Motivating Teens who do not want to Learn

(Theme music fading, cue lights, camera zooming in to face shots of teachers in action/ bits of conversation picked up, but nothing significant to actually get a meaningful discourse) During the opening seasons of the television show Head of the Class, when Howard Hesseman was at the helm, the gifted teacher awed his Monroe High School students by challenging them to decipher how a baseball could have stopped the spread of communism (you’ll have to email me for his answer). Meanwhile, on the other coast, Michelle Pfieffer taught karate and symbolic Bob Dylan lyrics to build rapport with the dangerous minds of her less than angelic East Palo Alto high schoolers. In another part of America, Edward James Olmos, with thinning hair and clenching heart, instructs the boneheads of Garfield High the fine art of AP Calculus when others had given up on them. Almost to cue, Richard Dreyfus literally beat the music into the heads of students who could not find the musicality in his band class and left the audience with a finale that would strike a chord with most viewers. Even Lady’s Man Venus Flytrap got into the teaching act by taking in a hooligan off the streets to teach the intricacies of cell makeup while soul music filtered through the airwaves of WKRP.

(Long hallway shot, sound of doors squeaking, shuffle of feet against hardwood) In Hollywood only the deadly poetic Robin Williams seems to have failed at the end, but his was a period piece (and therefore forgivable). Save for Williams, who provides us with the exception to prove the rule, these were success stories all. The list goes on and on and the golden age of teacher-succeeding-against-all-odds genre films are ushering in a new generation of chalkboard heroes, who have, by credit’s end, the students eating out of their chalky little palms. By blackout, the world is spinning in the direction it should, summed up nicely by end of film synopsis of the after high school lives of the would-be life long gang members turned corporate executive. But who exactly owns that spin?

(Pan left to provide different angle, side-lighting so that faces are cast in long shadows) Returning to the classroom that is not under the camera lens, I think it behooves teachers to reexamine the maya that is today’s classroom, and look into these Hollywoodesque teaching tactics. If one believes the media barrage, the political attack on so-called failing schools, the demand for accountability-of -teachers schemes, as well as an increase in standardization due to the accompanying need to have numerical proof that education is taking place, then I think it beneficial to pose a very essential question. Why is there an overwhelming success rate amongst fictional teachers and underwhelming track record in the so-called real world? What are these teachers, fictional as they may be, doing right, and what are we, the real flesh and blood teachers doing wrong?

(Blackout, sun shining through venetian blinds, sound of coffee percolating in the back) Let us shed some light upon these questions by looking at the expectations of this under-explored film genre. As formulated as it may be to get us to keep a Kleenex box close at hand, there is a striking similarity at the onset of both film and reality. Defiant students sans motivation who show disregard in numerous ways depending upon the age and society they are defying. They may wear leather and lean against walls a lot (1950s defiance/ James Dean model); they may look away slightly or talk out of turn (1970s defiance / Melissa Gilbert model); they may put their head down and finger up (1980s defiance / Breakfast Club model); they may threaten your life (1990s defiance / violent model); or they may simply not show up (today and always defiance / apathetic model). The models displayed here are all working models, and all of them would have Behavioural scientists John Watson or B.F. Skinner nodding their heads in agreement. Each of these models display an undesirable behaviour. James Dean dresses inappropriately, Melissa Gilbert breaks a classroom rule and probably will have some extra chores to do as a punishment, the Saturday detainees show a lack respect for authority, the “vio-defiant” pack a piece for social acceptance among the socially unacceptable, and throughout all the ages, apathy is king.

