The Elusive Internal Drive

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An essay on what motivates students in American schools: one piece of the puzzle on how (and why) our schools are failing.

Motivation. The key word in whatever we tackle in life. What motivates a person to give his best, to not call it quits until he is sure he has produced the very best result he possibly can?

I watch my students daily, wondering how they can put such undivided interest and attention in their detailed drawings or their need to practice aerodynamics with homemade paper airplanes. I listen to them talk about the hours spent on the computer tackling the job of designing a game they hope will make them a millionaire at the ripe old age of 12. And I wonder why we as a society have not figured out a way to tap into this internal drive that young people apparently do have.

Yet when I ask them to find Mauritania in an atlas or write a paragraph that explains or describes something, "it's too hard!"

Motivation appears to be the missing ingredient. So what is it that drives people? I watch my students going through the motions of what I want them to do just to get if off their desk so that they can do what they want to do, such as read their graphic novel or browse interesting and educational videos on the Internet.
And I think about my own life. What drives me? I work all day with children in a job I mostly love and come home extremely tired.  If you've never directed a classroom of 32 eleven-year-olds for six hours a day, you don't understand the kind of drained mental exhaustion I'm talking about. Yes, it's fun and rewarding, but it's also hard work. And think about those days when you just don't feel like talking to anyone. You want to hunker down at your desk and just be alone with your work. I never have that option. Even with a headache, I must perform.

But on most afternoons when I get home, I begin my second "job" of writing. Sometimes, I don't want to because I'm too tired. So where do I find the motivation to do it anyway?

I think about my end goal of being published.  Of being noticed and recognized for what I love to do, and somehow, I find the internal drive to just do it.

What drives our students?  Asking an eleven-year-old to find the internal drive to work toward an end goal that's at least a decade out is like asking a shark to forego that school of swimming guppies in hopes that a really great halibut steak is just around the bend.

What right have we to expect our children to give their best on a test (the only vehicle identified by our education system for determining learning achievement) when nothing is riding on it for them? Realistically, they don't care how they perform on a test that they'll never see again. Even if they did care about the results of the test, It's not as if they can look at it after it's been graded to see where they went wrong the first time.

We're asking children to tackle a standardized test in the same way and with the same incentive to succeed that a high school student tackles the SAT, or a post-grad student tackles the GRE. We know why the secondary ed student works so hard for a great result: his future is riding on it. What's riding on how an elementary or middle school student performs on a test?

Certainly nothing for him. Just for all the people who want to know if what they're doing to educate him is working.

Does anyone else get the disconnect here?

I challenge any adult to tackle a standardized test seriously when the following parameters apply to it:

   * He won't see the results for six months, at least.
   * He will never see the graded test
   * The result will have no bearing on his career or his ability to make money
   * The only incentive provided to give a good effort is my need to know what he knows.

​ Who would give his best under those conditions? Certainly no one I know. Regardless of whether he's 11, 18, 29, or 52. And that's the sad truth about our failed testing system .

T.L. Zempel

tlzempel.com

 

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