And finally, let’s talk about wound and wonder. On to the “great motivator,” at least what so many of us in and outside of education call the great motivator: the grade. Ah, the grade. If I asked if the grade was motivation and motivating, most academics would shout, “Yes!!” We would acclaim and pronounced that the great motivators are achievement, recognition of achievement, and advancement, all of which are tied into “extrinsic” stuff. And, of course, the most extrinsic of extrinsic motitavors in academia is the grade.
Ain’t that simple. The grade reminds me of a dog bisquit. Wierd? Have you ever tried to entice or seduce or bribe your dog to move, to do what you want, by waving a bisquit in front of his nose with a “here poochie, poochie?” Did the dog ignore you in spite of your best efforts, and you walked away with an annoyed mumble, “dumb dog?” The grade also reminds me of a dog leash. Ever try to pull him on a leash and he dug in while you grunted an annoyed, “dumb dog?” The grade reminds me of a push or a prod. Ever get behind your dog and push its rump while it pushed back while your feet slipped and your face began to twist into a snarl as you curses, “dumb dog.” Bisquit or leash or push, you wanted the dog to do something. The dog didn’t want to do it. You didn’t know or cared what the dog wanted. You blamed the dog for not obeying. Sometimes its the same way with students. We use them to get students to do something we have already decided we want them to do. Nothing more, nothing less. And, like the biquit, they don’t necessarily work.
The grade also reminds me of a pay check. On the job, you trade hours on the right task for money. Like a businessperson, we trade hours on the right task for grades. We use classic economic theory of reward and punishment, promotion and dismissal, incentive, status, recognition. Instead of a pay raise or promotion, we give grades and bestow honors and grant scholarships. “Won’t grades, be they reward or threat, change behavior?” You ask. Sure–for now. “Won’t grades will make students do what I want. It will make them study for test and work on projects,” you ask. Sure–for now. Actually, if we were honest with ourselves, the sureity of that “sure” answer would be really a slow, hesitant “maybe.”
Whether you agree with that or not, if all these “extrinsic motivators,” as I am told grades are called, are such sure-fire motivators, why aren’t they lighting motivating fires under students. You say they are? Well, then, once again, if that is the case, why is there so much complaint about students not being motivated? It seems that grades are more like wet matches than flint sparks.
I have to admit that I am not exactly unbiased when it comes to these extrinsic motivators. I was once an ardent grade giver in my professoring decades using grades and test and papers as those briding bisquits and drag-along leashes. You know what I discovered–reluctantly. Well, maybe suddently a decade ago. These grades and other rewards/punishments only got the students to focus on getting the grades, but put long-term learning out of focus. It seemed that over the span of a term and beyond the grades had a demotivating impact. They dulled, deflated, dispirited, and ultimately both banished excitement and purpose. The result was lowered performance.
Grades. GPAs. Honors. Diplomas. we spend so much time trying to brain-wash students, and ourselves, into thinking they are important, that they are money in the bank that create a security for the future. They are supposedly a guarantee that they will make us healthier, wealthier, and wiser in the future. It can’t be that simple because as great motivators they obviously get a lousy grade as motivators.
It’s not that simple because nothing is simple, especially when it comes to human beings. It’s not that simple become nothing happens in a vaccuum. No grade or student or teacher is, to paraphrase John Donne, is an island; everything happens in relations with people: among professors and teachers; among students; between themselves; and between students and authority figures called professors and teachers. It is a combination, a recipe of various ingredient, and too often a conflict of yearning from within and day-to-day suppressing contact with surroundings. After reading journals, listening to those confidential letters, small talking, observing students in general, I’m arriving at the position where I sense that there is among most students a sense of meaningless, a sense that their talents are wasted, a sense that no one really gives a damn, a sense they are being ignored and devalued, a sense that the material is more important to us and are they, and a lot of sense of confusion. These senses are at best slowing yellow lights and usually halting red lights. These feelings silence, stifle, prevent, and paralyze. Unfairness, disinterest, distance, lonliness seem to arouse a sense of danger, a threat to safety. Whether it is dangerous or not, that is the reality for most students. The classroom appears to be to so many students an unreliable, unsafe, unpredicatble, alien, unenjoyable, unexciting, unsupportive place. And when the classroom is threatening and droll, students run for cover and cover up their abilities and cripple their “motivation.” We do the same thing. We tend to create slumbering conditions rather than awakening ones; keep the abilities in hibernation; freeze them into a state of dormancy. And those extrinsic motivators prove to be ulimately cattle prods without charges, useless sticks. They won’t improve long-term performance; they won’t promote self-directed action; they won’t develop values such has caring, honesty, respect, integrity; they won’t develop confidence and self-motivation.
