the whole half hour on one story, now most sitcoms have an A, a B and sometimes a C story going on in the same show. Same thing with dramas. Add to this the fact that actual story time in a tv show is less than it was 30 or 40 years ago to accomodate more commercials and you can see how fast paced it really is. Commercials too, I have some DVD’s of old tv shows where the old commercials were left in, they were long in comparison to today. One reason, shows no longer have one sponser. If GM sponsered a show you saw GM commercials only and they could be longer since they took up the entire commercial brek time. Now there are several commercials on each break. The current younger generations brains are wires differently than say someone my age (about 50). Not worse, not better but different. They have grown up in a faster paced environment and therefore, I think, are more easily bored when something drags on longer than they like. Even older people have this to some degree due to the advent of tv and movies in the 20th century. For example how many of us could sit through the Lincoln Douglas debates, which lasted upwards of 5 or so hours, yet it was nothing for the average person to sit there and listen. Today’s student’s are wired to think in chunks of a half hour, hour, hour and a half and two hours and to be entertained the whole time. I have heard people coming out of theaters where the movie lasted more than 2 hours that it was good but too long. Church services 100 years ago or more were all day events. For the Amish they still are, but then the Amish don’t watch tv or go to movies they are used to a slower pace of life. Since these form of entertainment are going not going away, education must find some way to deal with this reality.

    2) Shows like Sesame Street that use music, dance, comedy, etc. to teach. This is not a slam against Sesame Street, but not every teacher can sing and dance each lesson or any lesson and the teacher can start to look a little boring in comparison. Even shows like the wonderful series “The Universe” which just ended on the History Channel, it was much faster paced and more special effects intensive than the 27 year old Cosmos series. Again, shows like this are not going away and so education again must deal with the reality of this competition.

    Do not misunderstand though, things like special effects on a show like “The Universe” enhance the ability to understand the concepts. They definitely have their place. Also this is not a slam against the younger generation, as I said their brains are wired differently, not better or worse just differently.

    Just my 2 cents

  3. My wife is a special education teacher working with students who have serious learning and behavioral problems. Most of her students are in their teens and read at the first to third grade level and for many years have made no progress in their reading skills. Last year she began using a direct instruction type reading curriculum. Not only did all the students make progress during the year (some by up to two grade levels) they looked forward to the reading lessons (they cared!). They also began policing themselves by insisting the other students not interrupt the lessons by acting out.

    These students had experienced failure and frustration their entire academic life and predictably stopped trying and caring about learning. Once they began to experience success in learning they began applying themselves and wanted to learn more. The difference was effective curriculum and instruction.

    My wife expected the other teachers at her school to begin using this curriculum once they saw the improvement her students had shown. Sadly this has not happened.

  4. In addition to Jah’s commentary about media, I’d like to add a few things-

    Our society makes it ok to continually fail. Whether it be social promotion from one grade to the next, or lifetime welfare, there is little incentive to succeed. Students are taught that everyone is special, so students are not allowed to feel pride in their success. In the end, teachers end up having to turn lessons into entertainment to get students to follow along.

    This devalues a high school diploma, which reduces the motivational value of earning one. Why bother working to earn a diploma when it just shows that you have the skills of an 8th grader?

  5. Per the former British education minister: The most fundamental difference is that in Finland, Singapore, S. Korea, and Alberta Canada, teachers come from the top third of college grads.

    Here, teachers come from the bottom third of college grads.

  6. I think there may be some positive changes as well behind the push to do whatever it takes to keep low-income engaged with school.

    When my mom was a kid (1940’s/50’s), she and her siblings were almost the only anglo kids at their otherwise hispanic 2-room country elementary school in rural Colorado. The teachers and principal were white. My mom knew that she and her siblings (she was the middle of seven, from a dirt-poor family living in a converted gas station on the edge of town) were expected to work hard and succeed in school. By sixth grade she was teaching the kindergarten class half the time. She thought she knew that Mexicans were dumb. The hispanic kids were typically better off than she and her family — they had nicer shoes and clothes and more to eat — but they had trouble reading or understanding their school work. No one addressed language issues, lack of English use at home, etc. If they could keep up, fine, if they couldn’t, no big deal. If they quit after 8th grade to go work with their parents, no one really cared. Yet my mom had support and encouragement from her teachers. She was the first in her family to ever attend college (though she didn’t go on to graduate).

    Some of the edu-tainment push now is because people *care* about those kids. Bi-lingual education was tried because people cared about the hispanic kids who were failing in school. Bi-lingual education is now under attack for the same reason — a widespread desire to find a way to help kids succeed in school somehow, when they have no help at home with knowing why that would be important, and the determination of committed teachers to finding out what will really work.

  7. MIke G says, Here, teachers come from the bottom third of college grads.

    Amen, Mike. Profs are largely given sows’ ears and expected to make silk purses out of them. It can’t and never will be done. And, it’s getting worse each year.

  8. Miller Smith says:

    There is a basement income and housing “assistance” (welfare) below which we will not allow people to fall. Many people-even from a young age-are content withthe basement. So they don’t care about school as a way to get ahead.

    We also decided that everyone was “smart” and needed a high school education. So we dumbed down that education to the point the smart kids can’t stand it.

  9. I think that one of the factors is highlighted by the “Quick exit” post: “Not surprisingly, full-time students who don’t require remedial classes do the best. Asian-Americans have the highest grades and persistence rates by race and ethnicity, blacks the lowest.”

    I believe that one of the strong factors influencing Asian-Americans is family values, and the pressure to adhere to them. The values are to work, learn, achieve. It may be unpleasant to consider, but the values – perhaps mainly pressure from peers – on the other sides are just the opposite.

    We cannot charge that those values – perhaps “anti-values” are genetically determined. I read a few days ago an article which said that soon after the Civil War, Northern blacks did significantly better than Southern whites in schools.

    The causes of today’s problems are legion, but you can find many of them addressed in the online “City Journal”.

  10. “What are the most fundamental differences between the American educational system and high-achieving foreign educational systems and what are the positive or negative outcomes of these differences?”

    Apart from the fact that the high achieving foreign educational systems dump their non-achieving students, you mean?

    The whole premise is flawed.

    Expecting kids to care about school is goofy. In earlier days, kids who didn’t care about school didn’t go. Really, people should stop expecting everyone to genuflect at the alter. Education isn’t some holy grail that all good and proper moral people should intuitively worship.

    The way to teach is to stop turning education into a morality play.