Body, Mind, Spirit Magazine

Educating the Struggling

By Andrewtix

It has long been known that American students, on average, tend to perform worse on international tests of achievement than students in other developed countries. In a recent article in the Star Tribune (“Finland not an apt mold for U.S. schools”), Robert Shumer notes that when the poorest schools are removed from these analyses, American schools perform the best in the world. He concludes, “all things considered, perhaps the U.S. education system is actually doing well.” Although he makes a valid point, no attempt is made to explain or propose solutions for those who most struggle, disproportionately the poor. 

Newly published research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may help. In this landmark study, 11,320 cadets enrolled in the United States Military Academy at West Point rated their reasons for being there. One set of motives was “internal.” With these motives, the rewards of an activity follow naturally from engaging in the activity. For example, a cadet who wants to be trained as a leader in the military would naturally do so in the process of being a student at West Point. Another set of motives was “instrumental.” These motives provide a means to some other end, such as a good job after graduation. Results showed that the more that cadets endorsed internal motives for attending West Point, the more likely they were to receive early recommendations for promotion and the more likely they were to re-enlist after their years of mandatory service were complete. Maybe more surprisingly, the more that cadets endorsed instrumental motives, the worse they did on every measure being studied.

Obviously, there are many differences between the challenges faced by West Point cadets and average American students. However, the processes that explain achievement may be very similar. In both cases, there are desirable external consequences that ultimately follow successful completion of school, such as greater likelihood of career success and a good salary. Those who do well are less likely to become preoccupied with external consequences such as these, however, instead focusing on internal motives. More than likely, this means that they will not stop at the minimum amount of work required to earn an external incentive. Because they are more likely to experience rewards that come directly from tasks themselves, internally motivated individuals are more likely to spend more time on them, building skills, and ultimately achieving more.

Unfortunately, however, it seems that the encouragement many struggling students receive is to learn for instrumental reasons, not internal ones. Parents, teachers, and administrators often seek to motivate struggling students, in particular, to study so that they can get good grades, get into a good program, eventually make good money, and maybe lift themselves out of poverty. Former Minneapolis mayor R. T. Rybak and current Executive Director of Generation Next, a Minneapolis organization that seeks to close the achievement gap, for instance, has publically emphasized the importance of helping poorer kids get an education so that they can get good jobs. Although surely well-intentioned, emphasizing instrumental motives for learning ironically may undermine students’ long-term motivation and achievement. Rarely is there a message that struggling students would do well to learn because learning is intrinsically interesting or meaningful. Strangely enough, only when instrumental consequences are minimized in people’s minds are they most likely to be ultimately realized.

There are many factors that are likely to influence student achievement, ranging from biological factors to students’ attention to detail to various cultural and familial factors. In the end, however, only when individuals identify that they are curious, engaged, lifelong learners will they ever be able to achieve well in any meaningful long-term way. The earlier and more consistently our young people are encouraged to appreciate that learning can be internally rewarding, the better.

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