The Pain Test, IV

When I started this series of posts, I thought I’d be focusing on the relationship between the pain-punishment cycle and locus of control.   And now it seems I’m ready to do so.  I think Debbie expressed the connection really well with her comment here:

internal motivation is a key element of mental health, both for students and educators. Perhaps it is the hardest part of being an educator — figuring out what these motivators are for each student so that we can enhance, shift, utilize them to empower and educate.
As an early childhood educator I first saw the power of this when a four-year-old brought me a picture she had created and asked, “Do you like it? Did I do good?” She had already been guided towards needing external motivation; from here the negative self-worth, the emotional turmoils and the unhealthy relationship with others was already being developed.

My formerly-problematic class is full of grade-focused students (“Is there any extra credit?  Do I have an A right now?”) – but they’re grade-focused in a problematic way.  Like a lot of students I’ve taught recently, they “want good grades” but don’t grasp the  relationship between grades and one’s level of knowledge, skill, and understanding.

“I’m just so glad I passed Ms. X’s test,” said one of them Tuesday morning, “and I sure hope I’ll get an A or a B in there.”  He doesn’t see any contradiction between barely passing the test and hoping for a high grade in the class.

“I really need an A in Latin,” said another student, “or I’ll get in trouble with my mom.”  But the distant threat of “trouble” doesn’t help her redirect or refocus herself.

“My son X really struggled with his classes last year,” said a parent, “so please let me know if there’s anything I need to do to help him keep his grades up.”  X’s dad is a kind, supportive man, but his son is still struggling a bit.  Dad values the grade, X values pleasing Dad, but the learning and understanding isn’t really on the table.

Grades, grades, grades!  Long-time readers know I’m skeptical about them, and if you’ve been reading for a very long time, you might remember this post and others where I referred to Robert L. Fried’s book The Game of School.  Grade -focused students generally have an external locus of control and a fixed mindset or “theory of intelligence” – which makes them “ideal students” for a factory-model school but extremely frustrated, angry, and confused participants in a joyful learning community that’s building something meaningful together.

Debbie went on to say,

We are sometimes frustrated and don’t even know it but our bodies are giving us clues that something is amiss.
Looking at what you stated, I can see that we can be grateful when that other person takes care of the situation for us by getting angry and “forcing” us to do whatever. Temporarily the issue is resolved and our focus is not on what is really bothering us but on complying and getting down to the task at hand.
It makes sense to me. … the “but” is that at some point the underlying issue needs to be addressed. As an educator we can get the assignment done but then we need to find out what the real issue is and put things in place to address it.

And that’s where factory-model schools often fall short – and where I fell short on Monday in a different way.  Educators in factory-model schools often want to address underlying issues. But that’s messy, it takes time, and there’s “so much curriculum to cover.”  So it’s easy to let the temporary solution become permanent.  Those periodic displays of anger and punishment help hide everyone’s pain, help “keep the kids in line,” and “help them stay focused on their work” in the factory system.

I wasn’t trying to hide the pain or keep people in line or cover the curriculum on Monday, but I wasn’t really attuned to the underlying frustration, the clash of expectations my students had been feeling.  I’m grateful to Troy, who commented on this G+ thread just as I was drafting this paragraph!  They wanted more structure, or a different kind of structure – not necessarily a “shut up and do the worksheet” structure, but more of a step-by-step checklist or recipe than I was providing.  Underneath both the loudness and “what’s my grade?” was a deeper, more important question: What exactly do I need to do?

Once we got the symptoms of anger and pain out of the way, we could focus on the real issue: finding the right blend of structure and freedom for this group, at this time, under these circumstances.  Finding that balance has been a recurring theme in this space!

And the whole situation makes me ponder, again, what a teaching-learning ecosystem would look like if it wasn’t based on pain and punishment and anger.  Any thoughts about that?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

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Published in: on September 27, 2012 at 10:11 am  Comments (12)  

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  1. I am very impressed and intrigued by the observations you have been making in your recent posts. Sadly, it’s not very often that people involved with schools-students, teachers, parents, etc.-are aware of the faults in the current system which you have so lucidly described.

