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Monday, November 16, 2009

Motivating Students

The American public school system, we are told, is not in good shape. We are not educating students so that they are prepared for their adult lives in a very uncertain world. So what should be done? In my opinion, most of the efforts so far have been spent in areas that do not address the fundamental problem.

There are a lot of places where we can work. Teachers can teach better, schools can do more to encourage learning, and administrations can put resources in the classroom where they will do the most good. These are perhaps the most obvious. Some other suggestions that should be enacted:
  • Legislatures should stop mandating reports and activities that drain teachers of time and energy.
  • National guidelines such as No Child Left Behind should have realistic goals and guidelines. For example, I am qualified to teach certain subjects at a university or college, but not in a public school.
The most fundamental problem is not the teachers, or the schools, but the students. We need to find a way to motivate them, in addition to improving the other parts of the educational system. I think that the most useful reform would be to pay students for learning. I suggest that high school and eighth grade students be paid for a GPA that is a B or above. Students with a C average would not be paid at all, and students below a C average would have to leave school for a grading period (quarter, trimester, semester) and do menial work at very low pay for that grading period.

When I have mentioned this idea to students, they are very enthusiastic. High school students who do their work put in ten and twelve hour days (school and homework) during the week plus more on the weekends. Many of them also have jobs or are involved in sports. And they do it without any compensation for their time and effort. I don't blame them for being tired and unmotivated, especially when many assignments are tedious and meaningless.

One of the most common objections to this proposal is that students should learn for the love of learning. We should, however, note that there are many students who simply aren't motivated by learning itself. Maybe their family or cultural values don't or haven't stressed learning. Maybe they've never "gotten their act together." Perhaps they have difficulties in their personal lives or in learning that have kept them from learning for the sake of learning. Perhaps they are so used to TV, videos, games, cell phones, and other technologies that they find school boring. I know that the ideal is for students to learn for the love of learning. But for many of them, learning is not a love, it's a job. And jobs should be paid. I love my job, but I don't think that I would do it if I weren't paid.

Perhaps we should try this suggestion and see if it or a modification of it would work before we decide that it won't work. What I would hope to see is that students would be more motivated to work and that teachers would find that they can challenge students and that students would respond. Students who weren't motivated would be removed (for a time) and not impede the others. I would hope that the level of education would rise as teachers and students challenge each other.

What do you think? Would paying students a modest amount ($200-300 a year) for having a "B" average or higher motivate students? Is it a good idea to motivate students this way? What do you think about penalizing those who don't learn or do their work?