You could easily see, feel, and hear all that if you intently and sincerely looked and listened. So many students find it just as difficult to see themselves. They are as often blinded as are we. They ae so groping for their own innate abilities, talents, direciton. There is so often such an emptiness, a fear, a frustration. And, they are so easily distracted by what they perceive to be so comforting. And so, they obey what I call the “laws of avoiding.” It’s not being lazy; it’s being smart; it has paid off in the past. They become learned at skimming, scanning, cutting corners, procrastinating, note-copying, fraternity file raiding, grade-getting, test taking, psyching out, silence, and even cheating. Their goal is to protect themselves, to protect their self-esteem and self-confidence. They’re in conflict between fear of failure and hope for success. There is a conflict and coincidence of the need to achieve, the need to be cared for, the need for relationships. And so, they are highly motivated to obey the unmotivating laws of avoiding. It’s easier to give in and give up, and give excuses. We teachers do it all the time with our defensive “I belive,” “I can’t” and “It’s not me.” It’s a self-con, a self-delusion, a defensive pessimism. It’s a fear of success, fear of failure, fear of chance, fear of choice, fear of decision. It’s a fear of being curious, imaginative, creative. It’s a fear of making a mistake, looking foolish, looking dumb. We all do it. It like standing on the edge of a pool, crouched over, arms waving back and forth: afraid of having to jump in, afraid to jump in, afraid of what would happen once having jumped in. So, you make believe you want to jump when you really don’t want to or see the point of having to. Better for others to believe you can’t swim than risk proving it. And so, they major in the study of “wound-ology” instead of a “wonder-ology.”
You see, I don’t think it’s right to talk of good or bad students. That is too easy and self-exonerating. I much prefer to say that students can become better and better and better if the conditions are supportive, interesting, encouraging, caring; and they can become worse and worse if the conditions are less supporting, less encouraging, duller, and less caring. As I watch students engage in the various challenging and engaging and enjoying projects that are the hallmarks of our class, I have come to see that dull dulls and hurts, excitement excites and cures. The wounds have a better chance of healing into wonder. It’s not the projects per see. It’s the absence of threat and punishment and reward, and the prsence of a lot of love and faith and, support and encouragement. Care about students, and they will more likely care about themselves and care about what they do. That is also true about us. I have found that in a positive and possibility environment students tend to accept greater challenge, are more engaged, are more entusiastic. I have found that a way to recover the meaning of learning, the value of learning, the worthiness of learning is to recover the power of the experience of learning. It has been my experience that, contrary to academic rumor, most students don’t want it easy; they do want to believe; they do want to have faith; they do want to hope; they do want excitment and enthusiasm; they do want challange; they do want to accomplish. They do want to discover, uncover, and use hidden talent and ability. Talent and ability, self-confidence, self-esteem are all both now and later, drive and lure, actual and potential, a hunger and a meal. Students just want something that is meaningful, purposeful, and attractive to them personally.
And when all is said and done, I am being somewhat long winded about changing teaching and learning habits for both us and them. And as a reformed nail-biting addict, I remember that the first step is always a killer. I know every day is a killer. It’s a killer to stop. It’s a killer to start. It’s a killer to continue. That is true when you stop drinking, stop smoking, stop biting your nails, start exercising. It is no less true of motivating and getting motivated. For the students and for us teachers. Finished.
Make it a good day.