    Onto my response: The first half of this post rang very true for me. Students are very concerned, whether they’re aware of it or not, with measurement and success, and grades are tangible evidence of our successes (or failures) as students. Whether or not we are learning the material is almost irrelevant, so long as our grades reflect that we are doing well. Many classes focus so much on test scores that we students tend to focus all of our energy on rote memorization, rather than actual understanding, due to the sad fact that teachers in “EOC/EOG classes'” skill is mostly measured by their student’s test results. So, when we are in a class that focuses on actual acquisition and comprehension, it’s almost like culture shock, if you will.

    There’s also the sad fact that many students today just aren’t very motivated. If schools didn’t foster some kind of competition or recognition for their efforts, most probably wouldn’t do any of the work. A solution for this would be to cater to individual students’ interests, but with such a large amount of students, this is impossible. So, there are set standards, goals to work for, etc….because without some type of reward system (and it’s opposite, punishment) it seems unfathomable that students would stay in school.

    I would be very interested in knowing what other “ecosystems” there could be…

    • Thanks – I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the recent posts. And I’m glad that this one rang true for you. High-stakes testing – the consequences for test scores that both teachers and students face in the NCLB era – did have the effect, in some places, of encouraging (or forcing) some less-effective teachers to focus on the curriculum rather than on what they wanted the curriculum to be. But as the stakes get higher, the temptation to “teach to the test” or “teach for the test,” to reduce everything to rote memorization, has become increasingly strong. I certainly see the culture shock with my own students!

      Motivation is an interesting issue. I’ve been a teacher for 21 years and, of course, was a student for many years before that. As far back as I can remember, teachers were complaining about how “students today just aren’t motivated like they used to be.” But there are different kinds of motivation. Extrinsic motivators (“do this and get a good grade,” or “do this and I won’t punish you”) never worked very well, and they work even less well today than they did 15, 20, or 30 years ago. But intrinsic motivation (“I’m interested in this and enjoy it”) still works just fine – unless schools and teachers, in our efforts to “motivate those unmotivated students,” interfere with it by applying extrinsic motivators (grades, rewards, punishments, etc.) to tasks that are intrinsically interesting.

      Have you read Daniel Pink’s books, like Drive and A Whole New Mind? They’re really well written and – unlike a lot of the original research about motivation – blessedly free from technical psychological terminology.

      As for other ecosystems, well, let me talk about them next week. But I’d love to know what you think of this idea for a non-coercive school.

      • I haven’t read any of his books, but I’ll be sure to check them out. The model you describe in the link sounds extraordinary and I would be very interested to find out more about how it could be implemented in the future.

      • I’m glad you’re intrigued! I’ll be talking more about that model both here and in I’ve been keeping while I participate in this fall.

        How would you feel about being part of a school like that? And do you know anyone else who’d be passionately interested – or, for that matter, passionately opposed?

      • I would love to be in such a school and I am sure several of my peers would as well…I can’t think of anyone who would oppose it!

      • Thanks! That means a lot to me.

        Next HUGE question: Imagine the early years of such a school, when it’s operating as a cooperative, owned by the families who participate, but isn’t yet self-sustaining. How much per week or month do you think you (or your family or your friends or their families) would be willing and able to pay for something like this?

      • Hmm…I suppose my family would probably be willing to pay the equivalent of the price of private school, which would probably be around $400 a month. I’m not sure if this is a realistic estimation or not, since it would involve my parents working more, extreme budgeting, etc. to add an extra expense. Most families I know (mine included) could probably only afford to pay $100 or so a month, but I know this wouldn’t be enough to cover many costs…

      • Wow! I’m really intrigued that you picked those two numbers, because that’s the range we had been talking about: hoping for $100 per month eventually, but not more than $400. That upper range is a bit less than what the less expensive private schools in our area charge.

        What would you think of a price structure where the cost went down as your contributions (of time, energy, talent) went up? I used to belong to a coop food market that was open to the public, but encouraged people to become members. They had a “sticker” price (which you paid if you weren’t a member), a “member” price (I think it was a 10% discount), and a “member who’s willing to work in the store” price (I think that was 20% off in exchange for a certain number of hours of work per month).

      • That sounds like a wonderful idea, but objectively determining one’s level of contribution would be difficult. I’d be interested in knowing what sort of “grading scale” you’d have in mind.

      • I think it would have to be up to each school, but can imagine some general guidelines (work X hours per month and get Y% discount). What do you think of that concept?

      • That sounds like a great guideline.

  2. […] I mentioned yesterday, great comments from readers have moved this week’s posts in unexpected directions.  When I […]


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