(Split screen, teacher on left slipping on slightly mismatched tie as pulling out of driveway, student on right throwing on a hoodie and slipping into rusted out vehicle) So, how does the film proceed from there? Usually it follows this format with an occasional variation thrown in to keep it interesting. In brackets I have noted the philosophical stance of the teacher (Teacher’s Point of View: TPOV) and the potential student translation of teacher behaviour (Student’s Point of View: SPOV), both of which will be key later on.
1. Teacher enters. Bulk of students are defiant. Any complacent teen is looked down upon or bullied into apathy. (TPOV: Teacher is a Maximalists: More lecture, more notes, more handouts, more homework, Time / Product Efficiency is high in such classroom, assuming you have motivated students who follow your lesson plan / SPOV: Teacher enjoys giving meaningless busy work, more hoops to jump through to get grade, unless someone is really pushing me, and it remains socially acceptable, or I am already deemed a “prep” and I accept that label (mind you this writing doesn’t concern motivated students so I will put them aside for now), I will do only that which interests me, and only during the times that it interest me. If not pushed at home or on prep status, student on survival mode, better students will slip under the radar by maintaining a healthy leave-me-alone C, others will not fret over a 12% average.
2. Teacher begins teaching, usually lecture style or with textbook in hand. Students display aforementioned behaviours. (TPOV: Now I am teaching as it is reminiscent of most recently attained education, which will minimally be a two year teacher training program using adult educational models of teaching, or if teacher is good, based upon a favourite high school teacher who has influenced the new teacher so much that he/she has chosen a similar career path. / SPOV: This is a question of who owns the time in the classroom. I have paid my price to own this time by simply showing up. I am being forced to be here through some sort of fear of consequence, legal or parental, but what I do in the class is really my decision. Or alternatively, I come solely for social reasons, in which (again) the time is mine. No one can make me do what I don’t want to do)
3. Teacher commences teaching or using administrative plan of action (referral, trip to Principal’s office, phone call home) to no avail. Undesired behaviour continues. (TPOV: I am following guidelines, following documentation procedures, covering myself legally should there be problems down the line, and doing character building by teaching the student the value of right and wrong/ SPOV: I am getting a consequence to my actions, so what? I already understand the concept of wrong deed equals form of punishment. The time remains mine whether I am in ISS, English class, or sitting at home; either I will shape up for awhile or revert to similar behaviour when the storm passes. It will be my decision.)
4. Teacher goes to wholesale teacher shop and proceeds to buy his/her way into the students’ hearts through well-tested gimmicks. A more hands-on-approach ensues, followed, must likely by a reward based system in which other (non-educational) needs or wants are fulfilled. There is a change of atmosphere, and some students get involved, others, usually those who are looking for deeper meaning and rapport, remain obstinate. A few eyebrows rise. (TPOV: I must innovate, use a variety of teaching methods, scaffold the lessons to hit all learning styles and needs, and work harder. Wow, learning is really taking place here. / SPOV: OK we are here anyway, we can play. I am not intrinsically motivated, but I like candy bars, so why not do as I am asked and get rewarded for it)
5. Once time, energy or money is spent, or alternatively outside pressure gets too high (e.g. spouse wants a night together without teacher-talk at the dinner table) teacher reverts back to old style teaching, students go back to undesirable behaviour or demand similar activities. (TPOV: Dilemma and soul searching. Who am I? Is it worth it? Must I sacrifice my own individual freedoms for students who don’t care? Who would they have if not me? Maybe they do care, but show it in different ways. What does any of this have to do with the stated curriculum. Am I a character builder or a knowledge disseminator? What does it really mean to teach? Why? How? Who? / SPOV: Ok, I’m here, entertain me.)
6. Teacher calls in backup by, mistakenly, going into toxic teachers room, and is called names like “idealist” or is invited to play the “pin-the-blame-on-the-parent game” (TPOV: two options join them or leave them; submit to preconceived teacher ideas or defy those ideals)
7. Teacher leaves with determination in the eye, and perhaps biting bottom lip for effect.

(Long languid music, a still shot of a natural scene, either a pensive silhouette against a waterfall, or an Irish sea beating against the shore. The sun is red and in the still photograph, it is hard to tell if it is rising or setting). The rest of the story is really the denouement, as the teacher-succeeding-against-all-odds genre is really about the teacher transforming, rather than the students transforming. Although this point undoubtedly will be debated by some, the students really stay the same throughout; it is the teacher who settles his/her own internal conflict and the students who wake up a part of themselves that is finally addressed by teacher realization. It is the utmost irony to see that the teacher is experiencing in step 6 above the dilemma of each student. Submit or defy. Follow the rules and get by or defy the rules and get things done. Which suits the needs of the students best is a matter of interpretation and philosophy.

(Full front light, face shots are short, straight on) Now if we are knowledge/comprehension driven (i.e. if our goal is to see if student understanding is taking place) we must examine our own belief system and ask ourselves if the systematic model we are used to working under is truly the best model to follow. A few tenants must be understood to comprehend this American style teaching. When reading through, I think it important to note that our decisions are dictated by traits inherent in the following value systems, and for every nod of the head that we produce while examining these traits, we must also admit that each has a detrimental effect on the student-teacher relationship. This is not solely an American problem, of course; it is merely an admittance that systems create effects both desired and undesired.
1. We are behaviourists.
2. We are fiercely independent.
3. We believe in consequence.
4. We are a consumer society.
5. We believe in entertainment value and self-satiation.
6. We, as educators, believe in noble-volunteer-ism, (i.e. the best teachers make the most personal sacrifices.)
7. We, to some extent, believe that the best education takes place outside the classroom
8. We believe that a society without strong parental values can be replaced by strong school culture generated values. The school supersedes the authority of the parent.
9. We believe that schools are political and social entities and not just places of learning
10. We believe that democratic ideals shall manifest themselves in the classroom either through inference, practice or direct education.

