Education & Motivation

Motivation is a peculiar thing.. I heard today that Arizona is working on a bill to cut teachers’ pay by up o 40% if their students fail to pass the AEPA. This is, I would guess, supposed to motivate teachers to go the extra mile in trying to help students pass. I doubt that it will help. The success of that kind of motivation depends upon an expectation of “empowerment” (to use a trendy word), and hope. It depends upon a belief that if I change what I’m doing in a way that is possible for me, then the desired results will come to pass. A belief that if I work harder, use better methods, am more organized, better prepared, or whatever, then these kids — enough of them to satisfy the legislators — will pass the exam. It also depends upon that belief being grounded in reality. I don’t know that it is — or that it is to a great enough extent that it could be the deciding factor on whether students will actually do better if this law were implemented — or that it’s true enough that they’ll do enough better to make up for all the costs in discouragement, discontent, and insecurity that would be incurred.

I once failed a course in Russian. I still don’t know any Russian, and couldn’t possibly pass even a very easy test in it. I failed Russian for a very straightforward and obvious reason: I don’t know how to memorize. The only thing I can remember memorizing on purpose is The Charge of the Light Brigade, because I was scrubbing a floor and needed something to distract me, and perhaps a quadratic equation formula, though I forgot that one a few days later. If it were really important that I pass Russian one of two things would have to happen: I would have to, somehow, memorize words (or in some way compensate for my inability to memorize words; Barzun recommends reading through a book in the target language with only a small translation dictionary and a large foreign dictionary), or the course would have to be redesigned so as to not require students to memorize lists of words. I don’t know which would be the better course of action, but the fact is, my failure was not caused by a fault in my instructor — or at least by a fault that could be corrected mechanically, with rewards and punishments. She was teaching the way she usually taught, and probably the way she had learned in school — and the way she taught was not wrong; only I didn’t succeed at learning with it — if Russian were really important to me I would have likely found a way to compensate for that and meet her part way. If passing were really important we would have to eventually adapt ourselves to one another. It wasn’t, so I just failed and withdrew.

She might have set the course up so that undisciplined, conceited students like myself would be more likely to succeed. I’m not sure what it would involve — perhaps more time spent working in class, and different kinds of assignments — but she had no obligation to do so. It may be that it would have been possible, but not for her — or not for her, working without help or direct feedback. If she were told that I and people like me must pass a standardized Russian exam or her pay would be docked, I don’t know what would have happened — perhaps she would have quit, because our relationship of teacher and student would have changed into something defined by constraint and necessity more than by freedom and interest (however ineffectual it usually was in my case).

I once failed a ceramics class. I failed because I almost never showed up. It was perfectly clear to all concerned that unless I got my act together and made pots, I was going to fail. I never did get my act together, so I failed. Was there anything the professor should have done about that? I doubt it. He could have called me, but that’s a bit desperate. Professors shouldn’t have to call students and tell us to show up. what if his pay was dependent upon each of his students making a certain number of pots in a semester? Would he have done anything different? I don’t know that he would have. He probably would have learned to rather dislike me.

I once dropped out of a drawing class. Was there anything the teacher did wrong? No, I don’t think there was. Was I an especially poor artist? No, I don’t expect so. What went wrong? Drawing is hard. I wanted to withdraw. I was sitting out in hallways drawing until the tears splashed onto my page. So I came back the next semester and got an A. The teacher didn’t do anything wrong — and I don’t even know that I did. I certainly don’t suppose that punishing the teacher would have done anything to help the situation — it simply would have made a conflict of interest between himself and one of his students especially likely.



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