Back in high school, the last day of school was always a thrilling day! Especially after the last period: everyone would be emptying their lockers and throwing away all their stuff before heading home for the summer. What commotion, what fun!! All you could see and hear were notebooks, dictées, and month-old assignments flying into the garbage. (Knowing this would happen, the school would bring out extra garbage bins, to act as recycling bins.) OK, maybe they still kept some of it, but the vast majority of it was gone, gone, gone by the end of the day.
I remember looking at this with a puzzled look on my face, but only now do I realize why I was troubled by this scene way back then.
You see, this type of scene is remarkable, because it speaks to at least 3 things:
1) How students in high school view schooling. Students are so excited to just get out of school. When it’s time to come back to school, students usually have “mixed feelings” about it. Their main reason for wanting to go back is to “meet up with my friends,” not the schooling itself.
I say, this should be the other way around. School should be so intrinsically motivating that going to school is a pleasure, not getting out of it.
EVERYBODY HAS AN INTEREST IN LEARNING
It is my belief that humans, by their very nature, love to learn new things. As self-determination theorists would put it, we have inherent growth tendencies. And as Mrs. Gaga would say, we were born this way. We love to learn, as much as we love to love, and we love to have fun. While we may differ in what we are interested in, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every human being has at least something they’re interested in learning about. Even if it means playing video games all day, or watching Antiques Roadshow. So why aren’t our schools tapping into that? Why are they making it so that sitting in class and doing homework often so unpleasent, so boring, so externally motivating?
2) How the students view their schoolwork. Student spend hours upon hours working on projects and assignments, but at the end of the day, this scene shows how students don’t really care about what they produced. Could this be because they did all this work out of coercion? Because they did it just to get a good grade, and not out of a pure interest in the subject material?
This shows how our school work is treated as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. Possibly, even for the teachers themselves. They, too, focus much of their attention on using work as a measuring stick for grading. This, too, motivates much of their behaviour. And they too, shred old tests and assignments within months of the end of the school year.
ADDING VALUE TO THE STUDENT’S LIFE
Grades is used as the primary motivator for all school work from Grade 7, straight into U3. (Grad students, let me know if this changes later on!) But if you strip away the role of a student, what people want more than anything else is to add value to their life. For example, when you go shopping, when you browse you weight the pros and cons of each decision you make. You think to yourself, “how much value is this going to add to my life?” and, “is this added value worth the money?”
I think that a big reason why students are unmotivated in certain school work is that they (consciously or not) realize that whatever it is they’re being told to do is not valuable enough to put the effort into it. For instance, if a student is procrastinating to study for their history midterm, part of the reason why they’re procrastinating is that they subconsciously understand how they’re going to forgot 80% of what they learn a few weeks after the test, and that knowing those facts isn’t going to do them much good.
Now, granted, this is the student’s perception on the matter. It could very well be that:
a) The subject material really isn’t relevant to their life
b) The subject material matters, but the student doesn’t realize it (often due to age, or other factors)
So, this post is just a start, (please do send me your insights, and feedback on the matter!), but I think some solutions to these issues would be to:
a) The subject material really isn’t relevant to their life –> change the curriculum, or make it more flexible, so that it becomes more relevant
b) The subject material matters, but the student doesn’t realize it yet (often due to age, or other factors) –> find better ways of explaining (or better yet, showing) the value of what they’re learning
3) The fragmentation and discontinuity of schooling
Now, I say this one with great caution, because from my experience there is a lot of concepts that build on each other, especially in anything math-based, or based on a specific kind of vocabulary (e.g. accounting terminology). But often times, once a course is over, all of that knowledge is completely ignored and forgotten. (This phenomenon is especially present in the qualitative courses, such as those in the social sciences, unfortunately.)
Students aren’t encouraged enough to make connections between the things they learn across courses, and across semesters and years. This discontinuity also contributes to their lack of motivation. The more you make connections between courses and between school years, the more this adds value to the material. Perhaps, this relevance may not translate into relevance outside of the school (as was discussed in point #2), but at least it can provide a relevance within a student’s school life. This would then be a sort of reconciliation prize, for not having the relevance between school and the “real world.”
Conclusion, for now
So I guess my 3 main arguments from this first reflection are that an engaging education should:
1) Tap into people’s natural interest in learning and growing
2) Add value to the student’s life
3) Emphasize connections between the different things learned in school, and between school and “real life” (this will add value as well)
I hope to revisit these themes in my future posts, and to generate more concrete ways in which we can attain these (and other) goals. The sky’s the limit!
Each year, I used to sift through all of my papers very carefully to see what I would get rid of, and what I would keep. Every sheet was reviewed. And I’m happy to report that it’s all still in relatively good condition!