Motivation to learn must come from students

When students don’t learn in school, the automatic assumption is that the fault lies with their teachers.  But the reality is different, for reasons reformers don’t want to admit (“Go Ahead, Drop My Course,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 3).

The truth is that motivation can’t be forced on students.  Yes, there are degrees of motivation, but my point is that even the best teachers are not miracle workers.  If students don’t come to class ready and eager to learn, they will not learn.  (I’m not talking now about homeless children who fall into a completely different category.)

Students differ in the degree of their motivation largely because of their family background.  Some families place the highest emphasis on the importance of education.  They instill in their children the value that education inherently possesses.  At the same time, they teach their children to respect teachers.  These are the students that every teacher desperately wants.

When I was in school, my mother impressed on me from an early age to revere teachers and to be grateful for what they taught.  It was a lesson that I’ve never forgotten.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)

2 Replies to “Motivation to learn must come from students”

  1. I’d argue that the greater motivator is the ability to do the work successfully and w/o huge effort.

    My guess is that there are many low-SES parents who do try to impress upon their kids that it’s important to do well in school and to behave in school. At the same time, if these low-SES parents do not do an adequate job from birth through kindergarten of developing their kids’ vocabulary, cognitive skills and neural pathways, then when those kids hit kindergarten, the kids will find themselves unable to do “grade level” academic work. The academic work will be difficult/frustrating for them. Each year, they will fall further behind “grade level” and the academic work will become increasingly hard/frustrating. These kids will eventually — say, by upper elementary grades — resort to minor misbehavior to relieve the frustration and gain peer approval.

    For the higher-SES parents, even if they do not impress upon their kids that it’s important to do well in school and to behave in school, they will usually parent in such a way from birth through kindergarten as to develop their kids’ vocabulary, cognitive skills and neural pathways. These kids will be able to do the academic work w/o huge effort. They will not find the academic work to be hard/frustrating. To the contrary, they will get positive feedback from teachers and peers for doing the work and will therefore be motivated to continue trying to do the work.

    An analogy from my personal life. Several years back, management at our govt law office implemented new computer technology and required all the professionals (attorneys, supervising attorneys, managers) to attend a two-day training course re the new technology. The new technology was not user-friendly and we professionals did not need to know how to do most of the stuff being taught in the training course. A few hours into the course, most of us were tuning out. By the second day, many of us were affirmatively fooling around. Some of us were making life difficult for the instructors — who were not doing a particularly good job teaching the course. Now — all of us professionals were extremely well-credentialed attorneys who, in other aspects of our work lives, were motivated and well-behaved. Yet, just two days compelled to participate in training that was difficult/frustrating and not immediately relevant to our lives reduced many of us to exactly the kind of minor misbehavior we see in the upper-elementary-grades in the low-SES-area schools.


  2. Labor Lawyer: I deliberately excluded disadvantaged students because many of them – not all – lack the basic necessities of life. Therefore, expecting them to be self- motivated is unrealistic. My remarks were directed instead to other students who assume no responsibility for learning, despite how competent their teachers are. Their attitude is that school is primarily for socializing. As a result, teachers with these students will never get the same high ratings as teachers with students who are hungry to learn.


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