Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Purpose and Motivation

Purpose and motivation--these are two of the most basic elements of education, yet understanding them is a difficult task. What should children learn in school? How do we motivate children to take active roles in their education? Teachers and policy-makers have debated these questions for decades. Over the past century, prominent educators and educational researchers, including Mortimer Adler, Jerome Bruner, and John Dewey, have written profound works around these questions.  Watching two of my favorite school-themed films, Dead Poets Society and To Sir, With Love, over the weekend gave me new perspective on these questions. On the surface, the power of the school-movie genre appears to be its ability to touch our hearts and give us hope. While their plots are often exaggerated with unrealistic elements, these films' real power lies in the important truths they reveal about our schools.


In Dead Poets Society, English teacher John Keating (played by Robin Williams) challenges his students with an abridged version of this this poem from Walt Whitman:
Oh me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring--What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer.That you are here--that life exists, and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.
"What will your verse be?" Keating then asks his class.

In just one and a half minutes of speech, Keating summarizes Adler, Bruner, and Dewey's beliefs about the purpose of education. The purpose of education is to learn how to live. Through education we discover and develop our existences both as individuals and as parts of the greater society.

Our professions are a part of our lives, but so are our passions and our relationships. Perhaps this is why purpose and motivation are so tightly entwined. Each is necessary to drive the other. Both Dewey and Adler explain why education fails when it fails to balance profession with passion. Dewey writes, "the child, after all, shared in the work, not for the sake of the sharing but for the sake of the product" (p.18). When this happens, school stops being about the students. While education is important for improving society as a whole, that improvement cannot be made at the cost of the individual. Dewey's words remind me of the current push for improved math and science education. I'm a scientist, so I fully support the promotion of scientific and mathematical literacy and a push toward innovation. However, I am bothered by the fact that I only hear that American schools are failing because our test scores are lower than those of other countries. How does our students' problem-solving abilities compare to students internationally? How much scientific innovation is coming from our laboratories and universities compared to those worldwide? Are the policy-makers complaining about test scores mathematically literate enough to understand fully the meaning of data they present? We cannot educate students in math and science without understanding the purposes of math and science, and we cannot educate students without understanding the purpose of education.

Keating also says, "We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion." Adler reflects on a similar sentiment:
A part of our population--and much too large a part--has harbored the opinion that many of the nation's children are not fully educable. Trainable for one or another job, perhaps, but not educable for the duties of self-governing citizenship and for the enjoyment of the things of the mind and spirit that are essential to a good human life. (p.7)
Curriculum, whether it be mathematics or social studies or wood shop, must address all facets of education's purpose. It must prepare students for the intellectual, physical, social, and emotional challenges of adult life. While Adler's context focuses on students with socioeconomic and intellectual disadvantages, his point applies to all students. Students in both Dead Poets Society (Caucasian male boarding-school students from wealthy families) and To Sir, With Love (ethnically-diverse co-ed students from inner-city London) show what happen when education's focus is too narrow. In To Sir, With Love, first-time teacher Mark Thackery (played by Sidney Poitier) quickly realizes that his senior class lacks both intellectual and social skills for life beyond high school. He gathers the sleepy class's attention by throwing his stack of textbooks loudly into the garbage. "Those are out. They are useless to you," Thackeray says. He understands that kids cannot learn to become adults from books alone, especially from books students are not really reading. While we contemporary teachers have to worry about tests and standards, we can still address the standards through hands-on life lessons. In Dead Poets Society, Neil Perry (played by Robert Sean Leonard) is an outstanding student under tremendous pressure from his middle-class family to become a doctor and raise his status. However, Neil finds his passion not in the science lab but in the theater, where he is cast as Puck in a local production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. His father disapproves of Neil's acting career and other extracurriculars, which he believes will distract Neil from becoming a doctor. The conflict between what he wants to learn and what his family and school believe he should learn break Neil; his academic studies have left him unprepared to deal with such incredible emotional stress. Neil ultimately chooses death over a life he believes is no longer his own. The purpose of education is to learn how to live. In the most desperate way, Neil shows that boarding school has taught him nothing. 

The question I received the most as a high school math teacher (after "Will this be on the test?") was "When am I ever going to need this?" High school students often ask this question with their future professions in mind. They have heard the fallacy "education = job training" so much that even they believe it. For the students who want to be doctors, lawyers, or business people, the answer to the question is straightforward. For the students who want to be actors or mechanics or cosmetologists, traditional academics do not fit as easily into their plans. These students understand that the times when they pursue their passions are when they feel most human. However, the message from family and teachers that there is no place for these passions in school can cause these students significant inner conflict. Teenagers with conflict are rarely teenagers with discipline.

In the following scenes from To Sir, With Love, Thackeray takes a traditional approach on his first day. As we might expect, the results are less than spectacular.

Dewey and Bruner agree that the way to create discipline is to ease conflict. External discipline (like school rules and consequences for breaking them) often leads to external conflict (like students acting out). However, internal discipline (the motivation for self-improvement) eases the inner conflict that can explode into something external. Dewey suggests making the trades and arts larger parts of the curriculum, not only to allow students to gain job skills, but more importantly to gain the life skills that come from cooperation and creativity. Bruner examines how the relationship between teacher and student affects disciple. He writes, "Since this is a relation between one who possesses something and one who does not, there is always a special problem of authority involved in the instruction situation." (p. 42). Part of why both John Keating and Mark Thackeray are effective teachers is because neither man acts like he is smarter or better than his students--he is merely more experienced. Each shares honestly what he has seen outside the classroom to prepare his students for what will await them there. Keating uses poetry and "exercises in nonconformity" to remind them that boarding school is far from the reality of adulthood. Thackeray takes his class to an art museum to show them how their hairstyles originated in the 18th century and their clothing reflecting the 1920s. Being a teenager in the 20th (or 21st) century has some surprising similarities with being a teenager throughout history. Thackeray tells his students that the most important similarity is that all teenagers rebel in some way, and that rebellion drives the change in society that is each generation's duty to make. Both teachers maintain authority in their classrooms because their students trust and respect them rather than fear or misunderstand them.

Thackery tells his class, "I teach you truths. My truths. Yeah, and it is kinda scary dealing with the truth. Scary, and dangerous."

If we want to help our students find purpose and motivation, maybe we need to be a little more dangerous.

Adler, M.J. (1982). The Paideia Proposal: an Educational Manifesto. New York, NY: Macmillian Publishing Company, Inc. 

Bruner, J.S. (1966). Toward a Theory of Instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Clavell, J. (Director). (1967). To Sir, With Love [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Columbia Pictures.

Dewey, J. (1900). The School and Society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Weir, P. (Director). (1989). Dead Poets Society [Motion picture]. United States: Touchstone Pictures.

Whitman, W. (2005). Leaves of Grass (150th Anniversary Edition). New York, NY: New American Library.

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