I will forgo giving each of the points above the attention they deserve, and ask the reader to accept the main point that this short list of ten tenants binds us to a certain level of social expectation, which directly conflicts with the teaching profession as a whole. The systematic setup of most school mission statements defy all of the above, because as each attests, a school is a communal endeavor, and the society in which we live in is an individualistic rat race in which the best are rewarded and the rest fall by the wayside. Teachers, of course, are left to deal with the unaccounted “rest”, however, and this is the crux of the problem concerning motivation.

(Exotic setting, more for transitional effect, perhaps with blue filter to give serious artsy-feel) When examining other cultures and the overwhelming success they find academically, it is worth also examining their placement on the individual – communal continuum. For those American observers who have advocated for a systematic change, it usually takes shape in the middle school movement of pods and in the high schools (if power can be wrenched free from the old sentries of the past traditions) with Small Learning Communities (SLCs) or Academy systems.

(Return to full front lighting) Systems aside, the responsibility of educating society falls on the shoulders of the educator. Let me be straight, then. As educators, we lie to ourselves. If successful, we believe we have a formula down for motivating students to learn. I would humbly submit the following: we have no power. We do nothing. It is the student’s will that ultimately sets the level of motivation and learning will take place regardless of our influence. It is not a question of ability to learn, but a question of willingness to learn that which we set forth. Learning always takes place, but are the students learning the “right” things? Do their learned lessons match our expectations or our value systems? And perhaps, most poignantly, do we buy into the value systems of our society (as illustrated above) enough to pass on those values. What are we submitting to? What are we defying?

(Move camera in to tight shot of student listening to lecture, half chewed pencil in hand, slight nod of affirmation) We can suggest, influence, model, chastise, cajole, stoke the embers of curiosity, build rapport or wreak havoc on the lives of our students; but the power of deciding to do or not to do is the students’ decisions alone. We as a human race have not yet begun to unlock the treasure chests of brain research and therefore we are ignorant as to how to influence learning on a mass scale. It has always been an administrative and systematic problem for us to design a school that really addresses the needs of all. The cutting edge schools that are now redesigning programs and rethinking old ideas may be at the cusp of “getting it”. But then again, it all falls back to the old truth that learning is an internal and individual activity, and any designed mass learning center is doomed to fail because it contradicts the limitations of human biology and human nature itself.

(Change camera angle to accommodate shift in mood, perhaps hand-held camera (Blair Witch Project style) to increase level of authenticity, perhaps zooming out from above to get a “we are all just the work-ants of humanity feel”) To sum up, I think too many questions circulate through social discourse to really answer the motivation question. Do we really have such conceit to say that we as teachers have done anything to increase learning. It is the submission of the student towards the ideals that we present in the classroom that really begins the process of learning. All the rest is an external display of behaviourism, in which desired action is king, and not the internal processes of learning. Are we so vain to counter this argument by saying something along the lines of “but desired action shows learning and understanding.” One need not go too far into communication theory to note the intricacies of differing cultural understandings of the world, or the relationship two interlocutors have in a dialog, as the speaker / listener model is equated to the speaker-intended message / listener-individual translation of message model. Now multiple the potential confusion of this model with the melee of a 25-35 student classroom, each with their own diversified cultural world-views, each with their own internal translation service, and each with an agenda to meet, social, apathetic, compliant, or (hopefully) academically driven, and then you have today’s classroom. When one embraces these theories in practice, it is indeed a wonder we communicate at all.

(Ensemble cast appears in flashbacks or fade through sequence / Grey’s Anatomy style music and video sequence with occasionally poetic voice-over that leaves more questions than answers) This, of course, makes the Hollywood ending even more climatic and satisfying. The hero has overcome the obstacles. But how many real classrooms can follow the formula of setting-rising action-climax-denouement. Most of us, in the school cultures that we are immersed in, are playing catch up and do not know the stories of the majority of our students. It is an amazing moment, what I call a teacher break through moment, when the teacher becomes the listener and begins to know the student. Oh, how the teaching changes after such moments-as fleeting as they may be.

As thrilling and spine tingling as the teacher success genre is for the educator, I think it important to note that these same films are not the life affirming films of today’s student. Perhaps the best way to really understand a student perspective is to watch teacher or administrative treatment in films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Teachers, or even the Back to the Future Trilogy. These are just my era films. I am sure there is a whole catalog of films that speak to today’s new generation of teenager. I imagine, though, despite stylistic differences in hair, clothes and peoplespeak, the underlying message is the same. They are the enemy because they do not understand us.

(Slowly dimming light, music builds) As practitioners and behaviourists, the question remains what can we do to gain that understanding? I will not pretend to know the answer, but as politicians and administrators argue over best method, I say, buy yourself a popcorn and head to the movies.

(Roll credits)