The heart of the problem with our present system of public education is discussed in a section of A Nation at Risk that has never been widely published or commented upon. The report included the following message to students (a message few students, parents, educators, or politicians have ever seen or read):
“You forfeit your chance for life at its fullest when you withhold your best effort in learning. When you give only the minimum to learning, you receive only the minimum in return. Even with your parents’ best example and your teachers’ best efforts, in the end it is your work that determines how much and how well you learn. When you work to your full capacity, you can hope to attain the knowledge and skills that will enable you to create your future and control your destiny. If you do not, you will have your future thrust upon you by others. Take hold of your life, apply your gifts and talents, work with dedication and self-discipline. Have high expectations for yourself and convert every challenge into an opportunity.”
Very few students work to their “full capacity” or “with dedication and self-discipline” within our present system of public education. Most students seem to view learning as an unpleasant task — a chore to be completed as quickly as possible so that they can get back to more enjoyable activities. Many students do not have the benefit of parents who provide the “best example.” Some teachers do not put forth their “best efforts.” These problems are critical and must be addressed, but in doing so, we must not lose sight of the fact that, ultimately, it is the effort put forth by each individual student that determines “how much and how well” she or he learns.
Effective learning requires the active involvement of the learner. Even relatively “passive” forms of learning, such as listening to a lecture or watching a videotape, require the mental involvement, and to some extent the physical involvement, of the student. In order to learn effectively, a student must be paying attention to the source of instruction (the speaker, videotape, etc.), concentrating on and thinking about what is being said and/or shown. When a student is having trouble understanding any part of a lesson, she or he must ask questions. There is a direct relationship between the amount of time and the quality of the effort a student devotes to learning and the achievement level of that student. Students who are motivated to learn will learn more, learn more efficiently, retain more of what they learn, and ultimately attain a much higher level of achievement than students who are doing little more than going through the motions.
Finding more effective means of motivating students to consistently put forth their best effort in learning is the key! Nearly all of the problems and shortcomings of our present system of public education are related in some way to the central problem of a lack of motivation on the part of many students to learn what is being taught. We must identify, understand, and address the factors within our schools, our families, and our society that contribute to the fact that very few students consistently put forth their “best effort in learning.”
Understanding the nature of the motivation to learn and why some students are more motivated than others, is a complex matter. Myriad combinations of a number of variables affect the degree to which students are motivated. Within the parameters of public education, the most important factors are: a lack of interest in what is being taught, improper placement, mediocre instruction, a lack of appreciation for the intrinsic value of being well-educated, and the institutional environment within schools. To further complicate matters, the relative importance of each of these factors varies from student to student and may also change over time.