Education|Evolving’s impulse being always to look for unstated premises, we’re struck by the way the ‘improvement’ discussion assumes the framework of ‘service delivery’. Unless we’re much mistaken the prevailing notion is that material is organized into courses, courses are organized as classes, the teacher is the worker, instruction is the technology. This is true, isn’t it?—that the discussion is filled with talk about ‘delivering education’? It’s almost as if ‘to learn’ were a transitive verb.
What if, instead, the effort at improvement stepped outside that framework, saw the student along with the teacher as the worker on the job of learning, and in organizing and running school set out to maximize motivation?
Deborah Wadsworth when heading Public Agenda once cited Daniel Yankelovich’s notion of ‘discretionary effort’. There’s a basic level of effort people will always give you. There’s an additional level they can give you if they want. The job is running organizations and in designing organizations is to maximize that discretionary effort.
At a dinner last year I suggested to a person prominent in the policy discussion the importance of motivation. (I wish I could show you the text, but it was a private occasion, unrecorded.) I do recall him saying: This is a slippery slope, to start with what interests students. It can lead down to Constructivism.
Yet motivation matters. Excellence is hard, so effort matters. And if effort matters then surely school should make motivation central, no? This was Jack Frymier’s conclusion from his life with teachers and students. If kids want to learn, they will. If they don’t, you probably can’t make ’em. Her conclusion irritates more than a few in education policy, but Mary Haywood Metz at the University of Wisconsin might be right that students do hold veto power over all education reforms. (See her work, “Real School: a universal drama amid disparate experience,” on pp. 75-91 of Politics of Education Association Yearbook 1989).
How would school be different if motivation were central?
Well, students could individualize, customize, their learning. Mel Riddile argues in Diplomas Count (Education Week June 11, 2009) that customization is inescapably implied if the goal is for every student to learn.
Customization means pace would change. Students needing more time would get more time; students able to go faster could go faster. Learning should then improve for both. And more students would move into college or into work by age 16, with not-insignificant implications for the economics of K-12.
Finally: Keying on motivation would change teaching. We’ll write tomorrow about how school might be arranged to maximize motivation for teachers. Or look at The Other Half of the Strategy: Following Up on System Reform by Innovating with School and Learning.
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