MAKING SENSE OF SCHOOLING: are teachers paying with funny money?
Gary K. Clabaugh
Emeritus Professor of Education
Public schooling encourages solemnity but discourages seriousness. Most of what is said is a stew of wishful thinking seasoned with outright lies. So let’s be novel and take a rational approach governed by simple truths.
Let's begin by acknowledging that people respond to incentives. If behavior is rewarded, people will do more of it and more intensely. If behavior is costly, people will do less of it.
Now let’s consider grades. Some youngsters regard good grades as rewarding in and of themselves. Others see them as valuable because, in part, they please their parents. Still others see them as means to other ends such as a scholarship or admission to a favorite school. In any case youngsters who regard grades as valuable will work to achieve them.
But some youngsters regard grades as valueless. They see no connection between them and any future they imagine for themselves. Also some parents could care less about their children’s grades. (Read Claude Brown’s biography, Man Child in the Promised Land, for a sad real life account.) That’s a real turnoff. Besides, getting good grades might antagonize their peers. So it makes more sense to raise hell.
So what rewards can a teacher offer that will make this type of student want to learn and do it more intensely? Well there is teacher praise; but that’ generally appeals to kids who already care about grades. Also, they could develop a subsidiary economy where they buy, at their own expense of course, things most kids would like to have and award them for achievement. That works, but it is expensive and some regard it as bribery.
How about making disinterest or outright opposition more costly? Corporal punishment was used for centuries as motivation, for instance. An ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic even reads, “Learning comes with blood.” But modern pedagogues are not only forbidden to use corporal punishment as motivation, they are assured it won’t work.
So what are teachers left with? A sizable, sometimes paralyzing, number of kids who care less about grades and cannot be motivated or threatened with anything else that they find convincing. The net result is classrooms with students, perhaps many students, who are impossible to teach because they utterly lack motivation. Of course, that means all kinds of trouble.
What it to be done? Not much. Presently the strategy is to just blame it on the teachers. That’s wholly unfair, but it works pretty well.
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